Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Picture: THINKSTOCK
Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Picture: THINKSTOCK

The Dutch already sensed that their language was dying, but the news item was still shocking: the Vrije Universiteit, an Amsterdam university once synonymous with Dutch Calvinism, is scrapping its century-old undergraduate degree in Dutch language and literature because of a lack of interest.

The five staff members are now teaching just five first-year students. More broadly, Dutch is fading from Dutch universities: ever more undergraduate degrees, and about 70% of masters, are taught entirely in English. This was unthinkable in the 1970s, when my family moved to the Netherlands: my dad had to learn Dutch to teach at Leiden University. If Brexit happens, the Netherlands will probably have the EU’s largest English-language university system.

Dutch offices, too, have become the most anglophone in continental European history. Are you a foreign bank or media company moving to Amsterdam? File your documents with the regulator in English. Settle your disputes in the brand-new, English-speaking Netherlands Commercial Court. Hire Dutch staff who will ­happily speak English even among themselves.

The Netherlands is finding a new role: as the English-language economy in the EU that the world needs after Brexit. (Ireland will get some of the pickings, but it’s less populous, in the wrong place and has inferior infrastructure.)

Even the Dutch weren’t always this international. My Dutch friends from childhood speak excellent English, but their children speak perfect English. In last year’s IMD Talent Rankings (by Lausanne’s Institute for Management Development), the Netherlands ranked first out of 63 economies for language skills. Alison Edwards, a linguist at Leiden University, says that when every Dutch hairdresser and bus driver speaks English, then English isn’t a foreign language any more: it’s the Netherlands’ second language. One day it could be its first.

Already foreigners are streaming in to build their lives in English. The number of foreign students in the Netherlands (half of them Germans) has more than tripled in a decade. Top-class ­foreigners have been imported to teach them.

The Netherlands now boasts seven of the world’s top 80 universities (as ranked by the Times Higher Education Supplement). Only the US and UK have more. I’ll tell my children: rather than forking out $500,000 to bribe your way into the University of Southern California, let’s send you to the higher-ranked University of Amsterdam for €2,083 in annual tuition.

Younger Dutch people now compete with Brits and Americans in the global anglophone communications sphere. Think of journalist Rutger Bregman, who wowed this year’s Davos conference with his zippy exhortation to fellow conferees to talk about taxes: “It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.” His employer, De Correspondent, launches its English-language site in September. I’m guessing it will be more outward-looking than the dominant US media, since it won’t only cover countries that the Netherlands is invading or that seem to mirror domestic Dutch political trends.

That international mindset may be the biggest Dutch asset. A lawyer in Amsterdam will have worked on international contracts; one in Frankfurt might not have. And whereas the French demand protection from globalisation, the Dutch have lapped it up for centuries (as long as it involves wealthy and/or white people). It has been calculated that Amsterdam had proportionately more expats in the 1600s than today.

It helps that the Dutch are easy to decode. The Calvinist heritage encourages transparency: “saying what you think”. “Hollandse directheid” (as the Dutch call it) often verges on rudeness, but at least there’s no baffling etiquette to acquire. “We just aren’t that difficult,” says Udo Kock, Amsterdam’s deputy mayor for finance and economic affairs.

He is busy courting foreign investment. The 28 companies that moved to the Amsterdam region because of Brexit in2018 are small beer. So are the 90 Brexit-afflicted companies that the city says are considering the move. What counts is the long term. The UK has ceased to be the “gateway to Europe” for nonEuropean companies. Even if Brexit is binned, political instability will tarnish Britain’s appeal. The Netherlands is the nearest available substitute.

So many office buildings have shot up in southern Amsterdam that parts of it look like a Chinese boomtown grafted on to a Dutch suburb. Even ever-sleepy The Hague is building skyscrapers. The western Netherlands — an eight-million-person metropolitan area, as big as New York — is running out of space. Dutch officials are guiding low-value foreign companies to look “just outside Amsterdam”. That can mean Arnhem, which for Amsterdammers is practically Germany but to Canadians or Japanese is under an hour by train from central Amsterdam.

Winning at globalisation has its downsides. Many Dutch people complain that expats are driving up rents, that tourists have annexed central Amsterdam and that some students at overcrowded universities are living in tents. The greater fear is that the Netherlands will be globalised out of existence. That may be the price of success.

© The Financial Times 2019