A tale of two cities

twocities

Every city in reality is two cities: the centre and the periphery, uptown and downtown, inner city and suburbs, the richer middle and upper class parts and the poorer working and welfare class areas. Sometimes the boundaries are fluid and the two cities permeate each other, sometimes the two co-exist side-by-side but rarely meet.

The Hague is no different.

The boundary, so typically Dutch, is water: Verversingskanaal zig-zags through the city, separating the north and the south. A placid ribbon of blue – or green, as often overgrown by algae – it is narrow and bridged countless times along its course. As a border it is unimpressive, more symbolic, but the differences between the two Hagues on its both sides are real and quite stark.

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The northern half of the city is the older Hague, The Hague of the parliament and the royal palace, of countless government buildings, of narrow cobblestone streets full of expensive boutiques and art galleries, of office high-rises and well-maintained quaint two-storey townhouses. This is The Hague of the middle and upper class, of public servants and expats, of commerce, restaurants and pleasant bourgeois life.

The southern half of the city is the newer Hague, The Hague of forlorn and deserted streets of monotonous row houses, of rubbish and graffiti, of few corner shops and diners with Formica-topped tables. This is The Hague of the working class and the welfare class.

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But it is not particularly The Hague of the Hagenees, those born and bred in the capital, for increasingly the divide between the two cities, in The Hague and in other European urban areas, is not just socio-economic but above all ethnic.

The most current statistics say that of The Hague’s just over half a million residents, a slightest o minorities of 49.9 per cent are Dutch, while 50.1 per cent are migrants; 15.6 per cent Western and 34.4 per cent non-Western. The non-Western one-third largely live “south of the border”.

In the morning I leave my leafy enclave not far from Andrew Carnegie’s Peace Palace and over the course of a few hours trace an oval-shaped route that takes me through Schildersbuurt-West, Schilderswijk, Schildersbuurt-Oost and The Hague Centre/Stationsbuurt districts south of the canal. The differences are palatable; I am truly in a different city. Virtually all the faces are non-Dutch; some African and Surinamese, but most Turkish and Moroccan. Virtually all the women wear jilbab, a long, trenchcoat-like garment, and a hijab head covering. All shops and eateries are Arab or Turkish. I pass by the almost-unfortunately named Al-Qoeba Islamitische Basisschool whose upper storey windows are adorned with a big colour paper cut-out of a mosque.

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In the heart of the south, De Haagse Maart, The Hague Market, the largest open-air market in Europe, is being touted by the city as the ultimate multicultural experience: “Antiques, foreign, modern, inexpensive, unique: it’s all here at The Hague Market. The merchandise here reflects the multicultural population of the city. Walk through the food area where Dutch cauliflower is amiably on display beside fresh coriandar, baklava, sharon fruit, fresh fish and yardlong beans.” There is that and more at the 500 stalls selling ready-made clothes as well as bales of fabrics to make traditional dresses, fresh and prepared food of north-west Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor, household bric-a-brac. Thousands of buyers and browsers are as multi-ethnic as the sellers.

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Europe has been asking itself for a long time now the question: to what extent are our societies enriched by importing millions of poor people from poor countries with cultures different to our own? The answers varied and vary depending, in part, on who’s exactly is asking. Clearly the migration benefits the migrants who even if stuck on the lowest socio-economic rungs of European society are significantly better off than in their own countries. From that point of view immigration can be seen as an act of charity or foreign aid. For much of the European left, immigration from the developing world is a gladly accepted penance and reparation for the past sins of European imperialism and colonialism. Some even seem to positively relish the prospect of the terrible European culture being diluted and eventually supplanted by the more virtuous “Other”. For others in Europe the answers are more ambiguous. The literature on the economic benefits of immigration is extensive and, not surprisingly, unclear and contradictory. The migrants contribute more in taxes and through increased national output than they consume in government payments. Or maybe not. Maybe it depends on which migrants, maybe it depends on which generation. Do they take jobs that no spoiled and comfortable Dutch or Germans are willing to do any more, or do they displace local low-skilled workers – or do they bludge off generous welfare? You can find data to support any conclusion.

Then there are the cultural aspects of immigration. Multiculturalism is the official creed of the European elites, professed with as religious a favour as medieval Christians professed their Nicaean creed. All cultures are equal and equally valid and good (perhaps with exception of one’s own), diversity is to be celebrated both as a mean and as almost an end in itself. But all cultures are not equal; some are better suited for the creation and propagation of freedom, prosperity and decent society. As I’ve mentioned yesterday, the opinion polling shows significant to overwhelming majorities right across Europe dissatisfied with current immigration policies and ambiguous about the benefits of mass migration. Unlike the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, most European countries have been reasonably ethnically and culturally homogenous and until recent decades have had no history or experience of being giant melting pots. The Statue of Liberty might have been made in France but it was sent to America; there is no giant torch-wielding lady standing in the Rotterdam harbour asking the rest of the world to give her the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in the Eurozone.

The status quo cannot and will not go on. The people, as opposed to the elites, have always been more conflicted about the remaking of their societies through large-scale migration from the developing world. The difference now is that the situation in Europe has reached a critical point where the people will no longer tolerate being ignored by their own political class. Most Europeans are not racist (though some are, as are people in every other part of the world), but they want the migrants to fit in and assimilate to the European society instead of the society having to change to accommodate different mores and cultures. Most people would agree this is not an unreasonable position to have.

The Dutch government has been stricter this decade in its approach to migrants, requiring they integrate through compulsory language study, taking integration courses and integration test, and making effort to integrate on the pain of losing the residency permit. All good sentiments but the judgment is still out on the real life impact.

I’m told that in recent past one could sometimes see the black ISIS flags in the windows of the heavily Muslim parts of The Hague, but that lately they have mercifully disappeared. I certainly don’t see any on my walk. It’s probably a result of a security crackdown rather than sped-up integration, but a little progress either way is better than nothing.

The great European “silent majority” has for years felt economically squeezed between the spivs of the crony capitalist government-business complex from the top and the welfare/low-skilled work migrants from the bottom. They have also felt socially and culturally squeezed between the trendy elites and non-integrating ethnic minorities. One can debate ad infinitum the perceptions and the realities, and the rights and the wrongs, but there will be a rebalancing of some sort or else there will be an explosion. The two cities cannot continue the same way.

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