I’ve often wondered, “Where is Europe?”
Its essence could never be found in a modern megacity—any place too particular cannot really be “Europe.” It could not be found in too ancient a city either, because truth be told very few Europeans live in ancient homes. Europe, the Europe we live in, is really a continent of suburbs, supermarkets, and business parks, the Europe of Carrefour and le Corbusier knock-offs, its concrete tower blocks hidden behind the cathedrals.
I felt it, Europe as it is, watching the Eurolines pull into Victoria Coach Station, in London, at 6:00 AM, full of bleary eyes—migrants, students, tourists—on busses from Bucharest, Paris, and Rome. I felt it too, watching the truckers pull out of the mist at motorway service stations in Germany; or early in the morning, at the edge of Turin, where African migrants huddle at the camp gates, making plans to reach France. I thought this emotion, this feeling, maybe couldn’t be found in cities at all: Maybe the Europe of the twenty-first century was too diffuse to have a capital, like Walter Benjamin’s Paris was for the nineteenth century, with its arcades and its velvet sedans.
But then I found Rotterdam. This was quite unexpected. I’d been to Amsterdam countless times before but never set foot in the economic hub of the Netherlands—a city that figures prominently in supply chains but not on tourists’ itineraries. I realized I had been looking in the wrong places. Some cities, like Prague, had dazzled in the twentieth only to fizzle out in a swarm of EasyJets and stag parties in the twenty-first. Rotterdam was not one of these kinds of places. Flattened in 1940 by the Nazis, and rebuilt well into the 1970s, really nothing was expected of Rotterdam. And nobody was looking.
And yet it’s all here, I thought to myself as I was crossing the river Maas in a water taxi. Completely rebuilt from rubble by modernist town planners, it has become a city of the future quite different from what its visionaries imagined. Transformed not only by the European Single Market but also by mass migration, Rotterdam is an incubator for populist politics of all persuasions. It has a Muslim mayor, its own Islamist Party, and a statue of the pioneer of modern rightwing nativism, Pim Fortuyn.
Before Farage, before Le Pen, before Trump, it was “Pim” who broke through, right here in Rotterdam in the early 2000s. What made this alchemist so popular was his free-associating of bits of liberalism and nativism into a potent populist punch. Fortuyn single-handedly changed the vocabulary of the European far Right, encouraging them to embrace gays, Jews, and “the integrated” in order to hit at Muslims, ethnic change, and the culturally different. Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002, but his tactics have proved a winning strategy for anti-Brussels nativists across the continent.
For those hoping this kind of politics was a flash in the pan, the Dutch populist moment has stretched on and on. At recent elections, the success of Thierry Baudet and his Forum for Democracy shook the Netherlands. This upstart came from nowhere, scrubbing up and polishing the politics of Pim Fortuyn’s rougher, coarser heir Geert Wilders with an elite, professorial elan—a kind of Jordan Peterson effect. His sinister warnings, delivered with a patina of false erudition—he speaks of the “homeopathic dilution” of the Dutch nation, for example—have made his party the largest in the Senate.
All this goes against the current vogue for the Netherlands amongst Britain’s heartbroken Remainers. Not only the Economist but also the Financial Times have written Paradise Lost-like hymns to the stable liberal centrism they see in Amsterdam. If only Britain could have been as well-governed and serious about house-building, trains, and productivity as the Netherlands, it would be politics as usual.
Rotterdam tells a different story.
On the surface, Rotterdam is like a dream of Britain’s liberal-left come to life. It has a sparkling new train station—publicly owned—and the World Economic Forum approves. The Netherlands, it says, not only has the European Union’s most competitive economy but the continent’s best infrastructure.
Almost all the statistics about Rotterdam are striking. This city of nearly 640,000 people is Europe’s biggest port, bringing in almost 30,000 sea ships a year and over 460 million tons of cargo. It is also an “immigrant city”, with over 50.9 percent of Rotterdammers now reporting what is called an immigrant background, meaning either they or a parent of theirs was born abroad.
Whenever I travel, I seek out the immigrant neighborhoods. In Rotterdam, it is the Charlois, with its gritty workers’ cottages, on the south side of the Maas. Between the Bulgarian grocers, the Roma families, and the Turkish mosques live the new Rotterdammers, the city’s next generation, where over two thirds of young people have non-Dutch origins. With Europe’s demography changing so fast (some projections see Western Europe becoming majority-minority by 2100) these communities, with all their successes and failures, with their quiet, complex beauty, between the Lebara Mobile signs and the Halal butchers, are neither dystopias nor utopias. For decades now, both the far Right and far Left in Europe have projected their visions onto them: either as “no-go zones” or as “post-racial” communities. Neither sees them for what they are. These banlieues are the factories of the future, churning out both tomorrow’s voters and tomorrow’s politics.
