Interview / Lifestyle

“Denmark and The Netherlands Are Very Similar”: Ben Coates in Conversation

Dutch and Danish, like Swiss and Swedish, are often confused by under-travelled Americans. But both countries have much in common, beyond good English, flat landscapes and an abundance of bicycles. Author BEN COATES has lived in The Netherlands for ten years, and is in a good position to tell us more…

How long have you lived in The Netherlands?

I had a flight that was delayed in Amsterdam, so I called up a Dutch girl I knew… and I never left! I’ve lived here for a decade now, and I took up dual Dutch-British citizenship nine months ago. We live in a cottage in the countryside between Utrecht and Amsterdam, among windmills, green fields and cows… all the stereotypes really!

Lovely! And have you ever been to Denmark?

Yes, a few times. My last trip before the lockdown season was to Copenhagen actually, and it’s somewhere I’m rather fond of.

What are your impressions of life there, compared to your Dutch life?

Well, Amsterdam and Copenhagen are very similar cities. Both have water and barges and so on… they’re a similar size, which immediately sets them apart from cities like London. Their infrastructure and lifestyles have many similarities, and historically too, they have things in common. Both were swashbuckling on the North Sea, both are small countries with a rich trading heritage. They’re global countries with international capitals, so if you lined up all the countries in the world, Denmark and The Netherlands would be most similar, I think. To outsiders, Denmark and The Netherlands appear as liberal wonderlands where everyone’s smoking weed and having sex. But there’s also a strong vain of conformity and conservatism running underneath.

One of the major similarities between Denmark and The Netherlands is religion. Denmark is Lutheran, The Netherlands are Calvinist. Both are bastions of Protestantism on a Catholic continent. How important is religion to the Dutch identity?

It’s less strong than it used to be, but it’s had a major impact on Dutch history. The Netherlands was formed as a refuge for Protestant refugees, and Calvinism still subconsciously dictates many aspects of daily life here. When you see Dutch leaders on the world stage, too, wagging their thumbs at the Catholic south, it’s not hard to see the echoes of old.

Finally, both countries are known for their welfare states. The Danes are very proud of their welfare state… I imagine the Dutch are too?

I think it’s less strong than in Denmark. I often think that generally speaking, the Dutch try to split the difference between full-blooded capitalism and the social welfare systems of Scandinavia. Last time I looked, it was something like 30 per cent of GDP in Denmark that went on social spending, and roughly 16 per cent in The Netherlands. The Dutch system is more generous than countries like Germany and the United States, but less generous Scandinavia. But, like Scandinavia, the Dutch have very high levels of trust in their government. They know it’s there for them when they need it.

BEN COATES is a freelance journalist, and the bestselling author of Why the Dutch Are Different: A Journey Into the Hidden Heart of The Netherlands and The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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