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


Local councils are getting creative: work participation through humiliation

Local councils are getting creative: work participation through humiliation

Councils are becoming creative when it comes to work participation and using methods such as humilation to make people find jobs, says economist Marcel Canoy.There is quite a creative buzz going on among local councillors in the Netherlands. Now that budgets for sheltered workplaces have been cut, lots of local councils are coming up with bright new schemes to revive them.Local councillors in Apeldoorn thought it would be a waste to let all the knowledge and skills of sheltered workplace staff go to waste.The thinking in Apeldoorn is that people on unemployment benefits are basically a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic so why not make them tighten nuts and bolts for a couple of weeks? With a bit of luck they will feel humiliated enough to go out and find a job. Hey presto: the sheltered workplaces are humming and the number of benefit pay-outs go down.StickersI wonder what the next step will be. Putting stickers on the foreheads of people on benefits and showing them off at street markets? While we’re at it we might as well put the PVV’s idea into practice and bring some colour to our streets by introducing pink clad criminals in chain gangs.Hoofddorp councillors are getting creative too. Hoofddorp happens to be home to AM group, one of the most successful sheltered workplace providers in the country. In 2011 it was given an ‘Investors in People’ reward for its approach. AM group managed to place 60% of people with a work-limiting disability in regular jobs, a result not many sheltered workplaces can equal.MistakeThe director of AM group made an important mistake. Instead of spending the money on frippery or useless real estate he created a sturdy buffer of a couple of million euros. Oh dear. The board, comprised of the fiercely competitive local councillors of the five local councils involved, had a brainwave: why not fire the entire staff and divvy up the millions?What was left was a number of very distressed people looking at the smoking remains of what was once a great sheltered workplace. What a coup! A more blatant case of daylight robbery has yet to materialise, but perhaps it will.FarceThe work participation law for the disabled will turn into a farce if councils approach vulnerable people with demonstrably ineffective methods. The decentralisation of social security will only work if councils don’t behave like Apeldoorn or Hoofddorp.From Rotterdam to Enschede too many local councils like the sound of medieval measures like humiliation and stigmatisation, destroying successful initiatives and spending as little as they can get away with. If we have to go down the sticker road I propose we slap one on the councils saying: Humiliation is the new participation.Marcel Canoy is an economist and lecturer at the Erasmus School of Accounting & Assurance.This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad.  More >


Don’t panic, the robots are coming

Don’t panic, the robots are coming

Robotisation is not as bad as it is made out to be, writes economist Mathijs Bouman.Against all established rules of column writing, I’m starting this one with a lengthy quote. Here it comes: ‘A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different from those of the industrial era as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural. The cybernation revolution has been brought about by the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine. This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor. Cybernation is already reorganizing the economic and social system to meet its own need.’It’s an extremely creepy view of the future, and long-winded to boot. Here’s a slightly less ponderous version.‘A future of almost unlimited production by a handful, for consumption by whoever can afford it, is a recipe for economic and social collapse.’Taking jobsYou catch the authors’ drift: the robot is coming and it’s going to take your job away. You will be jobless and poor while the owner of the robot factory rakes it in.The second quote was taken from a panicky article on the World Economic Forum posted by former labour minister Robert Reich entitled ‘Why automation means we need a new economic model’.The first quote is slightly older. It’s from an open letter written by 35 prominent American scientists, journalists and union leaders addressed to the president of their country. The name of the president was Lyndon B. Johnson and the year 1964.Greater rateHalf a century later we find ourselves in an era in which technology is developing at a greater rate than ever before. Technological advances destroyed jobs but also created new and better paid jobs. Unemployment didn’t grow. Prosperity did.And yet in 2015 here we are once again worrying about the combination computer/machine. Fear of technology is clearly one of mankind’s strongest primal instincts. The simple image of job-stealing robots plays on that fear and it’s difficult to convince people they’ve got it wrong.DataTwo courageous economists recently gave it a go. Georg Graetz of the University of Uppsala and Guy Michaels of the London School of economics collected data on robotisation, productivity and jobs for fourteen sectors in seventeen countries. Their dataset described the developments between 1993 and 2007 and only took into account robots and industry.In the Netherlands robots are not exactly plentiful. ‘Robot density’, defined by Graetz and Michaels as the number of industrial robots per million hours worked, was 0.79 here in 2007. Few countries have a lower robot density. In Spain it was 1.6 and Germany 4.4.These numbers are mainly based on developments in the car industry. Nowhere is the use of robots so widespread as in this sector, Graetz and Michaels found. The steel sector comes in a close second.Economic growthDid these countries and sectors experience job loss on a major scale? Not at all, is the clearest Graetz and Michaels can put it. They didn’t find a relationship between robot density and the number of hours worked. They did find a relationship with economic growth. More robots lead to more prosperity. Without the increase in robotisation we would have missed out on an annual growth of 0.36 percentage point from 1993. One-tenth of economic growth was down to robot use.Are there no losers then? Perhaps there are. Graetz and Michaels found indications that employment for low-skilled workers had suffered from robotisation. That loss was compensated by new jobs for the highly trained. Clearly education and additional training are of the utmost importance when it comes to combating the down-sides of technological advances. But it’s not worth getting into a panic about: there’s nothing new under the sun.Mathijs Bouman is a macro economistThis article was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Not registering as an organ donor will make you one, says D66

