Netherlands country brief


The Netherlands is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. King Willem-Alexander is the head of state, and has reigned since 30 April 2013. Long renowned for its internationalist outlook, the Netherlands was a founding member of the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). With Belgium and Luxembourg, it is also a member of the Benelux Economic Union. While the capital city of the Netherlands is Amsterdam, the Dutch Government and Parliament are located in The Hague.

The Netherlands is host to seven international legal organisations: the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the International Court of Justice, The Hague Conference on Private International Law, the Iran-US Claims Tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Court, and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The first six are situated in The Hague, as is the EU's criminal intelligence agency, Europol, and the EU’s judicial cooperation agency, Eurojust. It is also host to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Political overview

In the Netherlands, the political powers of the monarch are largely ceremonial. Effective executive authority in Government is exercised through the Prime Minister, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the largest party in the Second Chamber of Parliament (equivalent to the House of Representatives in Australia). The Council of Ministers comprises 13 to 16 ministers and a number of state secretaries, who traditionally support ministers.

There are three levels of government in the Netherlands: national, provincial and municipal. The Netherlands is divided into 12 provinces, each administered by a directly-elected Provincial Council, a Provincial Executive and a Sovereign Commissioner, who is appointed by royal decree.

General elections for the national Government are normally held every four years, using a system of strict proportional representation. A broad centrist coalition comprising the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA) was sworn into office on 5 November 2012, following elections in September of that year. Mark Rutte, leader of the VVD, is the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA) is Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Employment. Bert Koenders (PvdA) was appointed Foreign Minister in October 2014 following the departure of Frans Timmermans, who took up the position of First Vice President at the European Commission. Lilianne Ploumen (PvdA) serves as Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, reflecting the strong correlation which the Netherlands sees between international trade and development.

Foreign policy overview

Key objectives of the Netherlands’ foreign policy are promoting and defending Dutch prosperity and national security. The Netherlands is highly dependent on foreign trade and therefore has a direct interest in and seeks to promote a stable international legal order.

The Netherlands has a long history of promoting human rights worldwide as an essential part of foreign policy. Other foreign policy priorities include addressing global poverty and inequality, climate change and other environmental threats, energy security, international terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and human trafficking. Strengthening regional and global institutions, including the UN, has long been a focus of Dutch foreign policy. The Netherlands has historically been a strong supporter of European integration.

The Netherlands is a significant aid donor, committing approximately 0.64 per cent of gross national income to Official Development Assistance in 2014. The majority of this is contributed through multilateral organisations, including the UN, Human Rights Fund and Stability Fund. The Netherlands targets its aid to 15 partner countries in the Middle East and Africa as well as Bangladesh and Indonesia. It views development cooperation as a vehicle for economic growth with the ultimate aim of countries becoming self-reliant.

The Netherlands has long seen climate change as one of the major global challenges and continues to be a strong advocate of international action to address it. The Netherlands’ Government aims to achieve a sustainable energy supply system by 2050.

Economic overview

The Netherlands is a small, wealthy trading nation with a population of 16.9 million (2014). The Netherlands was hit hard by the global financial crisis in 2009 and its recovery was hampered by weakness in other European economies. The Netherlands played an important and influential role in the global response to the financial crisis, seeking stronger supervision of the international banking and finance industries, strengthening of global financial institutions and urging the freer world trade to stimulate the global economy. In 2014, the Netherlands’ economy returned to growth, with GDP expanding 1.0 per cent.

Trade is an important aspect of the Dutch economy. Most of the Netherlands’ trade is with EU countries, especially Germany and Belgium.

The Netherlands is an attractive destination for foreign investment, given its open economy, outward focus, sound public sector, good social services, modern and effective infrastructure and a dynamic private sector. The Netherlands is an important international investor, and is home to a number of large companies with multinational operations, including Royal Dutch Shell, ING Group and Rabobank. The Netherlands has one of the world’s most highly developed pension fund industries, with significant levels of private assets under management. The Dutch venture-capital market is among the best developed in Europe.

