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


‘The Dutch government needs to do more cost benefit analyses’

‘The Dutch government needs to do more cost benefit analyses’

What Jesse Klaver, newly-appointed GroenLinks leader, calls ‘economism’ could well be the life-line of compassion in society instead of its nemesis, writes economist Mathijs Bouman.Lesson 1 in the Politician’s Handbook: create an enemy. Choose an element in society which will serve as a scapegoat. Provide people with a focus for their anger. Then promise to eliminate the problem.It’s not a lesson wasted on Jesse Klaver. During his first speech as the new leader of GroenLinks he revealed the party’s latest enemy: ‘economism’. Public debate in our society is dominated by it, says Klaver. Every aspect of our society is reduced to a simple cost and benefit calculation when all around us more important matters are pushed to the side lines. Justice, for instance, and sustainability. And, lest anyone forget, compassion.NihilismBeautiful words. At last here’s a party which promises to end the nihilism of the profit prophets, the efficiency preachers and the spreadsheet politicians. Down with the whiners about costs and benefits, long live compassion! This country has been ruled too long by bureaucratic bean counters whose favourite pastime is to torpedo great plans by coming up with uninspired arguments about viability and cost effectiveness. This dreary bookkeeper’s mentality is what ruined healthcare, destroyed art and changed schools into talent devouring factories.That is the perception. Now let’s have the truth. People who mind about costs and benefits are very few and far between in our government departments. Effectiveness is a paper tiger. Political interests will always prevail over economic arguments. Economism is sadly lacking in The Hague and that is why obscene amounts of money are being wasted.PoliticalPolitical, not economic, arguments convinced politicians to go ahead with the Betuwe railway line without looking into the little matter of a connection with the German railway system. It was politicians who dreamt up the expensive HSL tunnel under the empty fields in Zuid-Holland. No economist would have spent €11m on a train line sinking slowly into the muddy Dutch soil.Economists have warned for decades about the negative economic consequences of mortgage tax breaks, the poverty trap, an aging population, lack of investment in education and R&D, the failure to take environmental damage into account, obsolete labour market regulations and so on.Politicians do not make good listeners. If they take any measures at all, they usually come up with weak compromises which only address part of the problem. A bit more economism and a bit less ‘politicism’ would vastly improve policy-making.SubsidiesIn 2011, the audit office looked into the way the government evaluates subsidy schemes and it came up with some baffling results. The government spends around €6bn via 633 different subsidy regulations. Between 2005 and 2009, no more than 121 were evaluated. This is less than 20%.Most of the evaluations did not look at essential things, such as the effectiveness of the subsidy. Only 59 of the evaluations did, without much success. The audit office found only nine evaluations with a conclusion regarding effectiveness. In five cases effectiveness was deemed to be insufficient, and in four effectiveness was only partially sufficient. So of all the subsidies provided by the government we know that fewer than 1% are effective. About the rest no one has a clue.Tax cutsThe government not only doles out subsidies, it also tries to get things done via tax cuts. A lower tax on energy-saving cars and premium exemptions for small businesses are two examples. Every year the government spends €18.5bn on measures such as these. The audit office had a look at these as well.It turned out that fewer than half of the 86 tax measures in existence are evaluated for effectiveness. Of these, 28 were shown to be effective, a slightly better score than achieved by the subsidies although the government is still in the dark about whether over two-thirds of this tax expenditure is actually doing any good.If only more cost and benefit calculations were made in The Hague, of the simple kind that Klaver dislikes so much, we would have a more effective government and save a bit of money for policies, including the GroenLinks agenda. It’s economism that makes compassion affordable.This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


‘Five job killers are destroying employment in the Netherlands’

‘Five job killers are destroying employment in the Netherlands’

