THE HAGUE - THE Netherlands is grappling with an identity crisis, as some ill effects of its liberal approach to such issues as prostitution and soft drugs prompt it to rein in freedoms, analysts say.
With the authorities claiming that legal prostitution and the regulated marijuana trade have grown too big, attracting crime and threatening civil liberties, Dutch society is taking a second look at its free-for-all approach.
'The nation's ideals are being tested by the reality they brought,' sociologist Dick Houtman of Erasmus University in Rotterdam told AFP as new clampdowns were announced.
'The Netherlands went further in allowing all sorts of liberties than many other countries. The test is severe.' The Dutch are reticent to sacrifice tolerance - a matter of national pride.
But in the face of globalisation and economic recession, they long for more security, and fear that too much tolerance is breeding threats to their safety and way of life, experts say.
'The country is turning more conservative,' said historian and author Han van den Horst. 'There is a move away from sex, drugs and rock'n'roll towards some pretty bourgeois values.' Politicians, not wanting to appear weak-kneed, have taken up the baton.
'Even liberal parties have moved a little to the right. They didn't want to go against this popular upsurge,' said Professor Geert de Vries, a sociologist at the Free University Amsterdam.
A government ban on hallucinogenic 'magic mushrooms' entered into force on Dec 1, with the health ministry saying they 'can lead to unpredictable and risky behaviour'.
One week later, Amsterdam city fathers said they planned to halve the number of prostitution windows and cannabis-vending coffee shops in the city centre, saying they attract money launderers, hard-drug dealers and human traffickers.
'We have allowed it to become too massive,' Amsterdam deputy mayor Lodewijk Asscher told AFP. 'This is a necessary correction.' Other communities intend to close their local cannabis cafes altogether, while Amsterdam's near neighbour Alkmaar plans to close most of its red-light windows - the shopfronts in which prostitutes pose to attract customers.
This week, the Dutch cabinet said it wanted to regulate the sex industry more strictly by imposing a more onerous licensing system.
Historians say the open-minded Dutch ethos has its origins in the 16th and 17th century merchant era, when trade considerations forced the nation to practice tolerance towards people of all hues and habits.
'It was also a matter of: 'We have to keep this country dry. I might be Catholic and you might be Protestant, but we both want dry feet',' said Professor Houtman of the low-lying country on the North Sea.
Four centuries on, this outlook culminated in a culture of consensus-politics and permissiveness, with much value attached to individual choice and freedom.
In 1976, the Netherlands decriminalised the use and possession of under five grammes of cannabis, although growing cannabis is outlawed. Prostitution was legalised in 2000, as was same-sex marriage.
Not only are the brakes now being applied to recreational drugs and sex for sale, but there has also been a sharp change in the Netherlands' approach to immigration.
In a new report, Leiden University and the Anne Frank Foundation states that 'Islamophobia' has grown considerably, 'also in terms of the increased violence directed at this community and the growing tendency to turn a blind eye to crimes of expression aimed at them'.
Many Dutch see Islam as a threat to their secular and egalitarian values, and immigrants as placing undue pressure on housing, education and social security in one of the most densely population nations in Europe.
'The change started out as a rightist phenomenon, but is now becoming more of a mainstream feeling. It is gaining legitimacy and credibility among the working classes,' Prof Houtman said.
'There is a feeling that our tolerance is the principal cause of many of the problems we experience now. The debate is about where liberty and tolerance should end and where order should begin.' -- AFP
[I need to get there quick before the drugs run out!]