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


The hell of finding a home to rent in the Netherlands

Attempting to rent a home in the Netherlands turned Julia Corbett into a paranoid spammer with stalker tendencies thrown in. She explains how the rot set in. After not one, two or three, but four properties slipped from my fingers I can safely say I have experienced the housing hell in the Netherlands. Our adventure began when my Dutch partner returned home after some years in England and I became a student in the Netherlands. It has been a more bumpy start than expected after experiencing a lack of suitable housing options. From Hilversum to Leerdam and Den Bosch to Busson, I have learnt that luck and timing has more to do with finding a place to rent than most people will feel comfortable with. My Dutch boyfriend of nearly five years took eagerly to the rental sections of housing websites and arranged a day crammed full of viewings of apartments, houses and loft conversions. Having donned a smart outfit and brushed my hair for the encounter with our future landlords, I found myself being scolded for turning up five minutes late to an appointment that lasted no longer than 30 seconds. We dashed in and out of the four rooms in a supermarket sweep-style daze, wondering where our furniture would fit, before we were ushered out and abandoned in the street as our suited agent sped off on his company moped. 'Where is the carpet?!' we cried at our next viewing only to be informed that carpets, paint and exposed piping were a luxury we must solve on our own. Dream evaporates Things seemed to be looking up when we met a new potential landlord, a 94-year-old retired businessman who rowed for 30 minutes every day and had a garden that was more perfectly manicured than the lawns of royalty. Would I like to live in the grounds of a mansion boasting nine deer, six chickens three dogs, a cat and six small caged birds? Yes, absolutely, sign me up! After my partner negotiated an agreement and I chatted to his wife in broken Dutch while being fed home-grown tomatoes, we skipped away from the viewing giddy with excitement. A home, within our budget, complete with lovely landlord. Success! However, our property bubble was swiftly deflated when we tried to initiate the contract process, only for the estate agent to claim our new landlords no longer wanted us as tenants. Our upset turned to anger and paranoia: what was wrong with us? Why were we unworthy of their out-house? Deciding to carry out the somewhat stalkerish task of returning to the owners for answers, we learned that they had been told by the estate agents we were not interested and rented the property to someone else. Saturated market Though I try not to sound bitter about my experience, I have learned that our tale is not at all unusual for those who cannot yet afford to buy but must live independently. The average rental property in Amsterdam now costs €2,000 a month and businesses have claimed the city is unable to accept more growth because there is not enough suitable rented housing. For the first time the University of Amsterdam has been unable to match the demand for student accommodation and in other cities students are having similar experiences. 'Just buy a house!' has been a solution put forward by family, friends and colleagues, both who are expats themselves and those who were born and raised in the Netherlands. But that's not the easiest thing to do either. The Dutch phrase Van 't kastje naar de muur  – being sent from the closet to the wall - best sums up the experience of being forced to hunt down estate agents and demand answers and information, to discover only bad news. Meanwhile, our search for a home to rent and make our own, like many others in the same situation, continues.  More >