Five job killers are destroying employment in the Netherlands. Economists Willem Vermeend and Rick van de Ploeg take a look at ways of tackling them.According to figures out last week, the Dutch economy shows a 4% growth rate for the first quarter compared to the same period in 2014. A greater rate of investment, increased exports and greater consumer spending are fuelling this growth.At the same time, unemployment is hovering around the 7% mark. In spite of the plethora of measures set out in this cabinet’s Social Accord it shows no signs of going down.New jobsIn order to change this, new jobs are needed. Civil servant jobs and jobs at big companies are in decline and it’s the small and medium-sized businesses and start-ups who will have to step into the breach. But their efforts are being hindered by out-of-date social security regulations and tax and premium demands.This cabinet’s lack of foresight doesn’t help either: new jobs through digitalisation and new technologies will turn the labour market on its head but are hardly taken into consideration.Flex workThe rise of the new labour market, increasing international competition and turnover variability will induce employers to limit the number of fixed contracts. Expectations are that the so-called flexible layer will rise to 40% or even more. Many small businesses have already stopped hiring people on a fixed basis.More and more people will have to become self-employed. This country isn’t ready for a change like this and prime minister Mark Rutte's second cabinet is fighting a rear guard action with its Work and Social Security Act and its policy of trying to limit the number of self-employed.FailuresFailure is writ large in other areas as well. For instance, in matching education with labour market demand and promoting labour participation of the over-50s.According to the World Economic Forum, the Netherlands has plummeted from 4th to 8th place in the rankings for education, knowledge infrastructure and labour market participation. This is due mainly to the fact that the over-55s mainly work limited hours and the unemployment in this age group.Small businesses and start-upsIn order to promote employment, the Netherlands depends on small businesses and start-ups. But the climate for entrepreneurs is extremely poor. This kills off jobs and makes creating new ones very difficult. The main job killers are:1. High employers’ contributions which can mount up to around 30% of gross salaries.2. Sick pay for two years ( considered to be extreme internationally).3. Rigid fixed (collective) labour contracts which offer little room for tailor-made solutions.4. Government institutions causing a disproportionate administrative burden.5. Insufficient possibilities for business loans.Job killersIf employment is to grow, these five stumbling blocks will have to be removed first. Politicians will also have to guard against the introduction of new job killers, such as measures aimed at limiting the number of (badly needed) self-employed. Incomprehensibly, the state sees these people as an expense and potential candidates for fiscal cutbacks, completely ignoring the fact that they create their own work and pay taxes.Measures which limit their number will not only harm employment but will also generate less tax revenue for the state and bigger social security benefit pay outs. According to international research, increasing the national youth wage is another job killer. Those in favour have good arguments but should be honest enough to admit there will be fewer jobs available for youngsters. A much better solution would be to ease the cost pressure on youth wages so gross wages go up.This article appeared earlier in the Financiële Telegraaf  More >


‘Moralising about drug use doesn’t help, but neither does trivialising the problems’

‘Moralising about drug use doesn’t help, but neither does trivialising the problems’

It is not a good idea to be too cavalier - or moralistic - about drug use, write Ninette van Hasselt, Ferry Goossens and Margriet van Laar, who all work for the Trimbos addiction centre in Amsterdam.The world seems to be divided into two camps where drugs are concerned: the frivolous (what harm can it do) and the moralistic (using drugs is very, very bad). Recently, Loes Reijmer used an article in the Volkskrant to turn on the latter. Her arguments made sense but were a little bit one-sided. Her stance is that a drugs policy based on fact, not moral prejudice, will lead to regulation of xtc and a reduction in the problems caused by this drug. Can it be that simple?Reijmer supports her argument for legalising xtc with a study by the public health institute RIVM in which a list of drugs is drawn up according to harmfulness. Xtc is relatively low on the list. That doesn’t mean it is a harmless substance. The risk of death from xtc is high enough not to allow the drug to be used as medication very easily.LogicFrom this perspective legalisation would not be very logical. What is more, the RIVM study is based on research done into pills with a far lower dose of the mdma active ingredient than we are seeing now. The increased dosage has led to a significant increase in the number of xtc-induced health problems. The question is where on the list xtc would be in 2015. The frivolous will say alcohol still accounts for more health problems. But is that an argument to legalise xtc as well?The threshold for using a substance is lower when that substance is legally available. It is likely that legalisation will lead to increased use and more potential incidents: legal xtc is not safe xtc either. It is not only the ‘polluted’ pills or pills with a high dosage of mdma which determine the risk, but also the circumstances in which the drug is taken and the individual sensitivity of the user.InformationReijmers states that only in a regularised market can users be properly informed and that parents are able to have an effective dialogue with their children about drugs.This is a remarkable supposition. The Dutch government facilitates independent websites and initiatives which inform people about the risks of drug-taking and ways to minimise these risks. These reach a large audience, although it could be larger. But no other country in the world provides its citizens with such comprehensive, non-moralising information on drugs.WarningsVia drug rehabilitation centres, the Dutch government also gives out warnings when dangerous pills are in circulation. There is a monitoring system in place which offers users the opportunity to have their xtc tested. This unique system is now slowly gaining ground in other countries.It is true to say that parents have not always been served well where information is concerned and more will be done to enable parents to talk to their children about xtc, to debunk myths about drugs for moralistic parents and to provide information about the risks for frivolous ones. Moralism doesn’t get us anywhere but neither does trivialising the problems.This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


