Opinion pieces, columns and insights into Dutch news and current affairs from key commentators


Dear Mr Mayor, I am so grateful for what you did for me and my son

Amsterdammer Somaye Dehban remembers Amsterdam's mayor Eberhard van der Laan and the impact he has had on her life and family. I am an Amsterdammer who was truly affected by the news of your illness like many others, even the ones who have met you for a brief moment. I am writing you this letter because I want you to know how grateful and appreciative I am for what you have done for me and my family - specifically my younger son. You probably don't remember shaking the little hand of my younger son (about 1.5 year old at the time) while he was in my arms. You, Mr Mayor, pronounced us both Dutch nationals in 2015. I couldn’t hold back my tears when you called up our names and when I testified on our behalf that we would be loyal citizens to the Netherlands: I cannot hold back my tears while writing you this letter either. You have had many of these ceremonies during your career as Amsterdam’s mayor so this handshake will have been like many others you have had. Yet our backstory and  'our' moment with you, shows the importance of your trust in 'us' as the newly pronounced nationals. Stateless Up until that hand-shake moment, my younger son did not have a nationality; in other words, as was mentioned on his ID card, he was 'stateless'. I am originally from a country where, as a woman, I do not have the right to pass on my nationality to my children. Their biological father decided not to recognise our younger child so my second son could not receive a nationality from either of us. So, after my son’s birth, I decided to apply to become a Dutch national and by the power of the Dutch constitution I could pass on my Dutch nationality to him. For our family - me, my older son (who is Dutch from birth) and my younger son - that moment in which you pronounced us as Dutch nationals was not only an integration moment but also a unifying instance: in that moment, we all 'became' Dutch. For me in particular this was an empowering experience: to pass on a right to my son, as a woman, an experience and a right that I have been denied of my whole life. Book On that day you also gave my son a book which was his first gift as a Dutch national: Van Mug tot Olifant - every now and then, we sit together and read this book. The book does not have much text but a lot of illustrations which we explore in our imaginations. The book is a clever look at the diversity in the animal kingdom and how each member of this family has a role and duties within the community. You picked a very smart gift for the ones whom you pronounced as the new young Dutch nationals. Dear Mr van der Laan, for our family you were more than a mayor. For us, you were a public servant, an individual, who believed in the added value that we – the newcomers - offer Dutch society.  More >


The new Dutch ministerial line-up should aim for 50% women

  The coalition talks are nearing completion after a record-breaking period of negotiation. It is also about time the Netherlands had a cabinet made up of an equal number of men and women, says Marije Cornelissen, the director of UN Women Netherlands. Two years ago Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau presented his new government to the press. Asked by a journalist why half of his cabinet was made up of women Trudeau paused a few seconds and said: ‘Because it’s 2015’. A few months later Emmanuel Macron achieved gender parity when he appointed 11 women to the posts of minister or junior minister. We hope Mark Rutte will follow suit. UN Women has issued a petition as a way of calling on the negotiators to make sure Mark Rutte will be posing for the traditional photograph on the steps of Paleis Huis Ten Bosch flanked by as many women as men. Why? Because it’s 2017. Languishing In 1917 parliament granted Dutch women the right to stand for election. You would think that a hundred years later men and women would hold equal sway in politics. But unfortunately that is not the case. The number of women MPs crept up slowly until  reaching a peak of almost 43% in 2010. But since then their number has gone down to 36%, a drop that takes us back to 1998 levels. Countries like Bolivia, Senegal, Mexico and Burundi now have outstripped the Netherlands which languishes in 26th place worldwide. It is the parties who decide whose names go on the ballot paper. In some countries, such as Iceland and Sweden, parties left and right of the political spectrum are putting women in electable places as a matter of course. In other countries, such as Senegal and Bolivia, a certain number of women have to be included by law. In the Netherlands there is no such legal requirement and a number of parties are putting too few woman candidates on the list. The campaign ‘Elect a woman’ in March this year did not do much to change that. Three women were elected by preferential vote but they belonged to Labour and GroenLinks, parties which had put women in eligible positions.It had no effect on the VVD, CDA, and D66 whose top candidates were predominantly male. About time Fortunately the representation of women in government is faring better. Some 46% on ministers in the outgoing government is female, which puts the Netherlands in fourth place in Europe. Only Sweden, Finland and France have a higher number of female ministers and junior ministers. A Dutch cabinet has, however, never reached or exceeded the 50%. We will have make do with a female presence in parliament of just over a third in the years ahead. But the coalition parties can make sure that the new cabinet has gender parity. After a hundred years it’s about time. This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