How a day trip to Amsterdam turned into a confrontation with death

How a day trip to Amsterdam turned into a confrontation with death

A day trip to Amsterdam to catch a film and do some Christmas shopping ended up becoming a train journey Brandon Hartley will never forget. It was just another perfectly normal Sunday. I went up to Amsterdam to see a movie and buy a few early Christmas presents. As the sun was setting, I joined a few hundred people waiting on Platform 1 at Amsterdam Central to cram themselves and all their shopping bags onto a crowded train. I managed to find a seat in a second class compartment across from a woman reading a Murakami novel. A group of international students were chatting in English across the aisle. As the dusk turned to darkness, we rolled through Haarlem and on towards Leiden. Somewhere north of Oegstgeest, the train’s driver hit the horn. Its wheels screeched against the rails while he pumped the brakes. I bounced around in my seat like I was on a ride at Efteling. Then we all heard a chilling noise. It sounded like a stick getting dragged across an old wooden fence. The noise rolled down the train as it ground to a halt. ‘We’ve hit something,’ a conductor said in Dutch over the intercom a moment later. ‘Possibly an animal. Maybe a person.’ Not understanding the message, the students began muttering complaints. One of them only had a three minute connection to make at Leiden Centraal. Meanwhile, a family in first class gathered around an iPhone to watch a comedy sketch. The rest of us just sat there staring into space uncertain of what to do. In my experience, this is usually what happens when normal people are suddenly catapulted into the middle of a tragic or violent situation. They don’t scream or wail. Most just sit in stunned silence. Loss and pain The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at a hospital where I ran equipment back and forth between clinics and a busy emergency room. I bore witness to countless families dealing with loss and pain. A few years ago, my girlfriend and I got caught in the middle of three soccer hooligans determined to beat themselves bloody on an overstuffed bus. All the while, the passengers around us simply stared at them or looked out the window like it wasn’t happening. And that’s what occurred on the train after the conductor returned to the intercom and announced that the train had killed someone riding a scooter. Someone gasped, the comedy sketch was hastily shut off and we all sat in silence after the woman with the Murakami novel told the students what was going on. The chorus of an old Radiohead song immediately wedged itself in my head. ‘I’m not here. This isn’t happening.’ While that song kept rolling around in my thoughts, our wait began. A few hours of eerie quiet broken by occasional translations for the students whenever the conductor made an announcement. I tried to avoid watching emergency workers walking back and forth outside. I’ll never forget the sounds of them pulling…..something out from under our carriage. Memories I don’t think anyone on that train is going to be able to erase their memories of what happened. Maybe the boy I walked behind while we were evacuated onto another train. His father had placed his own baseball cap over the kid’s head, perhaps to prevent him from looking out of the windows. The boy focused on the floor instead and counted all the candy wrappers he could find as we were ushered to a metal platform across the gap between the trains. I wound up in a carriage across from two parents with their young daughter. She cheerfully rambled on and on about Hello Kitty while her parents did their best to keep her distracted. Collisions like this are one of the Netherlands’ largest taboos. The names of the victims are never revealed to the public, nor the details. Some are suicides and some are accidents. I don’t know and will never know why that scooter was on the tracks that night. Maybe it was somebody impatiently trying to zip through the crossing to avoid waiting for the train. Or perhaps that’s what they wanted their friends and loved ones to assume afterward. When I got off the train at Leiden Centraal nearly three hours after I departed Amsterdam, the screens on the platform were still overwhelmed with cancellation notices. Downstairs, frustrated travellers were gathered around wooden tables slowly sipping cups of Starbucks coffee. Surveillance Just another perfectly normal Sunday? Unfortunately, yes, but thankfully less so in recent years. In the late 2000s, the Netherlands was considered the European leader for railway suicides. In 2011, ProRail was contending with an average of four suicides per week on train tracks around the country. They’ve since installed fences, surveillance cameras and improved lighting in many areas in an attempt to combat the problem. The railway operator began an extensive €30 million project in 2013 to install additional protective fencing along tracks. An area between Heemstede and Hillegom is now one of at least a few stretches where train drivers are required to slow down in order to prevent collisions with jumpers. While recent statistics from Eurostat suggest that these incidents are currently in decline, they continue as trains collide with suicidal people, copper thieves and others. The impact that these incidents have on train operators and passengers is dramatic. I and my fellow passengers are unlikely to forget what happened earlier this  month anytime soon. I can’t imagine how the driver must feel. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, 113Online offers assistance in both English and Dutch. It’s an independent care provider funded by the government with telephone help lines staffed day and night and an online chat service.  More >