Not registering as an organ donor will make you one, says D66

People who do not register as an organ donor will automatically become one if D66 have their way.  MP Pia Dijkstra says this system will make people master of their own bodies.D66 wants an organ donation system in which the choice of every citizen is clear, not just because we value autonomy but also because we think it is up to each of us to decide what happens to our organs after death.In the present system not registering your choice means it is up to your relatives to make the choice. Not choosing effectively means burdening your relatives with the decision to donate or not. This is exactly what D66 wants to avoid. We want people to choose for themselves.LetterThe active donor registration system proposed by D66 comes down to this: each Dutch citizen of 18 years and over will receive a letter in which they will be asked to register their choice to become a donor or not. Those who do not react will receive a follow-up letter. The letter states clearly that those who do not register will be automatically registered as organ donors. The registration will be confirmed and can be changed at any time.What choice people make is up to them but choose they must. There are long waiting lists for organ transplants. As long as people die from a lack of organ donations each year we have to do our utmost to increase the number of donors.Data baseA donor organs ‘data base’ is a resource everyone should be able to access. Organ failure can happen to anyone. The chance that you will have to use this resource is greater than the chance you will donate your organs after death. Most Dutch citizens would like to be eligible for an organ transplant, surveys tell us.D66 thinks everybody should be eligible. It comes with being not only a liberal party but with being a social liberal party. But maintaining a resource like this means every citizen will have to make up his mind about donating.Self-determinationA comparison of the ADR (Active Donor Registration, DN) system with the present system of consent shows that self-determination is mainly achieved by NOT deciding. About 60% of people, or some seven million people, are not registered in the donor register.This means the decision is left to the relatives and they usually say no. Someone who may have wanted to donate but never registered his choice will not become a donor because the relatives decide otherwise, or the other way around.D66 wants people to make their own decisions. The ADR system gives people a chance to decide what happens to their organs after death, a decision they can change at will. In short, Dutch citizens are asked to actively be master of their own bodies. If that’s not liberal I don’t know what is.Pia Dijkstra is an MP for D66This article appeared earlier in Trouw  More >


Can we please vote for something that really matters?

Can we please vote for something that really matters?