The Netherlands: a tale of two governments

The Netherlands: a tale of two governments

The longer the process to form a new coalition takes place, the more the Netherlands is becoming a country run by two governments with a shared prime minister, writes Gordon Darroch During the 1950s the Netherlands was famous for having two foreign ministers. When asked to explain this curious situation, one of them, Joseph Luns, is said to have quipped: Als klein land heeft Nederland heel veel buitenland. ('As a small country, the Netherlands has a great deal of foreign parts'). That the Dutch have become more inward-looking in recent years is reflected in the fact that the country currently has two governments, both concerned mainly with domestic issues and conjoined by a shared prime minister, Mark Rutte. On the one flank there is Rutte-II, the partnership forged in adversity of the right-wing Liberals (VVD) and centre-left Labour party (PvdA). It drove through a package of reforms to lift the economy out of the mire of the banking crisis, but at the cost of the near-annihilation of the PvdA, which now finds itself detained in the corridors of power like a spurned husband who can’t afford to move out of the marital home. However, the general election in March left the political landscape so fragmented that only a coalition of four parties could secure the working majority Rutte craved. Nearly six months later, Rutte-III remains a government in waiting whose chief merit is that there is no viable alternative. In his quest for stability, Rutte is relying on a hybrid vehicle with complex ideological fault lines on immigration, on climate change and on medical-ethical issues, as well as the slightest of Parliamentary majorities. Conservative nationalism Those fault lines were brought into sharp focus by Christian Democrat leader Sybrand Buma’s HJ Schoo lecture earlier this month, in which he positioned the CDA as the new home of Christian conservative nationalism, a world away from his progressive liberal coalition partners in D66. The welding together of Rutte III has been such a slow-drip process that its predecessor is now the longest-serving government in Dutch democratic history. While the coalition-in-waiting has been tying itself in knots over marginal issues such as embryo research and whether children should learn the national anthem in school, it has been left to the departing ministers to sort out the heavyweight issues. Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher, who is simultaneously operating as deputy prime minister and the incoming cabinet’s most effective opponent, has used the threat of teachers’ strikes to wring a promise from Rutte to raise wages for primary school staff. An extra €145 million has been earmarked for extra personnel in the care sector, another €50 million for asylum and migration. Military missions Two weeks ago the defence and international development ministers committed the funding for Dutch troops to spend another year on their top five military missions, on the basis that waiting any longer might unsettle the troops. Caretaker governments are supposed to limit themselves to non-controversial issues, and while defence spending might seem beyond reproach in the current security climate, it’s worth remembering that Rutte’s predecessor, Jan Peter Balkenende, was brought down when his last cabinet split over the Dutch military presence in Uruzgan. The longer it takes for Rutte’s third cabinet to take shape, the more it starts to look like a missed opportunity. The recovery of the economy, which generated a budget surplus of nearly €3bn in 2016, has given the government the luxury of having extra cash to spend for the first time in a decade. Yet the budget for 2018 that will be announced in the third week of September has been written by Labour finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, and although the expectation is that many of the measures will be modified or abandoned, in practice it is difficult and potentially disruptive to deviate from a preset course. The ‘spring accord’ drawn up in haste and under financial duress in 2012 following the collapse of Rutte’s first cabinet included such measures as accelerating the increased pension age, lifting the upper rate of BTW to 21% and restricting eligibility for mortgage tax relief, all of which were carried forward by Rutte II. Air pollution The recent court ruling requiring the government to revise its air pollution strategy is a further snare on the pathway that the old government will have to untangle. The court gave ministers just two weeks to come out with an outline plan, too little time to wait for the new coalition to take action. So the outgoing junior environment minister, Sharon Dijksma, will have a big influence on the policies of the new dedicated environment ministry, which will be under pressure to make swift progress on meeting the court’s demands. It doesn’t help that the environment is one of the main bones of contention within the new partnership, with Buma’s CDA at odds with D66 and, to a lesser extent, Rutte’s VVD on the pace and scale of the measures needed to mitigate climate change. Conventionally outgoing governments are hamstrung by indecision and mistrust while their successors exude purpose, energy and confidence. For the Netherlands’ two governments the roles appear to have been reversed. As the coalition talks grind on Rutte is in danger of discovering that not only has he been overtaken on the inside lane by his old administration, but the strain of trying to make up the ground may send the wheels spinning off his new vehicle. This column first appeared on Gordon Darroch's blog Words for Press  More >