Trump, Zwarte Piet and how to prepare for prime minister Wilders

Election Day 2016. Too bad America won’t have its first female President. But we hope you enjoy America’s first president who’s legally insane, writes Greg Shapiro. Congratulations America, you just had your own Brexit moment. And - in classic American fashion - it was bigger and badder. Yes, the Brexit campaign featured misinformation and xenophobia. But the Trump campaign had all that plus p***y grabbing, pathological lying and Russia-mania! And in America - just like in Britain - on election day it looked like cooler heads, saner heads, would prevail. It wasn’t politically correct to think otherwise. Perhaps that’s why so many people lied to the pollsters. And perhaps that’s why we might continue to end up with hotter, insaner heads in charge. In the Netherlands, one politician’s head gets so hot it even bleaches itself platinum blonde: the populist politician Geert Wilders.  Not a good year From the US to the EU, it is NOT a good year to be in the ruling class. Even if voters aren’t sure which class is ruling them, they’ll tear it down. The day of the Brexit vote, half the country said ‘No to the EU!’ The day after, a top search on Google was ‘What is the EU?’ Brexit voters wanted to be free from an unelected, upper class elite. So they ended up with an unelected, upper class leader who appointed a cabinet full of millionaire elites. But at least their foreign minister - Boris Johnson - is not politically correct.  Where does this resentment of the politically correct ruling class come from? According to one writer: Dorkiness, Arrogance and Smugness. In the Harvard Business Review, professor Joan C. Williams writes that Hillary Clinton was the perfect storm: 'The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables.' Indeed, the Deplorables remark was a classic gaffe, i.e. that moment when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Hillary said 'you could lump half of Trump supporters into a Basket of Deplorables. Racist, sexist, homophobic… you name it.' And let’s not forget in 2008 when Barack Obama was caught off camera saying of small town America: 'they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them.' He not only insulted small town America, he used the word antipathy. Well, who wouldn’t revolt?   Anti-politically correct backlash Perhaps it’s no wonder there was an anti-politically correct backlash. Perhaps a backlash is what happens when people feel they’re being judged. If my 12 year-old son kicks his sister under the table and she says 'Stop,' sometimes he’ll stop. But if she says 'Stop, you’re so immature!' then it’s a full-scale kicking war.  Is there a populist backlash waiting to happen in the Netherlands next? Look no further than the great Zwarte Piet debate. Zwarte Piet is of course the blackface sidekick to Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa. My wife, who is Dutch, insisted for years that Black Pete’s face is black 'from the chimney'. I would reply that the Dutch must have magical chimneys to produce not just soot, but full blackface, afro hair and big red lips. We agreed on a Dutch-style compromise: if Zwarte Piet would lose the blackface, then he could stay. If he’s black 'from the chimney' then let his face have soot from the chimney. And this common sense 'Soot-face' approach is now being phased in on TV and in Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade. Is there a populist backlash? You bet! And some people are doing their best to make it worse. First came Quinsy Gario with his Zwarte Piet Is Racism protest. I’ve been part of Quinsy’s movement, but I also encouraged him to be a bit more specific. Saying 'blackface is racism' one thing. But by labeling the entire Zwarte Piet tradition as racist, it may be doing more harm than good. In 2013, the UN’s Verene Shepherd issued her (unauthorized) statement that the entire Sinterklaas tradition was racist. And that’s when the backlash of resentment made its way to social media. On Facebook the Pietitie page became the fastest-growing Facebook site to reach a million likes. Current polling says 90% of Dutch people want Zwarte Piet to stay. And - even though the blackface tradition is evolving faster than anyone thought possible - this year in Amsterdam a chocolatier with Zwarte Piet treats in its front window was covered with graffiti saying 'You’re racist!' And yes, the graffiti was in English. Thanks. Now - when the inevitable populist backlash comes - they’ll be sure to target us English speakers first. Wilders a winner? So does this mean that a populist politician like Geert Wilders will top the polls next March? His Zwarte Piet policy is simple: blackface mandatory. In other words: yes, he’ll likely win. All the pieces are in place: a holier-than-thou, politically correct elite and resentful, neglected would-be populists. But don’t forget Geert Wilders was in the ruling coalition before, and when the populist joined the ruling class, it didn’t end well. The cabinet fell. And there’s every reason to believe he will overplay his hand again. I use that metaphor deliberately. When the last Dutch coalition fell in 2012, one headline compared the process to a famous Dutch card game, in which the loser is the one left holding the joker, or the Zwarte Piet. The headline read 'Zwarte Piet For Wilders' In America, most likely Donald Trump will also overplay his hand, and his bizarre experiment in the ruling class will be crushed under its own weight. In the card game that is American politics, Donald Trump is the joker, and he will end up holding the Zwarte Piet. Comedian and writer Gregory Shapiro is the author of How to Be Orange, Making Dutch People Take Their Own Assimilation Course and How to Be Dutch: The Quiz. Shapiro is also the host of the weekly United States of Europe on YouTube.   More >


