Forget economic anxiety. Rotterdam is a warning that the emerging political fight across Europe really is about cultural assimilation after all.

I’ve often wondered, “Where is Europe?”


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.


... 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.1


  • 1. For [Dutch populist politician] Thierry 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.”