The Netherlands' name reflects its low-lying topography, with more than a quarter of its total area under sea level.
Now a constitutional monarchy, the country began its independent life as a republic in the 16th century, when the foundations were laid for it to become one of the world's foremost maritime trading nations.
Although traditionally among the keener advocates of the European Union, Dutch voters echoed those in France by spurning the proposed EU constitution in a 2005 referendum.
The Netherlands has produced many of the world's most famous artists from Rembrandt and Vermeer in the 17th century to Van Gogh in the 19th and Mondrian in the 20th. It attracts visitors from across the globe.
The Netherlands has an extraordinarily strong economy for its size. It’s a leader in service industries such as banking, electronics (Philips) and multimedia (PolyGram), and it has a highly developed horticultural industry dealing in bulbs and cut flowers. Agriculture plays an important role, particularly dairy farming and glasshouse fruits and vegetables. Rotterdam harbor handles the largest shipping tonnage in the world, a vital facility in a country that provides more than one-third of Europe’s shipping and trucking. Large supplies of natural gas are tapped and refined on the northeast coasts.
Dutch business is largely dependent on exports and has been caught in a larger downturn in Europe and the USA. The last five years have seen a slowdown in the economy, which is a marked change from the heady ’90s when the Dutch economy was the envy of Europe. While the country’s unemployment rate (6.5%) is not the best in Europe, it’s still lower than those of its closest neighbors, Germany (11.6%), Belgium (8.4%) and France (10%).