For the Dutch, wearing a bike helmet would be a cultural affront

For the Dutch, wearing a bike helmet would be a cultural affront

While in Amsterdam as a visiting professor at the VU University, Clay Small realised the superiority of Dutch culture when compared to the US is best illustrated by their attitudes to bikes. Sure there are differences in the size of our countries. One’s a socialist society, the other a capitalist bastion. The Dutch painstakingly preserve their 17th- century art and row houses while we remain ever ready to move on. So what if the Dutch citizens of all colours and creeds gel just fine? Hey, we’re working on our issues. No, the hallmark of our differences is in the attitude to cycling. We all know Amsterdam is a river of bicycles from sun up to sun down. There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam, where 67% of the citizens commute by bike daily. The bikes, like Amsterdam’s citizens, come in every colour and shape. Some are lovingly cared for, others look barely functional. Transport Some seat one, two, three, even four! Many bikes have a three-foot basket between the driver and the front wheel. These cargo bikes, with names like Big Babboe, transport everything from children to construction waste. (Cargo bikes, with their smaller front wheels and stretched frames, look like a Dutch version of an American dragster.) Some bikes have large thick wheels, others tiny fold-up wheels for carrying up the office stairs. Many sport plastic crates on the handlebars for books or the day’s lunch. Others have saddlebags slung across the rear tire bumper. Like the unwanted flyers we find tucked under our windshield wipers, Amsterdam businesses go round fitting little plastic saddle covers with their logo and phone number to parked bicycles. Dutch cyclists like to multi-task as they pedal along: smoking, grooving to music, talking, texting, holding hands while ridding side-by-side, telephoning, singing and drinking. The one thing apparently prohibited for both adults and children is helmets. Their faith in the intelligent planning of their bike paths and their trust in fellow cyclists is so strong that for the Dutch, wearing a helmet would be a cultural affront. Rules of the road At rush hour the thousands of cyclists stream through the streets in tight formations. They rarely slow down. They abide by a series of mind-boggling rules of the road, glide along unfazed through relentless near misses, but remain, at least outwardly, happy and consistently polite. The steady rush of bikes weaving in and out looks like a video game compared to the reality of a normal American city rush hour. Dutch bicyclists appear to symbolise a better-organised and superior culture. The system works based on the peoples’ abiding mutual trust – not something in abundance in 21st century USA. My conclusion about a superior culture was based, in some part, on the fact that in my many trips to Holland I never saw a bike accident. That said, I have been shaken to my core by bicyclists. They whizz by, tranquil and insouciant, inches from my leg, scaring the bejesus out of me. Then again, all day long, cyclists calmly miss each other by even narrower margins. The citizens understand and, more importantly follow, the bike culture. Why wear helmets if there is no chance of an accident? The helmetless daring stands as the sceptre of a superior culture. Miscalculation Then, on my last night in Amsterdam, it happened. I strolled out of my Plantage neighborhood toward the Brouwerij’tij brewery and walked along an esplanade named Sarphatisstraat. Instead of a line of trees running down the middle of the esplanade there is a ribbon of mellow grass hiding the trolley tracks. To the sidewalk’s left was a soft green bank along a canal adorned with ancient weeping willows. It was a beautiful Amsterdam evening at 5pm and bikes were, of course, everywhere. I watched at a distance of 200 yards as two bikes prepared to cross from the other side of the esplanade, over the trolley tracks to my sidewalk. One of the cyclists miscalculated. The bikes’ frames clanged together, entangled and crashed to the ground in a loud, hard clatter. Immediately pedestrians rushed to the scene and numerous people jumped off their bikes to help. As I got closer it was clear both riders were hurt. A 10-year old girl was screaming and holding the left side of her head. There was blood. A Rastafarian man, apparently the girl’s father, was bending up and down from the waist, moaning and holding his shoulder. Comfort His daughter was comforted by an elderly woman with long, bright red hair wearing a full-length emerald green coat. She affectionately wrapped the girl in her arms. A middle-aged man in tweed, perhaps a doctor, guided the injured Rastafarian to a bench and bent over examining the left shoulder. Others attended to unraveling the bikes. The crowd around the accident site was calm and made sympathetic sounds. Since everyone was speaking in Dutch, I have no idea what was actually said. I stood on the crowd’s edge feeling useless. I hung around to admire how people of all ages and colours stopped to offer genuine help. It was a community effort. Twenty minutes later the pair regained their equilibrium, thanked everyone and began walking their bikes towards home. Despite the reality that bicycle accidents do happen, there is much to admire about the Dutch culture. It must be the bikes. After a 30-year career at PepsiCo, Clay Small is now a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas where he teaches at the Cox School of Business. His first novel, Heels over Head, will be published next year.  More >