Dutch national identity goes further than singing the Wilhelmus

National identity is about more than the national anthem, writes Kim Putters, head of the government's social policy advisory body SCP. This summer the search for what constitutes the Dutch identity took centre stage once again. A rumour about including the national anthem in the school curriculum as part of the next government's policy programme got tongues wagging. Opponents responded by protesting that the Dutch colonial past should be given more priority. It never ceases to amaze me how any discussion about what does or does not belong to the national identity becomes mired in whataboutery. Our children should be taught about the Wilhelmus as well as our colonial past, but they should be taught much more than that. In my opinion, this trade-off of historical achievements represents an insidious and broader erosion of historical and cultural awareness. The arts and culture ceased to be a priority for the Dutch years ago. When the SCP asks people what the government should spend their money on, arts and culture invariably languish at the bottom of the list. Optional Social science, art and cultural history have been relegated to the status of optional subjects in schools, and it is highly doubtful whether children know what once happened on the ground they tread on their way to the classroom. All this is a result of political choices, but also our own individual choices and the accelerating pace of life. Let’s start with politics. Years of talk of money being thrown indiscriminately at the arts has tainted the sector in the eyes of the public. It has become an easy target for cutbacks. After all, who wouldn’t want to stop subsidising a bunch of lazy lefty artists? The government is slowly but surely expected to disengage itself from the arts and culture, not only in terms of content but financially as well. If people want culture let them pay for it, the thinking goes. England’s British Museum is free, open to anyone who wants to learn about the country’s heritage, whenever they want. The value of diplomas Then there’s education. The curriculum is increasingly focused on the value of a diploma in the labour market rather than turning young people into well-rounded individuals. Fortunately the two things are not mutually exclusive, but the fact is that economic worth is now the foundation of many a school curriculum. More compulsory economic subjects, fewer social science classes and history. I feel the latter are due a status upgrade. Stop calling them ‘pretstudies’ [university courses that are considered fun economically worthless – DN] for a start. We also need to take a good hard look at ourselves. How conscious are we of our heritage? It took me ages to realise that the road I used to cycle over every day as a boy was an 800-year-old dam. There was a boundary stone that once separated two villages that had been a scene of wartime fighting and high water. Going even further, back the ownership of this area was hotly disputed by dukes. No teacher said anything about this in school. And at home, at the kitchen table, neither did my parents. Symbol The debate we have seen this summer is a good one, but it is too narrow. The Wilhelmus merely symbolises the need to pay more attention to historical and social developments in politics, business and education, both in school and at home. This will contribute to mutual understanding and to the ability to relate to our environment. The opportunities are there for the taking. SER recently published a report about the ways the arts and culture contribute to social and economic value. It focuses on entrepreneurship and better working conditions, but also highlights cooperation between government and businesses. We have an international reputation for our orchestras, DJs and artists. Investing in this sector boosts tourism, the creative industry and education, and promotes social and historical awareness. I hope this discussion will herald a broad reorientation of who we are, where we come from and where we want to go. Schools, businesses and people sitting round kitchen tables don’t need to hang around for a coalition agreement to take action. Awareness of the past gives society – and the economy – a handle on the future. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