Peter Paul de Vries thinks water boards are important but he would prefer to vote for a new mayor, or the head of the national bank. And against deals with criminals.Justice ministers Ivo Opstelten and Fred Teeven have stepped down. Proof of the payment of 4.7 million guilders to drugs dealer Cees H. surfaced and both politicians were caught fibbing.Whether they meant to or not is irrelevant. All this fuss about a receipt is obscuring what really matters: should the Dutch state hand over huge amounts of money to known criminals? What sort of example is that? Are we telling our children that criminality is a viable career choice? After all, the money’s great and if you play your cards right the government will give you a couple of million to boot.Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people are filling in their tax returns: mind you do it honestly! Sure.Health minister Edith Schippers thinks the appearance of the receipt just before an election is a little too convenient. How sweet. But Edith, that doesn’t mean what they did was right, does it? Fibbing about the amount was wrong. And paying out 4.7 million to criminals is even worse.ElectionsEdith is right, however: the upcoming elections are incredibly exciting and it’ll be a close-run thing. These are the provincial elections, no less! There’s something for everyone. Forgiving voters in Limburg, for example, can vote for Jos van Rey of the People’s Party of Limburg.But the most exciting elections are for the water boards. Lots of people think managing water is not very important but those people would be wrong. As you know, the VVD would like a big disparity in water levels. The Catholic half of the CDA wants holy water. The PVV wants the Greeks to pay up so we can strengthen the country’s defences against the sea and Labour wants level water tables throughout the country.Such is our democracy. It’s all about perception, fed by the small thud of our voting card dropping through the letterbox. Yay, I can vote! About water boards!Why can’t I just take it for granted that there are professionals in place who mind our dikes and filter our sewage at a reasonable price? How I would like to vote on stuff that really matters to me. Who will be the next mayor in my town or village, for instance. Or the new CEO of the Dutch National Bank. And, yes, even on whether or not the justice department should do deals with criminals. What I would vote? Against, that’s what.Peter Paul de Vries is a columnist for BNR Nieuwsradio and head of corporate finance firm Value8.  More >


‘Tell your sons and daughters to cure cancer, not become hedge fund managers’

‘Tell your sons and daughters to cure cancer, not become hedge fund managers’

Too many bankers, financial experts and insurers spoil the economic broth, writes economist Mathijs Bouman.Imagine a country with too many plumbers. It’s not simply a question of a lot of plumbers; there’s literally one on every corner. The plumbers have united in powerful associations of plumbers. Towns and cities vie for the association of plumbers’ HQ. The expenditure of the big plumbing firms spawn thousands of small service companies. The sector creates jobs, taxable income and forms an essential link in the national economy.Plumbing firms are a magnet for clever people who come up with ever-newer reasons for laying pipes and channelling water. Water to flush the toilet is delivered separately and shower water re-used. Drinking water comes in different flavours and compositions.It’s not all good news, however. Optimising the pipeline network means roads are constantly closed off for building work. Nobody can find a decent carpenter as all skilled workmen are plumbers. Having a lot of plumbers is fine but too many plumbers spoil the economy.CecchettiIt’s the same with bankers. The effects are not immediately obvious - a surplus of bankers doesn’t impede traffic – but too many bankers are just as bad for the economy as too many plumbers. That is what economist Stephen Cecchetti found after having delved into the subject for two years.Cecchetti is head of the economic department at the Bank for International Settlements (yes, that BIS, which a number of confused Dutch actors think is the main mover in a dastardly plot).Financial sector growth is good for the economy in principle, Cecchetti says. Banks are excellent at bringing together savers and borrowers, separating useful investments from insane ones and financial innovations, while insurers reduce risks for citizens and companies. But there is a tipping point. Beyond that point any further financial sector growth acts as a break on economic growth.SubprimeIt is at this point that the financial sector becomes a burden to the economy. Bankers start to devise mortgages for far too ambitious would-be home owners and sell swaps to financially dyslectic entrepreneurs. Short-term profit goes up and so do salaries and bonuses. Talented people flock to the sector like flies to honey.Cecchetti writes: ‘People who in another age might have dreamed of curing cancer or flying to Mars are now dreaming of becoming a hedge fund manager.’Based on figures garnered from fifty countries, Cecchetti computed that the tipping point is definitely reached when 3.9% of the population works in the financial sector. But he also thinks the threshold may lie significantly lower, i.e. at 1.5%. ‘Most first world economies passed the tipping point a long time ago,’ Cecchetti writes.His research shows that financial sector dominance underlies decisions to fund projects with pledged collateral and few risks (such as building projects) rather than higher risk projects without collateral (R&D). This lack of balance is causing a decline in productivity growth.So what’s the situation in the Netherlands? Do we have a glut of financial experts? It is very likely. In 2012, 3% of the working population had a job in the financial sector. It’s slightly down from the 3.5% of ten years ago but up from the 2.5% of the beginning of the seventies.Economic cakeBanks and insurers are also getting bigger portions of the economic cake. In 1969, 4.7% of gdp went to the financial sector. It is now 8.1%. Banks in particular have proliferated in the last twenty years. While the whole economy grew by two-thirds since 1988 the ‘production’ of banks shot up by 155%. Insurers only grew by a third.The most recent CBS statistics date from 2012 and percentages may have gone down further since then. But even if they have, the Netherlands is still past the tipping point. So if you have a clever son or daughter tell them to become a rocket scientist or a cancer researcher. Or even a plumber. But whatever you do don’t tell them to become a banker.Mathijs Bouman is an economist.This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