Lodewijk Asscher: Ignore real injustice at your peril

Lodewijk Asscher: Ignore real injustice at your peril

The one lesson to be learned from Brexit and Trump is that ignoring real injustice comes at a price, says social affairs minister and Labour leadership contender Lodewijk Asscher. The results of the US elections will be scrutinised for a long time to come but one thing is clear: the left must never again humiliate or disregard voters. Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ was more than just a slip of the tongue. What it showed was a an unwillingness to understand why people are angry or frightened. It is wrong to talk only of a sense of discontent. In many cases there is real injustice: labour migration leads to lower wages. Unfair competition leads to insecure contracts. Globalisation wipes out entire professions. The people at the top of the tree are getting richer and the middle groups are left behind. If that is the daily injustice people experience and there is no credible alternative to vote for, they are cornered. And if progressive parties limit themselves to an explanation of the status quo they become part of the problem. All that is left then is the emergency brake: a Brexit. A wall. A vote for Trump. Populists Right-wing populists meanwhile are adding their own grudges to the mix. Scapegoating politics is putting an acceptable gloss on intolerance. Open enthusiasm for Trump expressed by the Klu Klux Klan passes without being challenged. Add to that the constant stereotyping of minorities and the people will no longer judge each other as individuals but only as a representative of a creed or race. The dark side of the Trump campaign did not stop a number of those who voted for Obama to now vote for Trump. For them economic injustice prevailed, and the wish to be proud of their own community once again. The awful consequence is that for the first time in years minorities in the US are afraid for their futures. Community Our conclusion must be that, apart from economic justice, pride and identity form an essential part of feeling at home in a community. It might be post-modern progressive to neglect this but that would be to deny that it is a basic human need to belong and be heard. A new sense of pride is needed and possible. The Netherlands differs from the US in that it has a much better social safety net and that income disparity is smaller. But not everyone has the same opportunities and insecurity about the future is increasing here too. The country is changing and solidarity is no longer a given. VVD and PVV are using this to their advantage and the left has so far failed to come up with a convincing response. That is why change is necessary and why I want to become the next leader of the Labour Party. Change But can Labour guarantee change after having formed a government with the VVD for the last four years? Of course it can! During my time as minister I have moved a number of ideological goalposts: the glorification of flex work was stopped, fake constructions and unfair competition caused by misguided European rules were halted, the minimum wage for youngsters went up and cleaners were given fixed contracts again. I am also proud of the fact that I have been able, with the help of the unions, to undo the brutal shortening of unemployment benefit period and the implementation of a more flexible dismissal law. We can’t keep going back to the government accord over and over. Yes, we can be proud of the stability we brought to the government. But credible change can only come about by admitting that some of the compromises had to be made but were not necessarily Labour policy. By admitting that a quick rise in the pension age wasn’t an ideal choice, and neither were the precipitate cutbacks on home care. The VVD is now distancing itself from the cabinet as quickly as its ideological legs will carry it. The VVD manifesto is all about defending the interests of big business. For workers it holds nothing but insecurity as making people redundant will become easier. It’s a cynical betrayal of the middle groups. Opportunities I choose a different course. Optimism for all means opportunities for all. And for that we need fairer ground rules. That means a complete stop to labour migration which is nothing more than wage competition by another name. During the Brexit negotiations the Netherlands must insist on more autonomy on labour migration. It also means a ban on trade agreements like TTIP as long as these don’t put the position of workers first, and a fairer tax system so multinationals can no longer avoid paying their share. Workers need more security. Top salaries must be limited and workers must have a greater say. I call for an end to zero hour contracts, equal rights for payroll workers and breaks for small employers when it comes to sick pay. New jobs We also need to create new jobs. There are plenty of opportunities, one of which is to make social housing energy neutral. Freeing up money for such a scheme will result in thousands of jobs as will investment in caretakers and teaching assistants and public transport monitors. The Labour Party must also be the party which will tackle work stress, promote parental leave and care leave, and strive for fewer staff changes in care homes. When Wilders says ‘let’s make the Netherlands great again’ and the VVD ‘let Netherlands remain the Netherlands, the left mustn’t let itself be elbowed from the stage. The Netherlands must be allowed to become the Netherlands, a country of which every inhabitant can be proud. A country that stays the same by moving with the times. I call it progressive patriotism: proud of the Netherlands but against racism and exclusion. This article was published earlier in the NRC  More >