How to go Dutch: the final installment, as those crucial envelopes arrive

How to go Dutch: the final installment, as those crucial envelopes arrive

Six years ago Molly Quell moved to the Netherlands with her husband, an academic, for a short-term project. Now she’s a divorcee, has fallen in love with a Dutch guy and finds herself in the unexpected position of having to integrate. Read the first, second, third and fourth parts of her series. I was working from home on the day the letter arrived. I heard the familiar ka-chink as the post was pushed through the mailbox. I got up from my desk and peered down the hallway. I had been checking the mail with increasing anxiety over the past few weeks. There was a letter, lying on top of the Makro coupons and health insurance bills. And it appeared as though that letter was from IND. I crept down the hall, as if otherwise I might startle the envelope and cause it to turn into a negative response. It took me some time to open it. Ironically, as I’m writing this now, I just met, for the first time, my reason for applying for permanent residency, face to face. Getting sick I first interviewed immigration lawyer Jeremy Bierbach back in 2014, about a case he had before the European Court regarding the obligation of long-term residents in the Netherlands to take exams to show they were becoming properly integrated. During our interview, Bierbach turned the tables and started asking me my story of how I ended up in the Netherlands. I was initially the partner of a highly-skilled migrant and when that relationship ended, I applied for residency under the DAFT treaty. My visa was valid for five years and my various consulting projects were going fine. Yet Bierbach nagged me for a while about how I was eligible for permanent residency and how I should apply. 'What happens,' he asked, 'if you’re injured and can’t work? You’ll have to go back to the US. And then what?' As a fellow American, he knew what buttons to push. Just after I spoke with him, I was offered a job where my employer sponsored my work visa. But his remarks stuck with me. With an employer-sponsored job, what if something happened to my office. If we were restructured. If I got fired. I had 60 days to pack up and leave. And so, despite the fact that I wasn’t obliged to pass the tests, I ultimately decided to go for it at the beginning of 2016. It helped that the editor-in-chief of this esteemed publication told me she’d let me write a series of articles about how awful the exams were if I took them. Bigger issues You can read the rest of this whole series to learn about the kafka-esque process of applying, the weird questions, the racism, the exam centres designed by former gulag-officials and time-consuming studying. Once the application was in the mail, however, the deeper problems started. 'I’d leave the country if Trump was elected my president too,' a friend told me one night. Someone who had known me for the past five years. If anything, I abandoned the country during the high point of a competent president: I’d only just arrived when the Supreme Court upheld the health care mandate. Trump is terrible but I’m not a political refugee. 'So you’re Dutch now?' I was asked over and over. After the twenty-seventh time explaining that I wasn’t applying for Dutch nationality, I wouldn’t get a passport, I couldn’t vote, I started answering simply 'nope' and moving on. 'You won’t be an American anymore!' I heard from family and friends back home, as if having a Dutch permanent residency was going to make me any less loud or less in favour of chocolate peanut butter desserts. Permanent residency is none of those things. It’s nothing more than some bureaucratic hurdles to jump through to make my life easier. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself. Changes That letter sitting in my hallway didn’t turn into a negative response. It congratulated me on my successful application. Two weeks later, another letter turned up. One that invited me to the immigration office to pick up my new residency permit. Which I did. Since I first started this process way back in January 2016, my life is very different. I left that job with the residency permit. I went back to DAFT. And then I was offered a really great job at a place that couldn’t sponsor my permit. They made the offer three weeks before that letter arrived. Now I eat lunch with my colleagues together every day. Bread with some butter and a single slice of cheese. During this year’s elections, some of my colleagues and I started a podcast about the elections. Now I can probably name more members of the Tweede Kamer than the House of Representatives. I’ve gotten my foreign journalist in the Netherlands badge of honour and written about Geert Wilders. He’s even blocked me on Twitter. And somehow during this process, I acquired one of these Dutch boyfriends. We had our dinner just after 18:00 tonight. Then we sat on the couch and read today’s Volkskrant. Tomorrow morning, we’ll have hagelslag on our bread for breakfast. I definitely think I’m integrated now. But the inburgering process had nothing to do with it. This is the fifth and final part of Molly Quell's quest to 'go Dutch'. You can read the  first, second, third and fourth parts of the series here.  More >


Dozens of languages disappear, so why not ditch Dutch as well?

Dozens of languages disappear, so why not ditch Dutch as well?