New rules for returning art stolen by Nazis are not always fair

New rules for returning art stolen by Nazis are not always fair

Dozens of works of art in Dutch museums may have been 'acquired' by the Nazis during WWII when their owners were coerced into selling. And if museums can claim a looted work of art is central to their collection, the heirs of those pre war collectors may be left empty-handed, warns lawyer Gert-Jan van den Bergh.'Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard must have known that what they were buying was stolen by the Nazis,’ former journalist Cees van Hoore said about the purchase of a Flemish master by the royal couple in 1948. In an article headlined ‘Juliana bought, perhaps unwittingly, art stolen from Jewish families’, journalist Michiel Kruit gives them the benefit of the doubt.In 2014, a Meissen dinner servic bought by the then queen, now on show at Palace Het Loo, was branded Nazi loot. The palace said it would return the set if the official Restitution Committee were to advise in favour. Museums as well as the royals are not opposed to art restitution. The question is whether the current policy remains the right way of going about it.Washington principlesIn 1998, the art restitution policy was adapted according to the Washington principles. The treaty offers guidelines on how to restore works of art stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners. Some 44 countries subscribed to the principles, including the Netherlands which only last year was praised by the Claims Conference, the international organisation for Jewish war claims.But praise aside, the Dutch restitution policy leaves much to be desired. Recently MP Jasper van Dijk (Socialist Party) wondered why the restitution committee doesn’t have an appeals procedure. It’s a good question. The possibilities to review the advice of the committee are limited and review requests have been fruitless so far.Balance of interestThere is another committee criterion which is almost impossible to explain. In many cases – and it will become standard procedure from July 1 - the committee will balance the museum’s interests against those of the claimants. Even if the theft is undisputed, a work can be found to be too vital to a collection to be returned. In 2013, the heirs of German-Jewish refugee Richard Semmel were left empty-handed after their claim was refused on this ground. The stolen painting in question – Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Bernado Strozzi – remained in De Fundatie in Zwolle because of its importance to the collection.Apart from the museum’s interest, the advice is also informed by the number of years a work of art is in the possession of the current owner. This means that the fiercely disputed statute of limitations argument is brought in again by the back door in spite of former culture minister Ronald Plasterk’s assertion in 2007 that new claims would not be subject to it.Dutch collectionThe Restitution Committee advises on the return of works from the Nederlandse Kunstbezitcollectie (Dutch art collection or NK collection), a collection of 3,800 works of art which were returned to the country from Germany after the Second World War and of which 3,200 still haven’t been returned to their rightful owners.Oddly enough, the Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed (Cultural Heritage of the Netherlands), which manages the collection, claims ownership for the Dutch State. To date, 20,000 works of art have been reported missing and chance discoveries are still made, such as the aforementioned Meissen dinner set which is being claimed by the Gutmann family. The recent Museum Provenance Investigation from 1933, which has so far identified 139 works of dubious provenance in national museums, should have commented on the fact but didn’t.The investigation does show that even after 70 years new claims can emerge. The digitalisation of archives and a growing social awareness of the past make heirs more active in their pursuit of ownership. Against all expectations, however, the rules surrounding restitution are going to change: from June 30 claims on all works in the NK collection will be subject to a balance of interests.ExpertsThe royal family have announced they will put the claims on looted art to a committee in which experts on looted art Rudi Ekkart and former director of the Jewish Historical Museum Judith Belinfante will have a seat. The question is whether this committee will be applying the same criteria as the Restitution Committee and apply the controversial balance of interest test.A rejection of the claim to return a painting by the Flemish master Paul Bril to its rightful owner could, in that case, be based on either the fact that the work is too important to the existing collection or the fact that it has been in the possession of the royal family since 1948.The internationally accepted guidelines as they are described in the Washington Principles do not recognise exceptions such as these. Justice for the heirs of Holocaust victims is emphatically incompatable with any (indirect) recourse to a statute of limitation or the importance of a looted work of art to public collections.As Ronald Lauder, philanthropist and president of the World Jewish Congress, said on June 2014: ‘Art museums should not be built with stolen property.’Gert-Jan van den Bergh is a lawyer.This opinion piece was published earlier in the Volkskrant    More >


