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.
After a longstanding policy of neutrality between Europe's great powers, the bitter experience of invasion and occupation during World War II led the Netherlands to become a leading supporter of international cooperation.
Almost 20% of the total area of the Netherlands is water, and much of the land has been reclaimed from the North Sea in efforts which date back to medieval times and have spawned an extensive system of dykes.
Amsterdam: Much of the city lies at, or below, sea level
It is one of the world's most densely populated nations. As in many European countries, over-65s make up an increasing percentage of that population, leading to greater demands on the welfare system.
After two decades of strong growth and low unemployment, the economy ran into more troubled waters as global trade, in which the Netherlands is a major player, slowed in the early years of the new millennium.
There was concern that Dutch society's longstanding tradition of tolerance was under threat when homosexual anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002.
Anxiety over increased racial tension has intensified further since the murder in 2004 of Theo Van Gogh who had made a controversial film on the position of women in Islamic society. A violent extremist later confessed and was jailed for life.
After Mr Van Gogh's killing, the government hardened its line on immigration and failed asylum seekers.
Mark Rutte heads a minority government propped up by the controversial anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte (left) and Geert Wilders
His government - a coalition of his liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) - was installed in October 2010, following lengthy negotiations after elections in June.
Elections were called after the former CDA-led government of Jan Peter Balkenende collapsed in February in a dispute over continued military support to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The VVD-CDA coalition commands only 52 seats out of 150 in the lower house of parliament, but has made a deal with the right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) to pass policy through parliament. The party does not hold any government positions.
The PVV is headed by Mr Wilders, who campaigns for an end to Muslim immigration and a ban on new mosques. He has faced charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.
Mr Wilders' party made significant gains in the June elections, nearly tripling its support from nine seats previously.
Observers said the new power wielded by Wilders would test the Netherlands' reputation for multi-cultural tolerance.
On taking office, Mr Rutte said his government's priority was to revitalise the economy and to meet election promises on burning issues such as immigration.
Mr Rutte is a former human resources manager at Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever.
The Dutch approach to public broadcasting is unique. Programmes are made by groups which reflect political or religious currents, or other interests. These organisations are allocated airtime on TV and radio, in line with the number of members they have.
Public radio and TV face stiff competition from commercial stations. Viewers have access to a wide range of domestic and foreign channels, thanks mainly to one of the highest cable take-up rates in Europe. Every province has at least one local public TV channel. The three national public TV stations enjoy high audience shares.
Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution, as is free speech. Newspaper ownership is highly concentrated. Most titles are broadsheets; Dutch readers have not developed a taste for tabloid sensationalism.
There were 14.9 million internet users by June 2010 (Internetworldstats), comprising nearly 90% of the population.
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