Prof. Dr. S. W. Couwenberg
The idea of the Netherlands being full up first arose in the 1950s, when the Dutch government, under the socialist prime-minister Willem Drees, decided to pursue a proactive emigration policy in reaction to that perceived danger,
even though the number of inhabitants at that time was much lower than it is today, namely ten million. Even then, the writer W.F. Hermans was declaring the Netherlands to be overpopulated, a theme which he would return to continually in the decades that followed. The cabinet under Prime Minister Biesheuvel, in its turn, set up a state commission to look into the population issue. In its report, which was brought out in 1977, that commission, under the leadership of the socialist P. Muntendam, proposed a number of measures aimed at lowering the population pressure, which included pushing back the pressure of migration. As a commentary on that report, published in “Beleid en Maatschappij” (“Policy and Society”), put it: a tougher attitude towards the invasion of foreigners into this country, which is already seriously overpopulated in a planological sense, is urgently called for. In 1974 such an attitude had already been advocated in a report by DS’70, titled “The Netherlands must not become an destination country for immigration/immigration country”, as it was by the ex-prime-minister Drees. In the queen’s speech of 1979 queen Juliana declared, on the authority of the then cabinet, that “Our country is full, full to overflowing in some parts”.
Fortuyn as the Taboo Breakler
That awareness of the issue in the eighties has since come to be one of the subjects on which a left-wing taboo rests, the very expression of such a view even becoming a legal offence, until Pim Fortuyn finally dared to break through the taboo, which at that time still ruled the management the political party “Leefbaar Nederland”, which he consequently left. He continued in the footsteps of the state commission Muntendam, DS’70 and ex-prime-minister Drees, by insisting on the need for a drastic reduction of the migration pressure. This had become necessary, in order to effect a better integration of the rapidly growing stream of migrants and to relieve public and social services, which were being overburdened. In the 1983 Report on Minorities there was already open speculation about the necessity of such measures, as the following, prophetic sentence illustrates: “An uncontrolled influx of foreigners will bring social costs with it, costs which society is no longer prepared to pay for.”
It was Fortuyn who delivered this message, in plain language, with a view to addressing a problem which could no longer be ignored, namely how to keep the welfare state, so dear to the left, affordable. As the American economist Milton Friedman once pointed out, “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” This is a rule which has long been understood across the whole political spectrum in Denmark. Since the revolt by Fortuyn, it has also got through to politicians here in the Netherlands. As we have already mentioned, it has now become a serious point of discussion for the Labour party (PvdA). The same politicians who so maligned his position on the subject initially have thus, after his demise, put Fortuyn in the right.
The same applies to his plea for, preferably, providing regional relief and/or asylum to asylum-seekers. He also broke a lance for a general pardon for resident asylum seekers who had exhausted all legal procedures, which was a lot more generous than the one decided upon by the cabinet in 2003. He did receive criticism on this last point, but it was not demonised as an expression of an extreme right-wing mentality. That had happened to Fortuyn’s position on continued migration, mentioned above, which was partly a result of his concern about the excessive population pressure in/on the Netherlands. There is still too little recognition of the fact that the worsening and, by now, structural issue of traffic congestion is also connected to the issue of population pressure, as is that of growing aggression within society.
The Importance and Political Potential of Population Policy
In the view of P.J. Gerbrands, who is involved in the Club of Ten Million as well as being the founder of the Party against Overpopulation, what can be held against Fortuyn is not his position as such, which was good, but rather its one-sided character. He reduces the whole population problematic to a migration question, instead of making that question one part of a much wider population policy.2) with a view to population policy, this point of criticism is understandable. It was too great a demand on Fortuyn, though, as a beginning politician. If Fortuyn had proposed the kind of measures that Gerbrands deems necessary in “My Country, Full to Overflowing”, published in 2003, then he would have failed miserably in his mission of challenging “old style” politics. This is because Gerbrands proposes a population policy aimed reducing the number of inhabitants through financial stimuli; the abolition or reduction of social services which stimulate higher birth numbers, such as child assistance; the encouragement of an average of one child per family; the refusal of migrants, including those from the other EU states (which would be contrary to European law); by limiting the provision of asylum to 2000 people annually and, above all, by down-sizing our growth economy.