The cool self-employed don’t demonstrate

The cool self-employed don’t demonstrate

More people than ever are self-employed, a logical result of the crisis and the tax breaks accorded to them. But more needs to be done for those who barely subsist on their earnings, writes professor Erik Stam.One in six working people in the Netherlands is self-employed, usually as a zzper (literally: an independent worker without personnel, DN). According to the Netherlands institute for social research SCP, 15% of this group lives below the poverty line. It’s a problem that needs to be tackled urgently but whether zzpers will actually make the trek to the Malieveld to support their cause remains to be seen.Appreciation for the self-employed varies greatly. Former small and medium-sized firms' association MKB chairman Hans de Boer once called them Zwakzinnigen Zonder Pensioen (madmen without a pension). Research institute Panteia, however, regards them as a driving force for innovation, and Hans de Boer, this time in his role as chairman of employers’ association VNO-NCW, sees them as ‘a valued contribution to the varied landscape of the market place.’TrendsThe explosion of the number of self-employed in the Netherlands can be explained by three main trends and conditions: advantageous fiscal measures to promote self-employment, the rise of a culture of entrepreneurship and the changing face of labour.The 1990s saw the start of the promotion of independent entrepreneurship. In the last 15 years this trend continued, helped by increasingly generous self-employment-related tax breaks. Starting a company has become an attractive option: income up to €20,000 is hardly taxed at all. This means that ‘marginal’ entrepreneurship remains relatively attractive as far as income is concerned.AlternativeIn times of economic crises, the first thing that happens is a rise in unemployment and strikers protesting on the Malieveld in The Hague. The reason it didn’t happen this time is that for many who lost their job the alternative to becoming an independent entrepreneur was a much more attractive one.In the Netherlands, it’s much cooler to say to the other mums and dads at the football field or your friends at a birthday party that you’re starting a business than it is to tell them you’ve applied for benefits. The trek to the Malieveld becomes a trek to the attic room to set up shop independently. Increasingly students, too, like the idea of becoming entrepreneurs.FlexibleMeanwhile big companies are shrinking fast and so are the chances of lifelong employment. In many sectors Dutch labour laws and regulations are seen as restrictive and, increasingly, regular workers become people with more flexible contracts or are self-employed.In short, the Dutch welfare state is making it attractive to become self-employed, whether it means to or not. This development goes hand-in-hand with a culture in which entrepreneurship is valued more and labour flexibility is becoming the norm .AdaptThe Dutch welfare state needs to adapt to the changing reality of the labour market. If we want a sustainable society, poverty among the self-employed needs to be addressed, now and in the future. More importantly, earning capacity needs to be improved. This means that expansion of promising start-ups needs to be encouraged. Initiatives like Neelie Kroes’ StartupDelta and changes to labour market regulations are steps in the right direction.Dutch employers should accommodate the entrepreneurship of their workers in greater measure, inside and outside the company. This would mean abolishing the non-competition clause.Last but not least, the government should take up the challenge of removing obstacles to the creation of new networks of independent entrepreneurs so solo entrepreneurs with other businesses can be quick to spot and seize new opportunities.Erik Stam is professor of Strategy, Organisation & Entrepreneurship at Utrecht UniversityThis column appeared earlier on Sociale Vraagstukken    More >