Dozens of languages disappear every year, and English is taking over, so why not bite the bullet and wave bye bye to Dutch? suggests Leiden University professor of Chinese Linguistics Rint Sybesma. The English language takeover of Dutch higher education is creating all sorts of problems. We only need to look at the latest report on the subject. It’s doing the quality of our education no favours at all. The linguistic abilities of both teachers and students are failing to come up to the mark while the highly educated who find themselves a job in the Netherlands (losers) are making a hash of their Dutch. What it boils down to is that Dutch is becoming a bit of a nuisance. It is more trouble than it’s worth. So why not solve all our problems and simply abolish it. Job It won’t happen from one day to the next but with a bit of effort we could manage the job in two to three generations. And with the numbers of people willing to take up the cause who’s going to stop us? It would be terribly easy really. We start by switching all master’s degrees to English, followed by the bachelor’s degrees. The latter will be hugely popular of course because they will prepare the eager student for his English language master’s degree. At the same time we make sure that the secondary school students are increasingly taught in English. Parents want their children to do well when they get to university and they will be pleased to send them to an English language secondary school, after English language kindergarten and primary school. Preparation and starting young is all. Omelette It will take some time but it’s doable. There will be a phase (say the first ten to fifteen years) which will see some students fall by the board who would have done well had classes been in Dutch, but, hey, this is collateral damage. What is one generation in the grand scheme of things? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. There will also come a time in which inequality will be even greater than we think it is now. We will have reared an elite which no longer knows how to express itself in Dutch. Kith and kin The different layers in our society, our kith and our kin, will literally no longer speak the same language. This will cause some resentment in those who are left behind but here we come back to the eggs and the omelette. This phase, too, will pass. The phasing out of Dutch will quickly have an effect on literature. Authors will no longer write in Dutch because they no longer know how. They will write in English so all English speaking nations will be able to enjoy our literature without the aid of a translator. Eventually Would they want to? We don’t really know. The fact that the Chinese would still be unable to read our books is something we will have to sort out at a later date. Would it be such a terrible thing if the Dutch language became surplus to requirements? Dozens of languages bite the dust every single year so what does it matter if Dutch were eventually to be one of them? It would matter not one jot, especially if you look at all the wonderful things we are getting in return. This column appeared in Dutch in the Volkskrant. For those puzzled about what he really thinks, here's one Rint Sybesma wrote earlier.  More >