‘Councils are wasting public money with generous redundancy packages’

‘Councils are wasting public money with generous redundancy packages’

Local councils are wasting public money by giving over-generous and discriminatory severance packages to former staff, writes entrepreneur Annemarie van GaalLast week the Financieele Dagblad reported that the province of Zeeland may be out of pocket to the tune of several million euros because former employees of the provincial civil service are demanding a better severance deal and have gone to court to get it.I find that shocking for more than one reason. In 2012, the provincial authorities decided to cut down their permanent staff from 650 to 500 because they could do without the 150. Apparently the organisation had been carrying a quarter of its staff as surplus weight.That’s shock number one. At a time when companies are struggling and have to make the difficult decision to let staff go, the provincial authorities opted against ‘compulsory redundancies’ in favour of offering employees aged 57 or over to sit at home with 70% to 80% of their salaries until their pensions kick in.At 57 that will be at least ten years. That’s shock number two. It is government policy to get older workers back to work as quickly as possible but clearly the province prefers to write them off by paying them an exorbitant amount of money for sitting at home.Doing nothingSo 160 employees on an average income of around €66,000 are now receiving a gross income of €50,000 a month and are doing precisely nothing in return. Had they gone down the normal route they would have collected a €35,000 maximum for a period of two to three years after which they would have been on welfare benefits.That is what every Tom, Dick and Harry in this country gets but not the former employees of the provincial authorities of Zeeland. Are they better than everyone else? This sends out a wrong signal.Several former employees are now going to court: they have found out that two former directors demanded - and got - not 70% or even 80% of their previous salary but a whopping 90%. Shock number three.Savings?We have had the banks who are firing people while doling out bonuses to the top brass at the same time, but it’s as nothing compared to the discrimination practised by the provincial authorities.But here’s the last and biggest shock: ‘The scheme will save the province several million euros,’ the Zeeland provincial board claimed. The chairwoman of the board, who is responsible for the scheme, is now enjoying her pension in the knowledge that she has prevented the province from spending millions.Offloading 160 redundant workers may bring in €2-3m a year but if you are spending €8m a year on redundancy schemes then that is not saving public money but wasting it. And that is the biggest shock of all.Annemarie van Gaal is an investor and entrepreneur.  More >


‘Ban arrests of peaceful demonstrators’

‘Ban arrests of peaceful demonstrators’

Lawyer Willem Jebbink represents Abulkasim al-Jaberi, the man who was arrested recently for shouting 'Fuck the king’, thereby committing lese majesty, which is still a punishable offence in the Netherlands. Jebbink thinks his arrest flies in the face of civil liberty.The prosecution of my client Abulkasim al-Jaberi for insulting the king and queen has generated much discussion about the archaic law that penalises lese majesty, and rightly so. We should ask ourselves if such a law is still relevant, especially since the criminal code already contains a ‘normal’ section on defamation.Civil libertyHowever, the most important argument in Mr al-Jaberi’s case concerns civil liberty. He demonstrated with the approval of the mayor, but was nevertheless incarcerated by the police who decided he committed the offence of lese majesty. His detention reflects the quality of the state of law in this country where freedom of demonstration is concerned, and we can’t but conclude that it is in a very poor state indeed.What happened to Mr Al-Jaberi also happened to a woman named Joanna during the coronation celebrations. She had permission to make her anti-royalist feeling known on Dam square but when she did so peaceably, the police intervened all the same. In doing so, the police waived the authority of the only person who has a decisive say in these matters: the mayor.This is cause for concern because it jeopardises the personal freedom of citizens. It also demonstrates that apparently police officers do not have sufficient knowledge of the law to act according to its edicts.It looks as if the agenda of the police is one of ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’. And  that seems to be enough to waive the right to freedom of demonstration. Those who want to express their opinions are arrested forthwith and silenced, even when the arrest turns out to have been wrongful. Police officials don’t care what the mayor says and consequently do whatever they think necessary to present a ‘clean’ Dam square to the eyes of the international press.SinterklaasSomething similar happened last year during the welcoming ceremony for Sinterklaas in Gouda.The European court for human rights says authorities should be tolerant in the face of peaceful demonstrations, even when demonstrators don’t comply to the letter with the legal restrictions. The basis of this legislation is one of the pillars of a free, democratic society: citizens must be able to voice their opinions, especially if they do so in a peaceful manner.That is exactly what dozens of demonstrators did in Gouda: voice a peaceful protest against the figure of Black Pete. When the police intervened, what came across was the image of a couple of people spoiling a children’s party. The result, once again, was the incarceration of citizens who wanted to have their say. Hours later, when the demonstrators were finally released, they had the pleasure of listening to their uninformed prime minister saying that he was firmly in the children’s party camp.With one fell swoop ‘the prime minister of every Dutch citizen’ side-lined people who thought differently, among whom many with a different cultural background.International attentionMeanwhile, thanks to the prosecution of Mr Al-Jaberi, the Black Pete discussion has been resuscitated in the international press: the liberal Dutch are applying the full force of the law against demonstrators who are peacefully objecting to the ridiculing of people of colour. A bad press abroad for the freedom of opinion in this country, this is the backlash of the ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ policy of the police.The Netherlands is not used to mainstream, ‘tough’ public debates. The culture of consensus rules. Talk shows feature opinion makers who form public opinion, not people who express awkward opinions. People who provoke are ‘trouble makers’ and run the risk of arrest at demonstrations.A ban on arrests for alleged offences of expression and peaceful demonstrations might be a good way of reining in the police. Or to use the language of the demonstrators: fuck repression.Willem Jebbink is a lawyer.This column appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


