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

Farewell Facebook, you and I are through!

Economist Mathijs Bouman has said goodbye and good riddance to Facebook and he won't be back (he hopes). I would like to start this column by offering my sincere apologies to all my friends. Bart Stoffels, Rineke Gieske-Mastenbroek: my apologies. A hearfelt sorry is also due to Witdietma Narain from Arnhem, Willem-Aart Hop from Spakenburg and of course Fokke Obbema from Amsterdam. Apologies too to Remco Dijkstra and Annette van Trigt. And even to Thierry Baudet who, to my surprise, is also a friend. Sorry one and all, I really regret to inform you that we are no longer friends and that goes for the friends of friends as well. I hope you have a good life. I’m quitting, pulling the plug. I have deleted my Facebook account. Which is not as easy as it sounds. Facebook doesn’t like final goodbyes and at first it only agrees to deactivate my account. It will only remove the account permanently in two weeks’ time. Unless I log in between now and then, because then it will be reactivated again. That means that for two weeks I am going to have to surpress the impulse to check how my friends are. Hence this public farewell to Facebook: the die is cast, there is no turning back. I hope. Desertion You have guessed the reason for my desertion: it’s the news about the way Facebook data was used to influence the American elections. British company Cambridge Analytica stole the data of fifty million American Facebook users in order to unleash a finely-tuned campaign of misinformation and manipulation. The result is presently in residence at the White House. The company also meddled in the Brexit referendum, the presidential elections in Kenya and the lord knows what else. Badly or wrongly informed voters form the Achilles heel of any democratic system. Universal suffrage is a fantastic achievement but the downside is that ignorant and clueless voters have as much influence as those who make a study of politics. Education Not that I advocate changing the system but it does put the onus on society to keep the number of politically challenged numbskulls to a  minimum. I used to be under the illusion that the problem could be at least partly solved by means of education, transparent political processes and a free quality press. But now there are companies that are using all their programming wizardry and powers of analysis to do exactly the opposite and make voters more clueless and ignorant. Having a Facebook account is helping them do this apparently. We have unwittingly exchanged one of our most important basic rights – the right to free and open elections- for free access to the holiday snaps of our friends and cat videos without end. That is a very, very bad deal. This summer I will send my friends an old-fashioned postcard. I hope. This column first appeared in the Financieele Dagblad.  More >