The Netherlands has an unhealthy obsession with statistics

Rankings praising the Dutch health system abound in the media but what do the results really say about the Netherlands?, asks DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. If you read the Dutch press, it cannot have escaped your attention that not so long ago the Dutch health service was again ranked one of the best in the world. We foreigners may moan about over-inquisitive receptionists when visiting our family doctor and the fondness for paracetamol, but in terms of our health we are actually lucky to be living here. Yes, in May, the Netherlands came in ninth place in a ranking of almost 200 countries by The Lancet magazine. The ranking was compiled by looking at how likely you are to survive various nasty diseases, including tuberculosis, whooping cough and measles – 32 different ailments in total. Contrast this then, with a survey published in early 2015 by Sweden’s Health Consumer Powerhouse. It put the Dutch health service at the top of a ranking of 36 different European countries for the second year running. Why did the Dutch do well? Accessibility and the lack of government interference. Ministry Or what about research by the Commonwealth Fund think-tank in America, which put the Netherlands at the top of a list of 11 western countries in terms of its healthcare system. That research was published at the end of last year and led to a lengthy and proud analysis on the Dutch health ministry’s own website, complete with comment from the minister. What is really striking about all these rankings is not that the Dutch healthcare system does so well, but the fact the rankings themselves gather so many column inches. Dutch reporting on all this success also invariably includes the phrase ‘not bad for a kleine kikkerland’ – a little frog country - which is how the Dutch seem to like to describe their homeland. What this choice little phrase really illustrates is that perhaps the reason for the obsession with rankings is an enormous minority complex. Research Be it healthcare, or happiness or kindness to animals (someone must be researching that one) you can guarantee your research will get published if the Dutch are doing well. At DutchNews.nl too we are guilty of this. A quick hunt through the archives reveals that the Netherlands has moved up into fourth place in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of the most competitive countries. The Netherlands is the sixth happiest country in the world, tops a ranking of the world’s most proficient at English, Dutch men are the world’s tallest and there are seven Dutch people in Forbes’ ranking of 300 under 30… the list is endless. These stories invariably do well on our social media platforms – foreigners too like to share Dutch success stories – and inevitably help spread the name of the compiling organisation. Want to launch a new brand? Come up with a list which is topped by the Dutch and free publicity could be yours. Children's rights Not all rankings are good news, however. Perhaps the most bizarre ranking in recent months was the one produced by the KidsRights Foundation which looked into children’s rights and put the Netherlands in 15th place behind Thailand, Tunisia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The poor Dutch performance was due to its trailing in two of the five key categories – education and the environment. In terms of education, the Netherlands was rated 58th in a list which had Egypt in 5th place and Bangladesh in 17th. The research was carried out together with Rotterdam’s Erasmus University which, in case you are wondering, said the Dutch decline ‘reflects the concerns about children in the Netherlands who live in poverty, and on cuts that also affect families and children with a minimum income’. So where does Erasmus figure in all those rankings of the world’s best universities? They show an equally confusing picture. Take the QS World University Rankings for example, which last year said Amsterdam was the top-rated Dutch university, followed by Delft, and had just two Dutch institutions in the top 100. The Times Higher Education ranking, however, puts Delft in the lead of the Dutch pack and had five Dutch institutions in the top 100. But QS also put Delft as second best in the world for civil and structural engineering. Confused? It gets even stranger when you add in the ranking compiled by Jia Tong University in Shanghai, which puts Utrecht top of the Dutch institutions, followed by Groningen. Last month also saw the publication of a new list which said the Netherlands is home to the most problem drinkers in Europe, apart from Ireland and Denmark. It was a stark little statistic that also generated lots of newspaper headlines but in fact should have been consigned to the bin. ‘Forty percent of Dutch men are problematic drinkers compared with 25% worldwide,’ the results stated. When it comes to women, 27% have an alcohol problem, compared with 20% on a global basis. Shocking figures indeed, but perhaps not that shocking when you dig a little deeper and discover the Dutch sample of some 3,000 people had an average age of 23. The sample also included way more youngsters with a college or university education than the population at large and was overwhelmingly white. You might have well as headlined the article ‘Dutch frat boys drink a lot’ and be done with it. This article was first published in the Xpat Journal  More >


Male circumcision is ‘violation of bodily integrity’ and should be banned

Male circumcision is ‘violation of bodily integrity’ and should be banned

A ban on male circumcision should be put on the political agenda, say Wouter van Erkel and Koen Sijtsema of D66’s youth wing Jonge Democraten. In the Netherlands thousands of boys, both Jewish and Muslim, are circumcised for religious reasons every year. Estimates range between 10,000 and 15,000 circumcisions carried out in this country annually. Campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali highlighted the issue years ago but every time circumcision is subject of a public debate, politicians shy away from putting it up for discussion in parliament. That is a great shame, because non-therapeutic male circumcision is an infringement of fundamental rights. The fact is that male circumcision (as is female circumcision which, fortunately, has already been banned) is a violation of the integrity of the body. Often parental autonomy is used as an argument to allow this violation to take place. That is a nonsense. Of course parents are at liberty to raise their children the way they like but the line should be drawn at circumcision. Child protection services A parent who wants to remove, say, his child’s earlobe based on a decree of God would soon be dealing with police and child protection services. So why should the removal of a boy’s foreskin be any different? Doctors’ association KNMG put it that the medical advantages of circumcision, if any, are way outnumbered by the risks and other disadvantages, such as the loss of up to 30% of erogenous tissue. The association’s findings were supported by associations of paediatricians, urologists and paediatric surgeons. There is, of course, nothing wrong with circumcisions that are carried out for medical reasons, and the same goes for adults who decide, for whatever reason, to have the operation. The problem starts when freedom of religion is used as an argument to submit a child to circumcision. Religious marker Freedom of religion implies that every person is free to adhere to any religion they like. That freedom must under no circumstances include the infliction of a religious, permanent marker on another person. Then one person’s freedom curtails the freedom of another. Then there is the aesthetic argument for circumcision. A circumcised penis is simply more attractive, Ali B. once explained in a television show. He is entitled to his opinion but it is no reason to subject children to circumcision. We are not talking about sticking-out ears, after all. A child may well experience psychological damage from having big ears. But if a child is happy the way it is those ears should remain the way they are. The rules for surgery on children are strict, and that is a good thing. Underground We are not advocating an immediate ban on circumcision. Our fear is that the moment that happens this deplorable practice will go into underground and we will lose sight of it completely. Our proposal is to discourage circumcision by increasing the minimum age for circumcision step by step and to legally oblige parents who register their child to be circumcised to adhere to an informed period of reflection. This will allow the realisation that circumcision is not right to take hold in religious communities. A future total ban will then be easier and safer to impose. A woman is boss of her own belly; a man should be boss of his own penis. This column appeared earlier in the NRC   More >