Pursuing a population policy aimed at slowing down the ever increasing population and environmental pressures, which has come to be surrounded by a taboo through the short-sighted and conformist attitude on the left, is, nonetheless, perfectly defensible as being in the nation’s general interest. From a political standpoint, however, there are only a few instruments available for pursuing such a policy. These are: a renewed emigration policy, especially aimed at the further run-down of our problematic agricultural sector, which is, to a large extent, only viable at all thanks to a policy of economic protectionism which has long been controversial; and, hand in hand with such an emigration policy, a highly restrictive and selective immigration policy. Limiting child assistance to two children per family, and to families in the lower income brackets, could also help, although we should not expect it to have a huge effect. Even such left-wing thinkers as Arie van der Zwan now support this idea.3)
It is worth noting, however, that he advocates these measures in order to promote birth control among the immigrant population in particular, which is characterized by a higher than desirable birth-rate, as used to be the case for the Catholic community. The proposal for a shrinking economy, something which was previously advocated on ecological - and now also on population-political grounds, tends to meet with insurmountable socio-economically motivated objections, as it is seen to threaten employment. In our culture, labour is considered the primary marker of social significance, and the pre-eminent medium for self-development, social participation and prestige.
The Global Dimension
In a rapidly globalising and interdependent world, we must also take into consideration the global dimensions of demographic development and the problems it poses. The past century has played a crucial role in this. Despite the tremendous loss of life incurred during the two world wars, the global population has nevertheless increased from 1.6 to 6 billion: this figure was reached on the 12th of October, 1999. With this figure, the limits of the earth’s capacity for durable regeneration have been exceeded for the first time. In earlier ages, people lived off the interest generated by the earth’s natural capital. In more recent times however, this capital itself has been increasingly brought into play, with all the familiar consequences. If we consider a proportional distribution of prosperity worldwide just, desirable and necessary, and do not wish to overburden the earth’s natural capacity, then we will have to bring back the overall population to 4 billion at the most. This not only entails downsizing the global population, but also reducing the ecological burden imposed by the United States’ and European Union’s inhabitants, the average American’s share presently being 9 times greater than that of his third world counterpart.4)
We are faced with two main alternatives for bringing about a drastic reduction in population growth worldwide: that of voluntary birth restriction, or the traditional way of widespread disease (AIDS, malaria, TBC), famine, war and genocide. Obviously, the former is to be preferred on ethical grounds. Its realization, however, is met with major conservative opposition by the Vatican, Islamic countries and conservative powers within the US. Until now, this opposition has prevented the World Health Organisation from including population planning in its programmes, as the use of condoms is deemed morally intolerable. On World Women’s Day, the 8th of March 2004, the central issue was the recognition and warranting of women’s right to sexual self-determination. As the CDA’s minister for Development Cooperation, Agnes van Ardenne, observed at the time, a satisfactory population politics begins with the recognition of women’s freedom to decide for themselves whether they wish to have children at all and if they do, how many, and with whom they wish to engage in sexual relations. It is also a precondition for healthy economic development, yet this too finds strong opposition from said conservative powers.5)
- Beleid en Maatschappij (Policy and Society), 1978, pp 143-144
- 2.P.J.Gerbrands, Mijn land van veel en vol (approx. trans: My Country, Full to Overflowing), 2003
- 3.See the interview with him titled Vloeken in de linkse kerk (Cursing in the Left-wing Church), Rotterdams Dagblad, 4 October 2003
- 4.See a.o. J.C.Noordwijk-Van Veen, Rentmeester of roofridder, Bulletin Club of Rome, Erasmus Liga, March 2004
- 5.See the interview with minister Van Ardenne in Algemeen Dagblad, 6th of March 2004, entitled Witte raaf in ontwikkelingsland [A Rare Thing in the World of Development Aid]