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« Turk - Banks & Governments Will Collapse Together | Main | When Fundamentals No Longer Apply, Review the Fundamentals »
Tuesday
May012012

Euro Stress Crosses Border Into the Netherlands

 

AMSTERDAM — Of all the people rocked by the debt and austerity tumult rattling Europe, the famously prudent but prosperous Dutch were seldom on anybody’s watch list. Until now.

This bastion of probity became a flash point of euro zone turmoil last week, when the government fell in a showdown over how to cut the budget to keep the nation from getting caught in Europe’s long-running debt crisis. The action focused fears in other European capitals that austerity, rather than helping to put countries back on their feet, will impede growth and make it harder for them to recover, according to The New York Times.

It is the Netherlands’ toughest test of economic resolve since the nation became a founding member of the euro currency union in 1999. Last week, facing a crisis that could have tarnished the country’s sparkling credit rating, a caretaker government maneuvered to pass a 14 billion euro ($18.5 billion) plan for spending cuts and tax increases. Political leaders acknowledge that the belt-tightening will further retard an economy already in recession.

Rather than protesting in the streets, though, as the people of Greece, Spain and Italy have done, many Dutch are facing hard times with characteristically grim determination.

This country has always paid its debts, and the government needed to press ahead with austerity to bring our finances under control,” said Ellen Bijl, a sales clerk at a boutique of Montblanc pens and other fine writing instruments on Kalverstraat, Amsterdam’s busiest shopping street.

People are afraid for the future,” she said, gesturing toward the 50-percent-off stickers throughout the shop that are aimed at increasingly wary consumers. “But it’s better to get it over with quickly and move on.”

Ms. Bijl speaks from experience. For 20 years, she lived as an expatriate running her own small business in Greece, before that nation’s economic collapse sent her scurrying back to her homeland two years ago to seek financial security.

The Netherlands’ national debt, at 65.2 percent of gross domestic product, is considerably below that of France (85.8 percent) and even Germany (82.1), according to the European statistics agency Eurostat.

But the Dutch budget deficit, at 4.6 percent of its gross domestic product, is well above the 3 percent limit required by the European Union, and the recession is making it ever harder to pay down bills. That deficit level is not as onerous as, say, Greece’s at 9 percent or Ireland’s at 13 percent.

But it makes it hard for the Dutch to continue being one of the sternest voices along with Germany — still within the rules at a 1 percent deficit — preaching fiscal rectitude for the rest of the euro zone.

And the Netherlands has every reason for urging the other 16 European Union nations that use the euro currency to be prudently prosperous. Until recently the Netherlands has profited greatly from belonging to the euro club, which has created an essentially borderless European market and enabled the Dutch to price their goods and services more cheaply than when they had their own strong currency.

Despite its tiny size and population of only 16.6 million people, the Netherlands has always punched above its weight, as a global leader in trade with a core of industrial giants like Unilever, Philips, Heineken and Shell.

These strengths have turned the Dutch economy into the world’s seventh-largest by G.D.P. and given the Netherlands a coveted spot in the small club of wealthy northern-tier euro zone countries that have retained their top-notch, AAA credit ratings, alongside Germany, Finland and Luxembourg.

But the Netherlands recently slipped into its second recession in three years as the euro crisis weakened the nations around it. Eighty-five percent of the country’s 509 billion euro economy consists of exports sent mostly to Europe, where trade has cooled. An hour south of Amsterdam, at the port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest, shipping activity is expected to be flat this year.

The heads of the biggest Dutch companies recently signed a joint letter imploring European leaders to “act decisively and creatively” to resolve the region’s debt crisis, now in its third year.

Some companies say austerity measures around the region have made matters worse. In its recently issued annual report for 2011, Unilever, the consumer products giant whose brands include Dove soap and Lipton teas, cited government cutbacks, falling income and rising unemployment as reasons for an erosion in consumer spending.

Still, many Dutch executives see the new budget measures at home as necessary for repairing the nation’s finances and returning the country to growth as quickly as possible.

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