The new Dutch cabinet must get its Economy 4.0 act together

The new Dutch cabinet must get its Economy 4.0 act together

The new cabinet can only be successful if its economic policy is geared towards the new economy, or 4.0, say economists Rick van der Ploeg and Willem Vermeend The unstoppable progress of digitalisation and new technologies in the next few decades will ring in huge changes around the world. This combination, also called Economy 4.0, in tandem with globalisation and the impact of measures to combat climate change, will revolutionise economies everywhere. Its impact is already becoming clear: companies who failed to take 4.0 seriously have been falling by the wayside. Preparation The Netherlands too will have to deal with far-reaching social and economic developments which, at the moment, do not seem to inspire a great sense of urgency. Education, which should be at the forefront of any new development, is still firmly stuck in the ‘old’ world of 3.0 and is training people for obsolete jobs. There has been no sign of any serious preparation for 4.0 in education as yet. The same goes for politics and many businesses for whom digitalisation, innovative technology and climate change are just so many abstract terms. What this revolution is mainly about is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in all sectors, the Internet of Things, Big Data, bio and nanotechnology, robotics, drones, virtual reality and photonics (microchips which process data using light instead of electricity). In various countries, the Netherlands among them, scientists are working on a so-called quantum computer which will be millions of times faster than traditional computers. Dark sides of 4.0 This tech economy will turn every existing business model on its head. Countries at the forefront of the application of digitalisation and smart tech are the winners of 4.0. But they will have to cope with its darker sides as well. The consequences for the labour market will be enormous. A lack of technically trained people is already making itself felt, while at the same time an increasing number of ‘wrongly’ trained people are failing to find jobs. Governments will also have to devise a way to prevent a gap from opening up between citizens who profit from the new economy and those who will be left behind. Income inequality will increase as well. World 4.0 If companies want to survive in Economy 4.0 they will have to look for new business models. Government policy measures dating from 3.0 will no longer cut it. The labour market of the future, which has already begun, will look nothing like our current one. But still politicians are discussing 3.0 measures instead of concentrating their efforts on the 4.0 labour market. In many countries people are worried about the consequences of automation for employment. They are afraid they will be replaced by smart software programmes and robots. According to the World Economic Forum report ‘The Future of Jobs’ automation and robots will account for the net loss of five million jobs up to and including 2020. For the Netherlands the likely outcome will be that approximately a third of the present eight million jobs will be affected by Economy 4.0. Some 10% will disappear altogether while the rest will be taken over by smart software programmes and robots. So far policy makers in the Hague have failed to come up with a satisfactory response to this development. Tax systems 3.0 The current tax systems, which were designed for 3.0 and based on the physical economy, will disappear. 4.0 will make them completely obsolete. Tinkering with the 3.0 systems is a waste of time. The digital economy demands simple, broadly based tax systems and new types of charging systems in which digitalisation and blockchain technologies will play a part. Old fashioned tax systems based on equalising income via stepped tax rates will be scrapped everywhere. Tax 4.0 will be broadly based, with few deductions and no fiscal facilities. Tax on labour will be reduced and shift to consumption.  Countries that stick to 3.0 systems and high tax rates will lose companies, jobs and talented workers. The digital economy knows no borders and this makes it easier to work or start a business in fiscally friendly countries. Political parties who think this will not have much of an impact should think again. In most countries we are seeing that companies and workers are increasingly inclined to flee high taxes. The tax man will have an easy job of it. The systems will be digital and work with artificial intelligence and smart algorithms to detect and combat tax evasion and fraud. A pipe dream, you say? Not a bit of it. If the new cabinet begins work on a new system straight away, by 2022 the Netherlands could be the first country in the world to have a 4.0 tax system up and running. Smart cabinet Economy 4.0 should be the central starting point for the new cabinet. Both government and businesses must concentrate their efforts on digitalisation and new technologies and be quick about it. The same goes for education. Work must also start on a package of measures to deal with the negative aspects of 4.0. As far as climate policy is concerned our advice is to refrain from ineffective, 3.0 fiscal measures which damage the economy and employment while the financial burden is carried mainly by lower income groups. What they will not do is help the climate. Innovation will save the earth Our planet deserves better. It can only be saved by replacing fossil fuels with sustainable alternatives and for that we need innovative technologies. The cabinet must invest tens of billions of euros in R&D to speed up energy transition and recruit green tech smart start-ups from all over the world to work in this country. Only then can the Netherlands become a true climate champion. This column appeared earlier in the Telegraaf  More >