It is not done to drink expensive wine in the land of being normal

In the country where senior civil servants ride bikes, not being 'normal' and drinking expensive wine was the downfall of MP Mark Verheijen, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe.The loss of VVD parliamentarian Mark Verheijen came at a somewhat inopportune time for the party – just days ahead of the launch of the provincial election campaign.But, after weeks of media pressure, the MP has done the decent thing and stood down. As long as there are doubts about his integrity, he said, he cannot do his job.You would think by the newspaper coverage given to Verheijen that he had fiddled his expenses to the tune of tens of thousands of euros rather than organise a free party for the VVD, wrongly declare a dinner with expensive wine and pay for a train trip with the wrong company card.But such are the heinous crimes that can bring down a politician in the Netherlands. Prime minister Mark Rutte has gone so far that he does not declare any expenses at all so there is no discussion about how much he spends on his lunch.BikeI remember years ago being at a function at the British ambassador’s house in The Hague, attended by a couple of very senior civil servants and a handful of British journalists who had been flown over for the occasion.I walked back to the tram stop with one of them as he watched incredulously as one of the Binnenhof mandarins came out of the building, got on his bike and cycled off into the distance, trouser legs flapping.My companion could not believe that someone so senior would cycle back to the office from an embassy function. But there was not a chauffeur-driven car in sight. This was, I explained to him, perfectly normal in the Netherlands and even the prime minister was known to cycle to the office.Being normal is a way of life. Ask the Dutch about their true psyche and they are likely to tell you it is all based on doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg - which roughly translates as ‘just act normal, that’s crazy enough’.LiceThe then-princess Máxima learned this Dutch down to earth-ness the hard way when she took her turn as nit mother at her daughters’ school. Having your hair checked by the future queen for lice – so normal on the one hand because she's your mate's mum. But on the other, so bizarre you have to wonder if it really did happen.But ‘not acting normal’ is what did it for Mark Verheijen, not the fact that he got his expenses in a muddle.The one thing that stands out in all the coverage is that repeated reference to the bottles of wine which cost €127. That is what brought him down. No politician in the Netherlands drinks wine that cost €127 – or at least would admit to doing so. If only he’d ordered the house red at €18 a bottle he’d still be in a job.  More >


