Mark Rutte was not happy. On Saturday night, the Dutch prime minister, who earlier this month announced the resignation of his centre-right government in response to a scandal over benefits payments, was forced to interrupt his night-off with Netflix to deal with a renewed upsurge of Covid-related street violence across the Netherlands.
Hundreds of young people in Amsterdam and Eindhoven, as well as in The Hague and Venlo, had run amok in protest at a newly-imposed curfew intended to slow the spread of the latest variant of the virus. They had had enough, they shouted. They weren’t going to take it anymore.
The worst of the violence took place in Eindhoven, the normally straight-laced hometown of electronics giant, Philips, some 80 miles south of the capital. The city’s newly renovated railway station was ransacked. Jumbo, a popular store located in the main concourse, was smashed open and looted. The main cash-register was carried off as a trophy. A railway carriage was set on fire and the piano used by amateurs in the waiting area was destroyed.
“They smashed the place to pieces,” a station spokesman said. “It was truly scandalous.”
Police arrested 55 rioters and promised a thorough investigation.
In Amsterdam, a town known for its outbreaks of Saturday-night violence, hooligans clashed with police in the museum quarter, which houses the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and the Van Gogh Museum. Water cannon and tear gas were used and there were more than a hundred arrests.
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Elsewhere, clashes in The Hague, home to the Government and Parliament, continued into the early hours of Sunday morning. There were also outbreaks in the southern city of Venlo, close to the border with Belgium and Germany, as well as in the cities of Tilburg and Enschede.
The disturbances came a day after rioters set fire to a Covid testing centre in the fishing village of Urik, northeast of Amsterdam.
Rutte, whose government remains in place in a caretaker capacity until national elections in March, tried to put on a brave face. Those involved in the riots were “a small group”, he said. “The whole of the Netherlands is against this. Ninety-nine per cent of the country adheres to the measures and the curfew. But the behaviour [we have seen] has consequences. We will treat criminal violence as exactly that.”
Praising the police, as well as journalists – a number of whom said they had been threatened by the demonstrators – Rutte stressed that the latest lockdown measures hadn’t been imposed “for fun”.
“We have to take those unfortunate measures because of the virus. We have to win that battle. Only then will we regain our freedom.”
“You have to wonder what it is these people were thinking.”
The Dutch justice minister, Fred Grapperhaus, was similarly mystified. Those who had attacked the Jumbo store in Eindhoven were aged 20 or 21, at the start of their working lives. If convicted, they face hefty fines and a criminal record. They were acting in defiance of the great majority of ordinary, law-abiding citizens who only wanted to do the best they can in difficult circumstances. “They should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.
The Netherlands was not the only western European country impacted by anti-Covid riots over the weekend. There were disturbances in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, as well as in its second largest city, Aarhus. The police, as well as MPs from all political parties, were particularly offended by an effigy of the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen that was hung from a lamppost in Frederiksberg, a suburb of the capital, and then set on fire above the slogan, “She must and should be killed!”
The protests were organised by a shadowy group known as the Men in Black, previously held responsible for graffiti and vandalism as well as attacks on the police. Announcing their peaceful intent online, the Men in Black said they had had enough of restrictions and demanded their freedom. Just five arrests were made.
No serious Covid-related violence was reported in France, Germany or Italy, where there were incidents in the lead-up to Christmas. Contrary to the prevailing view of the Netherlands and Denmark as nations marked by a 1960s-style ethos of peace and love, street violence, fuelled by drink and drugs, are far from unknown in both countries. Each has a long-established youth culture and both have been dealing with resentments arising from Muslim immigration. Across Europe, as in the UK, the frustration experienced by a generation of millennials over the last nine months has been brought to a head by new measures put in place by desperate governments of every political persuasion to protect the public, but which have a disproportionate impact on those under 25.
At least, for now, there has been no need to bring soldiers onto the streets. The Dutch justice minister said on Monday that the police had matters in hand but that special measures could not be ruled out in the event that the situation deteriorated in the days ahead.