‘A second opinion court to replace court verdict appeals’

‘A second opinion court to replace court verdict appeals’

Dutch judges are buckling under a heavy workload; perhaps it’s time to change the system, writes entrepreneur Annemarie van Gaal.The Netherlands is a fine country, with a fine justice system. We need to protect and nurture this system. But former Supreme Court president Geert Corstens has been warning for some time now that our judges are buckling under an increasingly heavy workload brought about by cutbacks.That makes sense, but the system itself is also to blame. In this country people on low incomes can endlessly go to court about a dispute about visiting rights involving an ex-partner’s dog or the neighbour’s pigeon house extension. If you don’t earn very much an appeal comes cheap. So there’s everything to gain and hardly anything to lose.Top of the listAccording to recent findings from the European Commission for the Efficiency for Justice, the Netherlands heads the European list not only for the number of subsidised court cases but the amount of money claimants receive in support.Of course, the cost of a case are not limited to this support. They include such overheads as the housing of the court, the coordination of sessions, and the judges who have to read all the documents, listen to counter pleas and decide the case. The real cost is thousands of euros.Taking into account the heavy workload of judges, we should perhaps not look to fewer cutbacks but to a change in the judicial system.SubstituteHow about this: suppose we substitute the appeal route for relatively simple cases with a second opinion. Defaulters, the neighbours’ very loud and irritating cockerel or labour law cases will all be dealt with by second opinion which will be pronounced by a judge working from home.Female judges who wish to stop work temporarily to spend time with their small children would be ideal for the job. They can study the files at home and proffer a second opinion, and the whole appeal rigmarole can be avoided.The advantage would be threefold. Judges will be freed up to deal with cases that are really important. Female judges who usually spend a fair number of years at home following the birth of children can keep in touch with judicial practice and so find it easier to go back to work full time. Costs will go down and workloads will become lighter.Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and investor.  More >


‘The Dutch cabinet doesn’t concentrate on things that matter to voters’