Unlike in Britain’s provinces, these areas are the focus of serious public investment, significant housebuilding, experiments with tiny homes and green initiatives. Nevertheless, the politics here are far from placid.
I stopped by the water to stare at the Erasmusbrug bridge. If you were writing a book, you could write a whole chapter about this delicate thing over the water, sitting like a fluttering swan, bridging the gentrifying north to the migrant south. Built on the eve of the launch of the euro, as a symbol of Rotterdam’s cosmopolitanism and named after the 16th century philosopher Erasmus, it has now become an actual stage for identity politics.
All Europe’s culture wars seem to have taken to this bridge. Before I arrived, one weekend after another, Dutch supporters of the French Gilets Jaunes had been traipsing over it, singing a nostalgic nineties pop song from the Netherlands to make the point that Europe was better before. Their dog-whistles could be heard by all. Over the winter, a riot had broken out between supporters and opponents of Black Pete, an infamous and beloved Dutch Christmas character who wears colonial blackface. Eggs were pelted, fireworks were thrown, a banner shouting “Black Pete Is Racist” was hung off the side of the Erasmusbrug until the police intervened. In 2016, it was here that hundreds of Turkish Rotterdammers came out in support of Tayyip Erdogan against the Dutch government after a fierce row broke out between the two countries.
There is populism for everyone in Rotterdam. The city may have a liberal Muslim mayor—Ahmed Aboutaleb from the Labour party—but his party’s old ties to the immigrant community have badly frayed. Rotterdam today has two effectively Muslim parties: Denk, a national party believed to tied to Turkey’s AKP, and Nida, a more overt, anti-Semitic, Islamist party with ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. These are small, but far from inconsequential. In 2018, Denk picked up over 7.7 percent of the vote in Rotterdam and won four seats in recent elections to the city council. Nida, meanwhile, scored two out of a total of 45 members of the council. Both are social media savvy. Masters of trolling, both are echoes of the populism Rotterdam invented.
But for every populist in the Netherlands, there is an internationalist. The rise of Dutch nativism has been mirrored by the rise of Dutch anti-nativism. The Green Left, consummate culture warriors that make no bones about fighting for a postethnic future, are rising stars on the Dutch political scene.
In the most recent elections, Rotterdam seemed more polarized than ever. Thierry Baudet’s party came first, then Wilder’s party, winning a combined 29 percent. The Green Left came third, with 12 percent, with Denk winning 8 percent and Nida 2 percent of the vote. The traditional centrist parties, with no clear message in the culture war, struggled even in traditional fractured Dutch politics.
Caught between nativists and postnationalists, old-style Dutch liberals are not as relaxed as British Remainers would like to imagine them to be. Yet it is hard not to think Rotterdam’s globalists have made themselves an all-too easy target. Take Rem Koolhaas, the city’s liberal icon. Rotterdam born, Rotterdam based, the Europhile “starchitect” has turned himself into a neoliberal caricature.
It is ironic that the greatest professional achievement of the man so keen to tell Dutch voters right from wrong is the headquarters of China’s chief propaganda channel in Beijing. (“Wonderful things” is how Koolhaas described the work of the Chinese government last December at the World Architecture Festival.) His purposefully postnational architecture—he even pitched a redesigned EU flag that looked like a rainbow-colored barcode—has made him the perfect foil for someone like Baudet.
For Baudet, “Koolhaas is the greatest criminal against humanity,” whose work has destroyed the city a second time. For him Rotterdam, is the death of Europe. “Once you see it,” he tweeted, “it is suddenly very obvious: the modern architecture that is destroying our old cities comes from exactly the same path with our ideology as mass immigration and the EU.”
When you are stuck in a culture war, when the poor want to be protected and worry their elites have betrayed them, there is no greater gift liberals can give the far right than a Prime Minister flirting with disappearing upstairs to “work for Merkel” as one of the chiefs in the European Union, as Mark Rutte is rumored to be. Baudet’s demagoguery is painfully resonant: Unlike the elites of yesterday, whose side are men like Koolhaas really on?
All this offers a sobering lesson to those in Britain and America who think populism can be calmed by strong growth, successful investment, and sinking unemployment. Because Rotterdam has all of those features and a prosperity hard to imagine for those who were born there a generation or more ago. Britain would be lucky to have one provincial city like this. Economic anxiety really isn’t the driver of nativism in Rotterdam. The main grumble, I heard time and again, was in fact gentrification.
Rather, Rotterdam appears to be warning, the great culture war that is emerging in Europe—in every election, in every country—really is about culture assimilation and ethnic change after all. It’s not the economy. And like Catholics and Protestants, the pious and the secular, in the Dutch past, this is a divide over values that will endure. Houses and trains and economic development are good things, and they can take the edge off. But they cannot magic away the fight about what it means to be a nation.