Expenses claims must be checked before they cause unnecessary fall-out

Expenses claims must be checked before they cause unnecessary fall-out

Where people work hard, mistakes will be made, writes Annemarie van Gaal.Some three or four years ago MP Mark Verheijen, then a member of the provincial government of Limburg, made a mistake in his expenses claim. He entered five or perhaps six chauffeur-driven trips from Limburg to the Randstad for functions unrelated to his job. That was stupid, granted, but during that same time he probably worked hundreds or perhaps thousands of unpaid hours as well.A flawed expenses claim is never a good thing but mistakes do occur, especially when people are working very hard and the rules aren’t very clear, or not to hand. Verheijen admitted his mistake, said he’d been stupid and would pay the money back straight away. Case closed you’d think.But no, not in politics. There’s going to be an integrity commission after the event which will pronounce on ‘the facts, the seriousness and Verheijen’s culpability’. With the elections not too far off, some politicians are practising their most sincere expressions and are already clamouring for his departure.BookkeeperI want to take this opportunity to talk to you about Nico. Nico is in his fifties and a bookkeeper for a large company in Haarlem. Diplomacy isn’t Nico’s strong suit. Nuances aren’t his cup of tea either. Nico takes his job very seriously and every claim is painstakingly scrutinised. Nothing goes through without Nico’s say so.One of the sales managers declares four beers at Schiphol airport and Nico has him in the office pronto. Even his boss is invited to sit in. The manager explains he had a three-hour delay and bumped into some important business relations who had given him lots of orders in the past. After a few rounds he decided it was time he treated them. Nico is not convinced and it’s with the greatest reluctance he agrees to pay out the money. Nico is never happier than when he spots a mistake which he can rectify.Why are we spending time, energy and money on checking things after the fact? Things will slip through the cracks and in an environment where people work extremely hard this will happen even more frequently. Why doesn’t the world of politics have a Nico of its own? Why is there no financial department where people check expenses and alert politicians if they’ve made a mistake? They know the rules after all. Let politicians concentrate on their jobs and let Nico rectify mistakes before they can do any damage and cause a lot of hullabaloo afterwards.Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and investor   More >


V&D’s private equity owners fail to show business acumen

V&D’s private equity owners fail to show business acumen

V&D is tired and looks as if it’s fighting a losing battle. And its owner isn’t helping, writes Jan Maarten Slagter.At the end of the 1980s, V&D was struggling to shed its tired image. Then, as now, shopping at the store was not a pleasure but a necessity: you were out of socks, or you needed a pencil case. They had all you needed but nothing that made you dream.The management of V&D realised this and in a rare moment of self-knowledge set about developing a new concept for the store’s in-house restaurants. Until then, the V&D restaurant experience had the boring uniformity of a motorway service area: coffee and a cheap piece of apple tart from the freezer was the best they had to offer.OppositeAll that had to change and V&D decided to ask its customers what they thought a typical V&D restaurant would look like. They made a list and then came up with its exact opposite: La Place was everything you wouldn’t expect to find at V&D. The restaurant chain went on the become the most popular bit of V&D and has been for years.You wonder why they couldn’t have done the same for the rest of the store.It’s probably too late now – V&D is fighting a desperate rear guard battle for survival. Owner private equity investor Sun European Partners seems to be doing its utmost to make sure it won’t win. Venture capitalists don’t have much of a reputation and Sun’s is somewhere near the bottom. It’s as if they have been reading the handbook ‘How to negotiate effectively’ upside down.RidiculousIf you are holding all the cards and you’re opponent is dependent on you, you can perhaps afford to do the dictating, even if such a course isn’t always wise. But when you’re down yourself you’re only making yourself look ridiculous – like a king who, from his burning castle, calls out to the advancing troops that he’ll give them one last chance to surrender.How else to interpret the letter V&D sent to its landlords? ‘The management has decided to put in place the following measures concerning the real estate occupied by the company: a rent-free period of four months (…). V&D is expecting a commitment from all landlords to contribute in this way to the future sustainability of the company in the present market circumstances.’ Not once does the word ‘please’ figure in the letter.One-sidedAnd then there’s the one-sided decision to cut all staff salaries by 5.8%. If that is what you want to do, you would do better to cosy up to the unions first, not confront them with a fait accompli. This measure is conceivably even more stupid than the arrogant letter the landlords received. It is hardly in V&D’s interest to arouse the anger of the whole of their staff in one fell swoop.Better to cite ‘present market circumstances’ to make surplus staff redundant and give a substantial raise to those you think you can win the battle with. And do it before the best and the brightest leave the sinking ship, because sink it will if V&D doesn’t change its tune.Private equity should bring business acumen and intelligence to a company. Sun is doing the opposite.Jan Maarten Slagter teaches at Nyenrode Business University and is a member of the Nyenrode Corporate Governance Institute.This column appeared earlier in the Financiële Telegraaf  More >