Dutch agriculture is not a beacon of good farming practice to the world

Dutch agriculture has to become a lot less efficient or the environment will suffer even more, say agro-environmental scientists. Greater awareness among consumers and voters may make it happen. In an opinion piece in January, Volkskrant columnist Bert Wagendorp claimed most farmers simply can’t help being fraudsters when it comes to manure: it’s a national sport to hoodwink the authorities. We are not trying to make excuses but isn’t it also true that we are all responsible for the mess agriculture is in today? ‘This tiny country feeds the world’ National Geographic headed one of its articles in November 2017. It’s because of articles like these the Netherlands is seen as a beacon of good agricultural practice around the world. But over the last 50 years that agricultural practice has wiped out over 70% of partridges, godwits and skylarks. Large-scale expansion not only swallowed up small farmers but traditional landscapes as well, all in the name of efficiency. But efficient, high-input agriculture is taking a huge toll on the environment, perhaps best illustrated by the blanket of manure which has been steadily leaching into the soil and adjacent nature. Perverse incentive Efficiency also creates perverse incentives. Farmers are forced to produce as many kilos of food as possible, even though the intensive use of land leads to the intensive use of fertilisers. Meanwhile the less efficient or more contaminating aspects of the production process are left for the next generations to cope with or are out-sourced to farming businesses elsewhere. Consequently, these specialised and partly even landless businesses only appear to be more efficient than the food production system as a whole, or in the long term. Dutch agriculture has come to resemble the classic circus act of keeping as many plates spinning as simultaneously as possible. The price farmers are paying to keep the plates from crashing to the floor includes low margins, expensive expertise, loans and scrutiny by the authorities. It’s an effort doomed to failure, as the fraud, the mass culls, the preventive use of antibiotics, feed contaminated by pesticide residues and the deep frustration expressed by farmers themselves have shown. Environmental economists say that a proper cost and benefits analysis of a cleaner environment in which biodiversity, public health and landscape are taken into account could lead to less intensive agriculture practices. But we are afraid that such an inclusive analysis will not be enough to conquer vested interests, complacency and the tendency to ignore the wider context. Consumers The challenge is to convince consumers and voters that simplicity, godwits, human scale and health matter more than keeping a lot of plates in the air and that they are worth any extra costs. Transition begins with a willingness to at least consider the costs and benefits of a different kind of agriculture. Once these become clear the appropriate actions can be defined. But, wait a minute. Shouldn’t we aim for the highest possible yields so as to feed people beyond our borders and save their pretty landscapes from industrial farming? That argument is grotesque for a number of reasons. Most Dutch grain is not used to make bread, it is used to feed livestock. An important part of our much-praised exports consists of luxury products and has precious little to do with combating world hunger. Feeding a global population in a sustainable manner and preserving nature reserves will not depend on the extra kilos of produce forced out of the soil of this little country. But it will depend on the success of efforts to improve low productivity in agriculture in developing countries. We need to rethink Dutch agricultural practices and stop focusing on kilos and efficiency. Let’s accept that our farmers are not in the same league as their colleagues in New Zealand and Brazil and that we will have to pay for that. Hold up Dutch agriculture as an example to the rest of the world by all means, but make it an example of a patient who changes his lifestyle to cure his illnesses and ditch the medication. Jaap Schröder, Hans van Grinsven, Jules Bos, Hein ten Berge and  Bert Smit are agro-environmental scientists. Jan Willem Erisman is professor of Integrated Nitrogen Issues at the VU University in Amsterdam and director of the Louis Bolk Institute. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >

The Netherlands doesn’t need ‘the G4’ big cities to stay in business

The Netherlands doesn’t need ‘the G4’ big cities to stay in business

There is more to the Netherlands than four big cities with a few fields in between, says economist Mathijs Bouman. Amsterdam stands for Schiphol airport, HQs, and the creative sector. Rotterdam is synonymous with the port, trade, and hard graft. The Hague is the administrative capital and looks after international relations. Utrecht takes care of the business services. The Dutch economy is propelled by a four-cylinder motor: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. Without a hint of irony they call themselves the ‘G4’– as if Merkel and Macron could walk in any minute and start negotiations. Last year the G4 went to the Binnenhof to ask for €35bn to finance a comprehensive investment plan aimed at improving the accessibility of the urban regions as well as increasing the number of houses there. The G4 have an office in Brussels so the European decision-making process can be tweaked to follow a course that would be advantageous to the four main Dutch cities. Now I would be the last person to deny that urban networks matter. The economy can only benefit from cooperation and how better to achieve this than to live cheek by jowl. Cities create dynamism and wealth all over the world. Grass, peat and water But there is such a thing as overdoing it. Yes, cities are important but so is land. The Netherlands is not just four powerful cities with a bit of useless grass, peat and water in between. Relevant economic activity is taking place outside central urban belt too. Eindhoven is accommodating first rate innovation, the Achterhoek is a hotbed for modern manufacturing and agricultural high tech is just about everywhere. More often than not, these companies are geared towards exports rather than the Dutch market. Their CEOs only come to Amsterdam to take a plane to meet clients in far-flung destinations. They only think of Rotterdam when a container is delayed. The Hague is remembered only when the blue envelope arrives. The cabinet has earmarked €950m to tackle regional problems. Assorted local authorities will be entering the fray to get their share in the months to come. Eindhoven got in first and demanded €170m to make the region more attractive to international talent. ASML boss Peter Wennink said the amount would be a good start but said Eindhoven region really needs quite a bit more. Rural economics To encourage the regions in their battle for more dosh I did a few sums to measure the importance of the regional economy for the Netherlands. What would the Netherlands Ltd. look like without the G4? Would it be another Jutland? Or would it still hold its own economically? To subtract the G4 economy from the Dutch economy as a whole I took not only the economies of the four cities themselves but each so-called Corop area, the surrounding area which often has close economic ties with the city. In the case of Amsterdam this area would be Greater Amsterdam, including Alkmaar and Haarlemmermeer. Rotterdam would be region Greater Rijnmond, The Hague Agglomeration’s-Gravenhage. And the city of Utrecht would represent the whole province of Utrecht. National GDP Subtract these four regions and you are left with the Dutch country side. The rural areas in the Netherlands are home to 12.2 million inhabitants who live in 5.4 million homes and work in over a million businesses. Employment accounts for 4.7 million work years. Each one of these number exceed those of the G4. The rural GDP is €439bn. That is almost two thirds of the national GDP. Even without the G4, the Netherlands would be a medium size player in Europe. It would be the fifth economy in the euro zone, with a GDP higher than that of Belgium. It would also have a higher GDP than EU member state Poland. The economy of the rural Netherlands would even be bigger than Finland’s and Portugal’s put together. Yes, the big cities would make it even stronger and wealthier. But to think the Netherlands would be nothing without the G4 is simply not true. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >

Do-it-yourself: the wonderful world of having multiple jobs

Journalist may be her main profession, but bank clerk, travel agent, postman and bin woman could easily be included on her cv, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe Not so long ago, the national statistics office CBS announced that the official Dutch unemployment rate had dipped under 5% - one of the lowest rates in Europe. The economic recovery is racing along, gross domestic product is forecast to hit 3.3% this year and the declining jobless total is one of the side effects. At the same time, however, there are still 1.3 million people who would like a job or who would like to work longer hours but are not officially classed as unemployed. There is, the CBS says, a lot of ‘unused potential’ in the Dutch jobs market. Still more CBS figures – they’ve got a lot of people writing about jobs over there – show that the Dutch work fewer hours than everyone else in Europe. Three quarters of women and a quarter of men work part-time. Dutch women who have a job, work an average of 26 hours a week. Even young women starting out in their careers with no children to use as an excuse are opting for a four or a three-day week. What is a job? After all, the definition of jobs and work is becoming more blurred. We are fast becoming jacks and jills of all trade. We no longer work 9-5, we are expected to answer emails from the boss on holiday and it is assumed that we are both willing, able and have the time to take on all sorts of work that used to be done by someone else. When we changed our internet provider at home, the technician who came to install the new router assured me that it would be terribly simple to set up the boosters upstairs. There was this blind agreement on my part and off he went, leaving me with two little boxes to plug in and get talking to the router. I have no idea why I did not run after him shouting ‘no, it’s your job, we’re paying you to do it’, but to this day the boosters lie unloved in the corner of the rooms they are supposed to be installed in and I continue to curse the crap internet in the DutchNews.nl office. Travel agent Being a journalist might be my main job, but I seem to have picked up a lot of others on the way, aside from being an internet technician. When I fly anywhere I act as my own travel agent and check in desk operator. I spend hours online looking for the best deals, I compare flights, I fill in my details, I check myself in and print out my own boarding card – or nowadays, download it to my phone. We take our own rubbish down the street to giant underground containers and if we really keen on being good citizens, we can officially ‘adopt’ our container as well. That would give us the right open the lid and try to unclog the disposal shoot when it gets blocked up. We would also be given a dustpan and brush to keep the pavement clean of everyone else’s cat litter and potato peelings. All part of the council’s efficiency drive of course. Gardening Our street is being done up at the moment and the council has even asked us if we would like to take charge of the area earmarked for planting and greenery, adding city council gardener to the list of jobs it would like us to take on. I also run a minor package distribution centre in our front hall thanks to the online shopping trend. The biggest parcel we’ve ever had to deal with was a sofa. My doctor even recently asked me what I would like her to do about my ailment, guessing I had been checking out the options online. The banking sector is slashing jobs left, right and centre with the excuse that online banking is revolutionising the way they operate. Monthly fee It’s pretty easy to cut jobs when you’ve managed to persuade the rest of the population that they are all part-time bank clerks as well. I do my own payments online, I print out bank statements, I set up my standing orders, and if I make a mistake and pay money into the wrong bank account, it is up to me to try and get it back. I’m not actually sure what the bank does for me anymore, apart from charge me a monthly fee. Perhaps all those young women working part time have got the right idea after all… with all the other jobs everyone is expected to do, there is little time left over to go to the office. This column was first published in the Xpat Journal  More >

The arrival of the PVV and FvD in the cities is alarming, say D66 local leaders

The arrival of the PVV and FvD in the cities is alarming, say D66 local leaders

The PVV and Forum voor Democratie are making a bid for local power and that is a worrying development, say Reinier van Dantzig and Klaas Verschuure, who are leading the local election campaigns in Amsterdam and Utrecht. Terms like ‘head rag tax’, ‘arranging’ for ‘fewer, fewer, fewer Moroccans’ and ‘homeopathic dilution’ have so far largely come from the mouths of national politicians. But it was local Amsterdam FvD leader Annabel Nanninga who came up with the term ‘bobbing negroes’ for boat refugees. PVV or FvD politicians often eat their words. They come out with some ugly abusive term, then they retract it - it simply came out wrong, they say. The statement, they argue, is much more nuanced than the hostile media and established parties want people to believe. We are not buying it. The ugly face of hatred, exclusion and division is never more clearly seen than during those carefully managed media moments. The people the populist parties are reaching out to are getting the message loud and clear. Following the chant for fewer Moroccans in The Hague and in the Netherlands as a whole, Wilders' ‘more nuanced’ explanation became a limit on immigration, promoting the return of immigrants and the deportation of criminals with dual nationality. But if a politician uses words like 'arranging fewer, fewer, fewer Moroccans' you have to believe he will act on them as soon as he gets the chance. Second-class citizens That ‘nuance’ does nothing to alter the fact that people have been labelled second-class citizens. Take the proposal from Leefbaar Rotterdam’s Joost Eerdmans and FvD’s Thierry Baudet who have joined forces for the Rotterdam local elections. They want the law to be changed to limit the number of halal butchers and Turkish greengrocers - to stop Turkish and Moroccan shopkeepers from setting up shop. When the time came to discuss the proposal in parliament, Baudet never showed up. But the message had been put out there - replace Turkish shops with Dutch ones. These are Rotterdam shops, each and every one of them. That is and will remain our message. If the xenophobes turn up the volume, so will we. We need to voice our support for that Turkish greengrocer who is told by politicians that he is obsolete and that people prefer a Dutch greengrocer and for the child in the playground who is told there should be fewer of her. There is no need to air this kind of abuse. That is the other side of freedom of expression. You don’t need to say things that hurt or exclude people. Disgust Everyone has the right to use their freedom of expression. We will too. We will counter every threat made to our fellow citizens. We will express our disgust at empty ideas aimed at feeding society’s xenophobic underbelly. We are proud of our cities and their inhabitants, regardless of who they fall in love with or where they are from. Every message that brands them second-class citizens will be interpreted by us as a message of hate, including those hidden behind big words and pseudo-scientific quotes. None of these messages will go unchallenged. We are fighting for cities in which every citizen can feel at home, regardless of background, creed, and sexual orientation. Diversity makes us stronger. It makes the Netherlands stronger. This article appeared earlier in Trouw The local elections take place on March 21. EU citizens and people who have lived in the Netherlands for more than three years are eligible to vote.  More >

Dutch case over Britons’ EU rights could have profound consequences

Next week, five British nationals living in the Netherlands will hear if their bid to keep European citizenship after Brexit will be referred to the European court. London barrister Jolyon Maugham QC, who is funding the legal action, says if they win, it will have profound consequences. The Conservative manifesto of 2015 promised to scrap the rules barring those who had lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting. Still, long-term British expats were denied the chance to vote in the EU referendum the following year. And their concerns about what Brexit would mean for their lives went unheard. Matt Elliott, Vote Leave’s chief executive, promised that 'the EU’s freedom of movement rights would be honoured for all those citizens who reside in other EEA [European Economic Area] nations prior to any treaty changes. But the joint report of the EU and UK on phase one of the withdrawal negotiations does not deliver on that promise. Dance teacher Take, for example, Susan, who lives in Amsterdam with her husband, who uses a wheelchair. She keeps the two of them on the modest earnings of a dance teacher. Half of her income comes from working abroad. Before Brexit, her free movement rights meant she could give workshops throughout the EU. But there is no guarantee she will be able to travel and work freely and cheaply throughout Europe after Brexit. She cannot know if she will earn enough to stay in the Netherlands. Or James and Jessica, currently studying in Manchester. As things stand they have no automatic right to return to live with their family in Spain when they’ve finished their degrees. Not democratic They are why the case heard in the district court in Amsterdam on Wednesday is so important. Long-term EU resident UK citizens experience Brexit not as a democratic process in which they’ve participated but as a thing that has been done unto them. And done in ignorance. And with a profound effect on where, and how, and with whom they live. The court was asked to refer a question on article 20 of the Lisbon treaty to the court of justice in Luxembourg. And that question was this. EU citizenship gives each of us the right, in particular, to live and move freely within the territory of the member states. And article 20 says that if you are a national of a member state, you are also a citizen of the EU. In other words, your national citizenship is your gateway to your EU citizenship. And it also says that EU citizenship is a separate thing, over and above, your national citizenship. A series of cases in the court of justice suggest that EU citizenship might – the cases don’t get to this point but they approach it – survive the loss of that gateway. Yes, you need member state nationality to become an EU citizen – but you don’t necessarily lose that EU citizenship if you cease to be a member state national. Consequences So if you stop being a national of a member state because your state ceases to be a member of the EU – Brexit, in other words – might you still retain your EU citizenship? This would have profound consequences. Profound for that group of 1 million UK citizens living in Europe to whom Brexit was a thing done. Profound for the dynamics of our negotiations with the EU: EU law in its generosity might give rights to UK citizens living in Europe that UK law would not reciprocate for EU nationals living here. And maybe even profound for the rest of us, us 60-odd million UK nationals living in the UK on Brexit day who might retain our EU citizenship rights after Brexit. Could it happen? Might these hurdles be overcome? When I was younger I worked briefly in the cabinet of the Belgian advocate general, the hugely influential Walter Van Gerven, at the court of justice in Luxembourg. I remember sitting down with him for lunch one day and discussing why it was that the European project did not enjoy the same place in the hearts and the minds of citizens of its – then 12 – states as the United States did in the residents of its 50 states. Emotions It was, I suggested, because Europe felt a long way from the lives its people lived. So, whatever the community’s accomplishments, they had no emotional resonance for its people. For them, Europe was a purely technical project: algebra and not poetry. I believe this remains true now. But I also believe that the court knows of this gap between perception and reality. And I know that, if the question goes to Luxembourg, the court of justice, as it grapples with the legal and political calculus, will want to fill this chasm. It will want to invest in the idea of EU citizenship. It will want to bring Europe to life for its people. This article was first published in the Guardian and is reprinted here with kind permission of Jolyon Maugham.  More >

Don’t fear the robots or the foreigners, they will make us richer

Robots and foreigners have been taking over Dutch jobs for 50 years - but more people than ever are working, says economist Mathijs Bouman. And the bottom line is, we are all getting richer because of it. In 1969 Jan Wolkers wrote Turkish Delight, the Beatles recorded Abbey Road and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Piet de Jong was our prime minister, ruling a country with a flourishing manufacturing industry. Of a working population of around 5.3 million, 1.3 million people worked in manufacturing or industry (including energy and water) - around 25% of the total Now, almost half a century later, in the year of De Wereld volgens Gijp and Marco Borsato and exactly zero men on the moon, industry has stopped generating jobs. The working population has grown to nine million of whom only 9% works in industry. In absolute terms this means that of the 1.3 million industrial jobs in 1969 only 800,000 are left. Meanwhile industrial production has doubled. GDP Labour intensive factories became largely automated. But there is another reason why there are fewer factory workers compared to 1969: the relative importance of industry nose-dived. As industrial production doubled, GDP tripled. The Netherlands was de-industrialising because mass production was moving to low wage countries. To all who are worried about the present trends of globalisation, robotisation and what they mean for employment I say: your worst fears have been coming true for the last 50 years. Machines and foreigners have been stealing our jobs for years. Jobs not only evaporated in manufacturing. In construction the jobs total went down from over 550,000 in 1969 to 460,000 in 2017. Agriculture gave work to 275,000 people then and 195,000 now. Industry, construction and agriculture accounted for 40% of employment when Abbey Road hit the charts. In the Borsato era it’s 17%. And yet structural mass unemployment did not happen. On the contrary, more people than ever are working. Civil service So where did all these people go? They went to work for the government, in care, or opted for the business services industry. (Local) government jobs and the care sector accounted for 20% of the jobs total in 1969. That has been going up, slowly but surely, to 27%. In business services (comprising lawyers, architects, consultants, designers, researchers but also cleaners and security personnel) job growth was even more impressive. It went from 9% in 1969 to 21% in 2017. Automation and robotisation and cheaper foreign production mean jobs are lost. But it also means lower prices and more spending power. The new prosperity create a demand for new products and services and hence a higher demand for labour from companies that provide these products and services. In the end labour market equilibrium is restored. Change of profession Yes, it’s textbook economics. But in times of robot fear and foreigner anxiety I’m happy to repeat it. According to recent research by McKinsey, robotisation and automation will swallow up between 75 million and 375 million jobs worldwide between now and 2030. Or, in the kindly words of McKinsey, that is the number of people that will have consider a change of profession. Some 3% to 14% of all working people will be affected. China will have to absorb the biggest shock but in the West too the labour market will feel some hefty tremors. People will need help to face the transition. The need for re-training and additional training is evident but in some cases income support will be necessary, as McKinsey says. It will be a major transition, no doubt about it. But as the last 50 years show, coping with transition is something we are good at. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >

Christianity has fostered much in the way of scientific progress

Science and faith are not on the opposite side of the fence and Christians are responsible for many scientific breakthroughs, says Rob Mutsaerts, the auxiliary bishop of the diocese of 's Hertogenbosch. Richard Dawkins, advocate of scientific and rational thought, is calling on everyone, and  people of faith in particular, to think for themselves. People who believe in God do not think for themselves, he claims, and are cowardly and lazy to boot. Perhaps this is a good time to remind him that Thomas of Aquino promoted Aristotle, that devout priest Copernicus was a mathematician and astronomer who formulated a heliocentric model and that Gregor Mendel, a monk, studied heredity and as such can be considered a precursor of Darwin. Newton, Kepler, Descartes and Pascal, devout Christians all, were the founders of modern science. And what to make of 19th century physicists Faraday, Maxwell and the man who proposed the big bang theory, a priest called Lemaître? And what about religious scientists such as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton? Christian Europe The modern sciences originated in Christian milieus, in Christian Europe, in the very place where people believed in a world created by god which, by its nature, was open to reason and thus worth exploring. Catholicism is not an enemy to science, as Dawkins has it, and has never tended to defend itself from its claims. The church has always held that because creation springs from the one creator, there can be no conflict between the biblically revealed truth and the truth that we discover with our brain. Whatever the findings of empirical science, they will not give rise to a conflict with faith. The so-called battle between science and faith is an imaginary one. The brilliant atheist Bernard Shaw directly opposed Dawkins. Shaw said he could never be a Catholic because of its extreme rationalism. He had a sense of humour – ‘I’m an atheist and I thank God for it’- something that Dawkins clearly lacks. Shaw was right: the Catholic Church has never said that reason was not the right way to know reality, or that people have the right to approach anything in an unreasoned way. Nothing Darwin is a proponent of scientism: the supposition that reality is limited to what can be empirically perceived. The success of the natural sciences (manifest in the technology we encounter every day and which makes our lives easier in many ways) has convinced many that outside of the visible and measurable world there is nothing – only imaginings, superstition and primitive beliefs. Materialists like Dawkins refuse to contemplate that outside of the empirical there are other dimensions of reality which manifest themselves in a non-scientific and yet rational way. They form the blind spots that scientism has for literature, philosophy, metaphysics and religion. Faith is not science. It has a much closer affinity with philosophy, poetry and literature. Does it have an aesthetic dimension? Certainly. Does it have a literary component? Certainly. But it is also a vehicle for truth. Scientism, which rules all this out, is also excluding the riches of human knowledge. It also contradicts itself. Its tenet that science is the only way to access knowledge cannot be empirically established. It is a philosophical statement. And philosophy, scientism claims, is not a vehicle for truth. Accidental universe Dawkins also maintains that the aimlessness of human existence does not make it meaningless or worthless but that it is a gift to live in this accidental universe. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were equally convinced there is no God but concluded that this made life empty and meaningless. In their view an atheist could come to no other conclusion. They experienced a longing for meaning and fulfilment but could find nothing in this world that would satisfy it, hence their conviction that life was absurd and freedom an empty shell. I don’t agree with Sartre and Camus that there is no god but they did at least apply logic. Existentialists would never say: God doesn’t exist but don’t worry, you can do without. Atheists would have a point if it were true that religious people see God as an invisible friend and religion were a question of unrealistic wishful thinking. If that was the case I would be an atheist. But our atheistic friends would be totally wrong in thinking that believing in a reality beyond our perception is childish and damaging to human dignity. It is a curious prejudice to label only the empirical as ‘real’. Rob Mutsaerts is auxiliary bishop at the diocese of 's-Hertogenbosch. This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >

Forum voor Democratie’s focus on race is damaging, says D66 MP

D66 MP Jan Paternotte calls the Forum voor Democratie's focus on race 'damaging' and challenges its MPs to face opposition where it can be heard: in a public debate in parliament. ‘Hiddema didn’t say anything wrong, silly Jan Paternotte’. That is how columnist Theodor Holman ended a passionate defence of Forum voor Democratie MP Theo Hiddema in his column in the Parool. This was the same Hiddema who, during a parliamentary debate spoke of a ‘proud, noble negro’ who, he said, would not benefit from a law on incitement of hatred against groups. Holman's comment came only weeks after a radio broadcast in which Hiddema said ‘race mixing’ would be the best way to go for Dutch Moroccans, seeing how reluctant they are to integrate. On Twitter I called Hiddema’s comments an example of his party’s increasingly sickening focus on race. Holman explained that his generation – and Hiddema’s – use the term ‘negroes’ and that to him the word was much less denigrating than ‘black’. I believe Holman means what he says. Words become differently charged over time. Innocent But I don’t believe for one second that Hiddema’s careless use of the word ‘negro’ was innocent at all. It is part of a series of comments and proposals by him and Thierry Baudet that I refuse to ever regard as normal. It started with Baudet, who, during the election campaign, said he feared ‘a homeopathic dilution’ of the Dutch population as a result of immigration. That immediately caused a storm but Baudet brushed off all criticism. Claiming that his words were taken out of context, he told black rights campaigner Sylvana Simons he had been referring mainly to migrants who are coming to the Netherlands at this moment and who are corroding our freedom and values. Businesses In Rotterdam local party Leefbaar has taken up Baudet’s cause. It is no coincidence that party leader Joost Eerdmans proposed a new law for setting up businesses, one that gives the council the right to withhold a licence from an Islamic or Turkish shopkeeper so as to make way for a Dutch one. ‘After the umpteenth halal butcher it’s time for an ordinary Dutch greengrocer,’ Eerdmans said. In short: we are going to select people according to their background or religion. [The two parties are planning to work together in the local elections next year]. Such comments are aimed at fuelling vague feelings of mistrust against certain groups because of faith or skin colour. They are launched, Trump-like, via Twitter or during an interview, avoiding public debate in which they would be challenged by other politicians. Called to order Hiddema’s speech was his first during a budget debate and when he repeatedly mentioned ‘negroes’ he was called to order by D66 MP Maarten Groothuizen. Baudet himself has yet to speak during a debate on any ministry's 2018 spending plans and he has hardly shown his face in parliament in recent weeks. Next week MPs will be discussing economic policy. If the two Forum voor Democratie MPs are at all serious, they will come and propose their new rules for businesses then and there. I would welcome it if they did because it would give me a chance to oppose them in a public debate. If they don’t, I shall regard it as another blank they have fired. They may be firing blanks but they are nevertheless damaging entire population groups who are being told by a fast-growing party that their shops are no good and need to be replaced by ‘Dutch greengrocers’. No, we must never come to regard the Forum for Democratie’s  focus on background and race as normal. This column was published earlier in the Parool  More >

‘We want British citizens in NL to continue to live as they do now’

‘We want British citizens in NL to continue to live as they do now’

With European leaders due to meet in Brussels next month, the time is right to press on with negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, says  ambassador Peter Wilson says in an open letter to British nationals in the Netherlands. On 14 and 15 December the leaders of the European Union member states will meet in Brussels for the December gathering of the European Council.  The council comes together after months of talks which have generated a huge amount of media reporting and comment.  It is our firm belief that the time to move on to the next phase of negotiations is now. I have met many British nationals across the Netherlands during our open forums, and I know that they are uncertain and worried about the consequences of the UK’s departure from the European Union. I want to be able to offer as much certainty as possible both to British nationals and to businesses here in the Netherlands. For that reason it is essential that we get on with discussing our ambitious future partnership with the EU. Forums Many fellow Brits here in the Netherlands will have been following the developments closely and with great interest. During our open forums we heard first hand about your worries, concerns and uncertainties on a range of issues. We have summarised the points raised during the open forums here, and shared them with both the British and Dutch governments.  I understand these concerns and the uncertainty you feel, and have promised to keep British nationals in the Netherlands informed about progress on the issues that affect you. Before negotiations began, the British Prime Minister made it clear that her first priority was to provide certainty for UK citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK. We want citizens in both the UK and the Netherlands to be able to continue to live their lives as they do now. Progress That has not changed, and I feel that its importance has been reflected in the progress made in the course of the negotiations.  While there is still work to be done, we have come a long way. More than two thirds of the issues have been resolved, including vital questions of residency, healthcare, and pensions.  As the prime minister has said, we are within touching distance of an agreement on this key issue. This is not an easy negotiation. The stakes are high on both sides, above all for the millions of citizens wanting to know how their lives will be affected.  The UK is wholeheartedly in engaged in trying to secure a deal. But that is not just up to us: it needs agreement from all 28  European Union leaders.  Succeeding in these negotiations is in all of our interests  and the best way to deliver certainty and prosperity for all our people. Peter Wilson is the UK's ambassador to the Netherlands.  More >