The cabinet should prioritise issues that matter to voters, such as the rampant unemployment among the over-45s, write economists Willem Vermeend and Rick van der Ploeg.In the past few years, people’s confidence in politics has plummeted to an all-time low, not only because promises haven’t been kept, but also because the country had no less than five cabinets in the space of ten years, and, currently, 16 parliamentary parties. In addition, citizens are wondering when politicians are going to tackle the very real problems of this country instead of getting hot and bothered about other matters.What to do about keeping health care affordable, for example, or tackling unemployment. Safety, immigration, pensions and spending power are high on the list too. This week the coalition managed to widen the gap between it and the voters even more by embarking on a feverish marathon debate about the accommodation of failed asylum seekers.Bed, bath, breadLabour supports the so-called ‘bed, bath and bread’ arrangement which some local councils have introduced to prevent illegal immigrants, who won’t be repatriated anyway, from ending up on the streets and becoming a public nuisance.Although VVD aldermen and mayors of these local councils condone the measure for the sake of their local community, their fellow liberals in The Hague fear this provision will tempt more people to cross the border illegally, particularly if the measure becomes a right. Experience has taught us this is very likely.Until recently, The Hague condoned the measure because it is being supported by judicial rulings. It ended up on the political agenda again because the Council of Europe recently said it won’t pronounce on whether or not the Netherlands should provide basic accommodation for failed asylum seekers.Underlying problemConsidering the fact that the cabinet is split over the matter it would have been wiser to postpone discussion until the Dutch court comes up with its - binding - ruling, which is expected as early as mid-May.Not that this will solve the underlying problem. For the last ten years the Dutch asylum policy has failed on all fronts. Without apportioning blame, it is clear that the social democrats, supported by a small band of dedicated supporters, are more committed to this cause than the liberals.But some in the Labour party and its dwindling group of voters are wondering why it is that the party is known primarily for its stance of issues like immigration, integration and asylum policy. While undeniably important, these are not the kind of issues that will bring back disillusioned voters. They used to vote for a recognisable Labour party, the party of jobs, good social security and a fair division of wealth.ForecastsAnd it is these issues which will be gaining in importance in the years ahead, so much is clear from the recent forecasts on employment, income inequality and the affordability of health care. These are the issues which should be concerning the coalition. Both Labour and the VVD have enough room to manoeuvre on solutions without annoying people by creating a ruckus.Employment should be the central issue. In spite of some green shoots appearing and increased growth, it doesn’t look as if Mark Rutte's second cabinet will be able to reduce unemployment (around 7%) substantially.Long-termUnemployment is down slightly, but at the same time another drama is unfolding. Long-term unemployment among those aged 45 and over is increasing alarmingly and this trend is set to continue. In 2014, the minimum time expected for almost two in three older unemployed to find a job was one year. Of the long-term unemployment benefits claimants 80% are over 45.In the last few years, Rutte 2 tried to increase the chances for the older unemployed through training, premium breaks for employers and other subsidies. It is high time the cabinet acknowledged this isn’t enough and that unemployment among this age group is rising. That is why we propose a measure which is as simple as it is effective.ContributionsEmployers who take on an unemployed man or woman of 45 or older will be exempt from paying contributions for a year and will only pay half over the second year. Then the normal procedures will be resumed. Workers will have had enough time to show their worth to the company without the measure, or else will have a better chance of finding a job elsewhere.In addition, the employee insurance agency UWV should work with smartindustry.nl to set up a nationwide ICT training programme for unemployed people over 45. A good example is the training course which is about to kick off in Maastricht. Those who finish the course successfully will significantly increase their chances on the labour market. Willem Vermeend is a former State Secretary of Finance and Minister of Social Affairs in the Dutch government and currently entrepreneur and professor at the University of Maastricht.Rick van der Ploeg is a former State Secretary for Eduction, Culture and Science in the Dutch government and professor of economics at the University of Oxford.This article appeared earlier in the Financial Telegraaf.  More >