The Netherlands must be seen to be open for business: D66

The Netherlands has to protect its own companies but must be seen to open for business at the same time, says D66 MP Jan Paternotte. An open economy is good for the Netherlands. At the same time we must prevent Dutch companies from becoming an easy prey for American companies on a shopping spree. A compulsory cooling-off period in the case of a hostile takeover, as suggested by former CEOs Jan Hommen and Hans Weijers, would be a good way of creating a bit of much-needed breathing space. Companies will then have an opportunity of offering shareholders an alternative. Recently three Dutch companies have been the objects of unwanted corporate attention: PostNL, Unilever and AkzoNobel. The American company PPG announced it could launch a hostile bid on AkzoNobel at any given moment. There are several European countries with a political and cultural tradition of building defensive walls around ‘their’ national companies. You may have shares in a French company but ownership is a matter for the Élysée. Non! When Pepsi tried to take over Danone in 2006 the French government countered with a resolute ‘Non!’. It did not matter what the shareholders thought: this French flagship was not going to become American. With the help of the unions the French authorities increased the pressure and Danone remained French. Such thick defensive walls would not do for the Netherlands. This country profits from having an open economy. Take Heineken, for instance, which buys up breweries all over the world, and is now the second largest brewer in the world. Or AkzoNobel, whose second name refers to the Swedish company bought by Dutch Akzo. Some political parties want special committees to determine if takeovers are in line with government policy. That would not be a good move: the Netherlands must be seen to be open for business. National control Of course there are some companies, telecom companies among them, which should remain under national control. But Akzo’s paint and Unilever’s peanut butter are hardly vital for national security. The Netherlands can’t afford to be naïve, however. The dollar is high against the euro and interest rates are low. American stock exchanges are showing record highs as big companies are factoring in great expectations from the Trump administration. For American companies Dutch companies are now relatively cheap. That is how Kraft-Heinz felt able to take on a larger company like Unilever, which promptly got rid of its margarine division in a bid to appease its shareholders. Today’s takeovers are not what they were. Kraft (now Kraft-Heinz) took over British company Cadbury but failed to honour promises made over the continuation of 400 jobs at a factory. The company is good at keeping costs down but does not do very well on sustainability and long-term innovation. The takeover bid for AkzoNobel involved a group of shareholders convicted of insider trading by a French court. Healthy profits The takeover of an ailing company can be a good thing. But Unilever and Akzo are booking healthy profits. That is why a level playing field must be created in the Netherlands and Europe. The extent of the political intervention in the economy in France and Southern Europe is well-known but Germany and the United Kingdom also have protective measures in place. Germany has fewer listed companies and unions have a powerful voice in takeover negotiations. In Britain, Theresa May was one of the first to announce government intervention when the bid for Unilever was announced. In the US Trump has announced his own protectionist policies. In a level European playing field, a trading nation like the Netherlands would never have to be afraid of the competition. It is important, moreover, that European countries should not become involved in a battle of protectionist measures. We must prevent the western world from becoming engulfed in a wave of protectionism and that is why Europe too must put the subject on the agenda. This column was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >