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

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 >

Amsterdammers moan about the arrival of the EMA (but then they would)

Macro-economist Mathijs Bouman looks at the reactions of the inhabitants of the Dutch capital to the news that the European Medicines Agency will move to Amsterdam.  And of course, he says, they are moaning about it. It’s party time in Amsterdam. Wouter Bos has pulled it off. Not until the last round, mind you, and thanks to the luck of the Amsterdammers but mostly because of a clever and intensive lobby which made sure the capital was a contender at all. As soon as Brexit happens the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is leaving London for Amsterdam. Some 900 medicine experts will be making the move as well, taking their families - and their highly-valued purchasing power- with them. Grumblings Great news, you might think, but not a day had passed before the first grumblings were heard. According to Amsterdam-based urban sociologist Jan Rath, the agency will only bring more trouble to a city already struggling with housing problems. Houses in Amsterdam are expensive enough as it is. Starters can’t get on the property ladder and bloody battles are fought over non-rent controlled houses. Those 900 families are going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And what is more, Rath says, the education system will also groan under the additional load, especially the international schools. Far and wide Everyone knows: if you’re ambitious and talented, you have to be in Amsterdam. Am I doing Amsterdammers an injustice when I note that Rath’s reaction is typical? Or am I right in thinking that Amsterdammers will consistently disparage the unique privilege of living in the beating and creative heart of the country, a metropole full to bursting with prosperity, economic activity and employment? The city seems to be living another Golden Age. The population is growing by 10,000 a year because, as everyone knows, Amsterdam is the place to be. Visitors flock to the city from far and wide to work, attend congresses, visit museums and canals. No other city in the world attracts as many young people. Amsterdam comes top in the  Millenials City Ranking, ahead of Berlin, Munich and Lisabon. Tourists and Nutella And the Amsterdammers themselves? They moan and groan. The centre is so busy, they sigh. You can’t even race your bike across the Damrak on a Saturday. There are tourists everywhere. And the noise of those bloody wheelie bags! The corner shop has become yet another Nutella outlet. The children are locked out of the housing market because speculators are buying up the lot. The pages of Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool are full of moaning Amsterdammers. All they see is rot and decay. One woman who lives in the oldest monument on Nieuwmarkt complains about tourists standing in front of her house. A urban geographer bemoans the lot of people who once bought a house in the centre for 70,000 guilders (!) but who can now no longer afford to escape the tourist-ridden city at the weekend. My heart breaks for them. Work, prosperity, progress in a city full of culture and history where a lot of people are dying to live. And yet, Amsterdammers moan. If Adam and Eve had been born in Amsterdam they would have moaned about fallen fruit littering their paradise. This column appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad   More >

Give everyone the opportunity to learn about Anne Frank

Hardly a day has gone by in recent weeks without Anne Frank cropping up in the news. What is going on? asks Ronald Leopold, executive director of the Anne Frank House. Football fans used her photo for an antisemitic provocation of their opponents, American stores were offering an Anne Frank costume for Halloween, the German railway company wanted to name a train after her, and there was an outcry - including threats of legal action - in connection with a new play loosely based on her diary. Seventy years after the publication of her diary the significance of Anne Frank seems only to be increasing. But this significance is not the same for everyone. Anne Frank has traditionally been seen by many as the face and the symbol of the Holocaust, even though objections have been raised against this, often based on good arguments. For example, it is often pointed out that the diary ends where the horrors of the camps begin, that Anne is ‘only’ one of the millions of victims of the Holocaust, each with their own life story, and that so many other remarkable personal accounts of life in wartime have been preserved. History fades away This does not detract from the fact that for many people all over the world Anne Frank forms their first and most important introduction to the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust. But time does its work. History fades away. Children who are now the same age as Anne Frank when she was writing her diary often have grandparents who were born after the war. So it is important not to view the life story of Anne Frank, which is still as powerful as ever, in isolation from its historical context. Symbol At the same time, Anne Frank has entered a public domain in which she increasingly exercises a powerful attraction on those who are searching for a symbol of all kinds of things; often with good intentions that take on an educational form, sometimes rather unfortunate, frequently tasteless, occasionally downright antisemitic. In a rapidly changing media landscape and with a growing distance in time from the Second World War the public expressions surrounding Anne Frank, in all their diversity, will only become stronger (think for example of the applications of hologram or virtual reality technologies that are increasingly used in Holocaust museums in America). Public domain Attempts to control that pubic domain are futile, even assuming that you would want to control it. That would be selling Anne and ourselves short: it is precisely this diversity of meanings that gives everyone who wants it the opportunity to learn more about Anne Frank and her life story, and so learn more about themselves. And the responses to the incidents of recent weeks show that the pubic domain is self-correcting when the borders of what is seen as acceptable are crossed. Significance What does this mean for the future? Firstly, we must continue to provide a historically reliable, authentic and accessible presentation of the life story of Anne Frank in the context of the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust. This can help to prevent the fading of history gaining the upper hand. Secondly, it is wise to not recoil too quickly from contemporary expressions that make reference to Anne Frank. They can form an effective impetus for reflection on the significance of her life story for the world today. And finally: time has not done much work for those who still bear the scars of the Holocaust within them. For them it is as if the war happened yesterday. The history of Anne Frank is also their history. It is not too much to ask that we show empathy with this.  More >

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

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

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

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

The Netherlands: a tale of two governments

The Netherlands: a tale of two governments

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

Dutch national identity goes further than singing the Wilhelmus

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