New path in The Hague is a reminder of Indonesia’s shame

New path in The Hague is a reminder of Indonesia’s shame

When Jozias van Aartsen, the mayor of The Hague, unveiled the Munirpad (Munir Path) in a quiet neighbourhood on April 14, he did more than honour the slain Indonesian human rights defender Munir Thalib, writes Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch.The naming of the Munirpad was also an uncomfortable reminder to the Indonesian government of its failure to bring to justice those who had ordered Munir’s killing on September 7, 2004.Munir’s widow, Suciwati, told reporters before she left Jakarta to attend the ceremony:  'It’s ironic when the Netherlands recognises [Munir’s] achievement, but Indonesia, his own country, gives impunity to the perpetrators [of his murder].'ScepticalSuciwati has reason to be sceptical about the Indonesian government’s commitment to fully investigate Munir’s murder. Despite former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s promise in 2004 that finding Munir’s killers was 'the test of our history,' the government has failed to do so.There is certainly no shortage of possible suspects. As Indonesia’s best-known human rights defender, Munir made many powerful enemies among people with abusive records.Munir founded the highly effective Commission for Disappeared Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) to campaign against enforced disappearances. In 2002, Munir established the Jakarta-based human rights research group Imparsial.PassionUnderlying all of Munir’s work was a passionate pursuit of justice in a country whose three decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto had run roughshod over the rule of law and permitted the killers of more than 500,000 alleged 'communists' in 1965-66 to avoid prosecution for their heinous crimes.But that activism ended when Munir died from arsenic poisoning. The arsenic was allegedly added to his orange juice on a Garuda Indonesia flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. An Indonesian police investigation resulted in the conviction of three Garuda employees.On December 20, 2005, a Jakarta court sentenced an off-duty Garuda pilot, Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, who had moved Munir from economy to business class, to 14 years in prison  for administering the arsenic. Pollycarpus was released on parole in 2014.An Indonesian court subsequently sentenced Indra Setiawan, Garuda’s then chief executive officer, and Rohanil Aini, Garuda’s then chief secretary, to one year jail terms for producing falsified documents that let Pollycarpus get on that flight.EvidenceDespite those convictions, there is troubling evidence that the prosecutions of those three Garuda staff failed to uncover the full circumstances of Munir’s killing and that the masterminds remain at large.Sceptics point to the fact that Pollycarpus was also an agent for the State Intelligence Agency (Badan Intelijen Negara, or BIN). Despite allegations that linked the order for Munir’s murder to the agency’s former deputy director, major general Muchdi Purwopranjono, an Indonesian court cleared him of responsibility in Munir’s killing in December 2008 due to lack of evidence after trial proceedings dogged by allegations of witness intimidation.Activists have alleged that the government withheld key evidence during the trial, including recorded mobile phone conversations between Muchdi and Pollycarpus.HamperedIn September 2009, Human Rights Watch said that the evidence presented during the Muchdi trial was compelling, but that the prosecution was hampered by the systematic retraction of sworn statements to the police and pressure on the South Jakarta court from Muchdi’s supporters.Witnesses withdrew statements they had made to the police, claiming to have forgotten basic facts, or failed to appear in court. Most were former or current intelligence officers or retired members of the military.Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has an opportunity to correct the failure of his predecessor, Yudhoyono, to investigate Munir’s killing adequately. The president could start by ordering the National Police to surrender any evidence withheld or overlooked during the trials of both Pollycarpus and Muchdi, as well as investigating allegations of witness intimidation related to the dismissal of charges against Muchdi in 2008.If Widodo fails to act, the Munirpad in The Hague will remain a reminder of the long road to justice for Indonesia’s murdered rights defender Munir.Andreas Harsono is Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.   More >


‘Coalition partners leant so far they almost tipped the balance’