Bilateral relationship

Australia and the Netherlands share fundamental values and a similar global outlook.

The Netherlands is a valued interlocutor on counter-terrorism matters and has contributed to the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation founded by Australia and Indonesia in 2004. The Netherlands is a valuable interlocutor on EU issues. Australia and the Netherlands share many common international trade policy objectives.

Australia and the Netherlands have a bilateral social security agreement for people who have lived and/or worked in both Australia and the Netherlands. This agreement also exempts Australian employers from the need to provide Netherlands social security support for temporary work in the Netherlands, if the employee is covered in Australia by compulsory superannuation arrangements. Further information is available from the Australian Taxation Office.

To further cement the bilateral relationship, Foreign Minister Bishop and then Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans signed a Declaration of Intent establishing a Strategic Dialogue between Australia and the Netherlands in February 2014. The Strategic Dialogue involves regular ministerial meetings to promote greater cooperation on global security and economic issues, strengthen two-way trade and investment, and enhance further the substantial people-to-people links between the two countries.

People-to-people links

During the 1950s, Australia was the destination of 30 per cent of Dutch emigrants and the Netherlands-born became numerically the second largest non-British group in Australia. The 2011 census recorded more than 87,000 residents of Australia born in the Netherlands. According to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics, approximately 15,000 first or second generation Australians live in the Netherlands.

High level visits

  • In November 2014, Justice Minister Keenan visited the Netherlands for discussions on MH17 with the then Dutch Minister for Security and Justice, Ivo Opstelten.
  • In November 2014, Dutch Prime Minister Rutte visited Australia as a Guest of Government. In Canberra he met with the then Prime Minister Abbott, the Governor-General, and officials involved in MH17.
  • In August 2014, the then Prime Minister Abbott visited the Netherlands for discussions on MH17 with Prime Minister Rutte.
  • In July 2014, Foreign Minister Bishop visited the Netherlands for discussions on MH17 with Prime Minister Rutte.
  • In July 2014, the Governor-General visited the Netherlands to officially receive the first caskets of the victims of the MH17 air disaster, at a repatriation ceremony at Eindhoven Air Force Base.  
  • In February 2014, then Dutch Foreign Minister Timmermans visited Australia and signed the Declaration of Intent with Foreign Minister Bishop, establishing a Strategic Dialogue between Australia and the Netherlands.

ANCODS Collection

In February 2011, the Dutch Government repatriated to Australia over 1000 artefacts that were recovered from Dutch East India Company ships that sank off the Western Australian coast in the 17th and 18th centuries. The artefacts were returned under the Agreement between Australia and the Netherlands Concerning Old Dutch Shipwrecks (ANCODS). A Mutual Declaration was signed in 2010, to acknowledge that Australia would hold the ANCODS Collection but that the Netherlands could borrow it for exhibitions. The Collection is on display at the Western Australian Museum in Fremantle.

Bilateral economic and trade relationship

The Netherlands is a significant investment and trading partner for Australia. It is Australia’s second largest export market within the EU after the UK. It is home to a number of financial institutions and other companies that operate in Australia, including ING Group, Fortis, Rabobank, AEGON, Shell, Unilever, Delta Lloyd, Philips, and Akzo Nobel. In 2014, the Netherlands was Australia’s fourth largest source of foreign direct investment ($38.4 billion) after the US, UK and Japan.

In 2014-15, the Netherlands was also a significant trading partner. Total merchandise trade was worth $4.4 billion and the value of Australia’s merchandise exports to the Netherlands was almost $2.4 billion. Significant Australian exports to the Netherlands in 2014-15 included coal, other ores and concentrates, medical instruments and oil seeds and oleaginous fruits. Significant imports from the Netherlands included medicaments (including veterinary), mechanical handling equipment and parts and coffee.

Australian services exports to the Netherlands in 2014-15 totaled $463 million (mostly personal travel (excl. education) and professional, technical and other business services). Services imports from the Netherlands totaled $1.0 billion.

The Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) office in Frankfurt covers the Netherlands.

Last Updated: 17 July 2014