The coalition partners agreed to disagree when Labour leader Diederik Samsom told a party conference his party would be leaning as far as it could to the left. At the same time, comments by VVD parliamentary leader Halbe Zijlstra showed the Dutch liberals are leaning as far as possible to the right. In doing so they almost tipped the balance, writes commentator Nicola Chadwick.The position of the current cabinet became extremely precarious this week as the two parties took 10 days to reach agreement about what to do with failed asylum seekers.So far the authorities have consistently failed to remove this group from the country in spite of all the tough talk. Many are unable to leave the country, as their own country will not have them or they cannot prove where they come from and others are still going though asylum procedures.A recent Council of Europe ruling stipulated that this group of people living in a judicial no man’s land should have access to basic amenities. The problem is that the two coalition partners disagreed on what the ruling meant exactly. For Labour it was clear: people should at least be given a bed, a bath and bread. The VVD feared such generosity would only attract more asylum seekers to the Netherlands.So it is not surprising that the solution is unsatisfactory. Bed and board will be provided, but only for those who cooperate with deportation – and that is to be realised within a matter of weeks. Criticism has come from municipalities and international organisations alike. Not least from UN human rights rapporteur Philip Aston, who called the agreement 'illegal' and 'a violation of human rights'.The VVD’s hardline was set out recently by Zijlstra, when he suggested Europe should be closed to non-European refugees. However, if crossing the Mediterranean at the mercy of ruthless traffickers in unseaworthy vessels hasn’t put hundreds of thousands of refugees off, the outcome of this latest dilemma is hardly going to make a difference.The tragic drowning of an estimated 800 refugees in the Mediterranean showed all too poignantly the dangers refugees fleeing war-torn countries are willing to face.Titanic tragedyMonday’s tragedy is the largest number of refugees ever to drown from a single boat. And in all, the human equivalent of two Titanics has been lost at sea since the Arab Spring destablised the Middle East and North Africa. In an interview in the Volkskrant last month, Zijlstra said the VVD should be more willing to talk to dictators, thus putting stability before freedom and democracy.The endless discussions brought this cabinet the closest it has ever been to break-up. What to do with people who are rejected by the asylum procedure has dogged Rutte’s second cabinet since it came into office in 2012.First, the two parties argued over a new general pardon for children who had become rooted into Dutch society, but had missed the initial amnesty in 2007. Then the criminalisation of illegal immigrants brought criticism of Labour. Eventually, this measure was withdrawn. The prison cell suicide of Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov, who should never have been in detention, seriously damaged former junior justice minister Fred Teeven. Just over a week ago, a group of failed asylum seekers #wearehere were evicted from the so-called refugee garage. They are protesting against the bed and board system as they say it gives them no prospect of a futureMafia bossThe VVD came out of the provincial elections with fewer losses than expected. But to keep the support of right-wingers they have to play tough on immigration. Zijlstra even compared failed asylum seekers to top criminal Willem Holleeder. 'If Willem Holleeder listened to judges like these people, he would never have served a prison sentence,' he said.That being said, quite often it is the Dutch immigration service that does not listen to judges, thus prolonging procedures before individuals are eventually granted asylum.Municipalities faced with the problem of people living on the streets as a result of the Netherlands’ failed asylum policies are far more pragmatic. Utrecht offers far more than a place to sleep, wash and eat. It recognises the need to give people perspective with daytime facilities and training courses. Even the VVD mayor of The Hague Jozias van Aartsen wants basic provisions to remain in place.The reason the talks took so long was because the two parties disagree fundamentally on this issue. Each had to make its mark on the new legislation, which makes this a political compromise, not a practical solution.It’s a shameful situation; two parties thinking more about their prospects in the next election rather than a serious solution. It damages The Hague’s image as the seat of international justice and the Netherlands’ reputation as a leader on human rights issues.Now European ministers have agreed to increase funds for the EU Frontex operation, in an attempt to prevent the Mediterranean from turning into a watery graveyard. However, there is no deal on how to accommodate them once they set foot on European soil. Asylum and the refugee crisis are set to become a hot potato this summer, which could tip the balance of more than just the Dutch government.Nicola Chadwick is a freelance translator/journalist/editor who regularly blogs on Dutch current affairs and politics.  More >


‘Libraries need to be closed or made relevant again’

‘Libraries need to be closed or made relevant again’

All entrepreneur Annemarie van Gaal sees are empty libraries. The money spent on them could be put to better use, she writes.The Netherlands is keeping afloat lots of institutions which used to be relevant but now hardly have any added value. Take the public libraries.Every time I pass a library I see empty spaces with endless book cases. Every once in a while a lone student is sitting at a table pouring over his school books or his laptop. Lending books has clearly become a marginal activity. It makes sense.With the wealth of information and stories available online, printed books are no longer viable. Some libraries are trying to generate a little money by organising cultural evenings, reading groups and workshops at €12,50 a pop, coffee and tea included, but they are fighting a losing battle.€600m a yearA city like Amsterdam has as many as 26 libraries. There’s over a thousand nationwide. These libraries cost some €600m a year, €65m of which is covered by contributions from members. That means each library has an average turnover of €60,000.That is not nearly enough. Every year councils and provincial authorities are paying out over half a billion euros to libraries. That is public money. Of course libraries have a social function. Making them free up to 18 gives every citizen, rich or poor, an opportunity to borrow books and use WiFi internet access, something which may not be available at home.But as long as libraries need to be subsidised to the tune of half a billion, it may be a good idea to consider how to spend that money differently. Internet subscriptions can be had for €10 a month and half a billion could buy over four million families free access to the net. If we close down the libraries, every household with an income of up to €50,000 before taxes could have free internet access.Business modelsIf we want to hang on to the libraries, we should explore other business models. Libraries could, for instance, rent out flexible work spaces to the self-employed. If they charged €100 a month that would still work out cheaper than the expensive alternatives offered by commercial providers like Regus. The advantage of Regus is its great network of office space all over the country, and that is exactly what the libraries would have.If all thousand libraries were to work together on this it would blow the competition out of the water. The self-employed would have a quiet and affordable work space, with lots of reference books to boot. That is how an institution that is nearing its sell by date can be made relevant again.Annemarie van Gaal is an investor.  More >