What happened when fraudsters put my home on Airbnb

Living in a foreign city, away from family and friends, means you get a steady stream of visitors. But not everyone turning up at Deborah Nicholls-Lee's home has been expected. When you live in a city as beautiful as Amsterdam you get lots of house guests from all over the world, but on previous occasions the guests were known to me. So I was surprised when one Saturday in October a Korean couple with a toddler appeared on my doorstep and announced that they had booked my city centre apartment through Airbnb. Our chaotic household, with the washing-up piled high, floors littered with unfinished Lego projects and my husband’s pants drying on the radiator was no place for paying guests. It was our home. There must be some mistake. The mistake was a scam, and a clever one. Our house had been advertised by a smiling couple, Marijn and her partner, set against a background of stock photographs and fake reviews. None of it had any connection with us and the place we have called home since 2009. It was cold outside, so I ushered the family in. The daughter played merrily with my children while the parents frantically tried to organise new accommodation over a cup of coffee. They politely refused the charming B&B that my friend runs nearby and instead – unbelievably – booked with Airbnb again. More visitors Fast forward four days and more strangers appear at my door. This time it was two German lads. I broke the news and held my breath as I awaited their reaction. Their optimism and eagerness to begin their vacation, having reached their holiday bolt-hole, gave way to dejection and despair. They trudged off into the jungle of fully-booked hotels and seedy youth hostels outside and I felt awful. It is their fault for exchanging emails and money outside the website. It is Airbnb’s fault for not making their security more robust. But I am left to pick up the pieces and tell people who have travelled, sometimes thousands of miles, that their holiday plans are ruined and their first impression of this wonderful city is crime, deception and disappointment. On Sunday it happens again. This time I buzz them straight in, believing my husband, who has just left, has forgotten something. And there they are, two random men in my hallway, asking me with desperate expressions if any of my other unexpected guests got their deposits back from Airbnb, while my cooking, interrupted, blackens upstairs. While the exhausted Korean couple quietly accepted their mistake, I thought these two were going to punch a hole in my wall. I was frightened. They had nine friends outside who thought they had booked my ‘party’ house. Instead they faced a middle-aged mum in a pinny condemning them to some humiliating news they must share with their peers and an uncertain evening in whatever lodgings they could scrabble together before dark. Airbnb’s response Airbnb Help replied promptly to me via Twitter. I gave them some leads: the location of the property, the time that the profile was removed. They were friendly, apologetic, but unable to help. 'Something needs to be done to reduce the number of fraudsters abusing your website and your name,' I banged out, with exasperation, in a tweet. 'We do have an alert to tell people not to make any off-site transactions,' they replied, 'However, some people still do.' This was confirmed by a member of their local communication agency, Kim Zoon, who showed more interest in the case once it was published in Het Parool a few days later. 'I’m very sorry this has happened to you,' she said. Easily said. Airbnb is a problem for residents Amsterdam was one of the first cities to make peer-to-peer renting legal, but as its grip on the city tightens, residents like me are beginning to regret this move. My fake rental was one of some 14,000 Airbnb lettings in the city and my experience is a symptom of how difficult it is to regulate these sprawling platforms and the detrimental effect they have on residents. I love this city and I hope that the privacy and day-to-day needs of its residents will be more respected in the future. Until then, each time I hear wheelie cases outside my door, I shall still wonder if I ought to put the kettle on. Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a writer and the content manager for Amsterdam Mamas.   More >


The government must get on with energy transition, urge CEOs

The government must get on with energy transition, urge CEOs

The government must get its skates on when it comes to energy transition or the climate and the economy will suffer, according to the CEOs of Shell Nederland, Rotterdam port and energy firm Eneco, among others. The Netherlands finds itself at an important crossroads: are we going to postpone the decision to achieve sustainable energy management or are we going to step up efforts to make energy transition happen? We, the CEOs of a number of large energy sector corporations active in the Dutch market, are calling unequivocally for the acceleration of energy transition. As a transition coalition we urge the (next) government and parliament to prioritise energy transition and make it an important paragraph in the new government accord. Under the Paris Agreement, the Netherlands committed itself to reducing CO2 emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050. We wholeheartedly embrace this ambitious goal. It offers opportunities to strengthen the economy and create more green prosperity. A drastic reduction in greenhouse gases is needed to limit climate change. For these two reasons we think the Dutch government should make haste with the implementation of energy transition. Shared vision The SER Energy Agreement  sets out a number of goals regarding the sustainability of energy management in the Netherlands in the years up to 2020 and 2023. These refer to energy saving measures and an increase in efforts to promote renewable energy. No agreement has been reached about the period after 2023. It’s not for lack of plans, reports and opinions. There are plenty of those. What is needed is a shared vision on the speed with which the transition is to take place and how it will be managed between 2020 and 2050. We are convinced that energy transition is vital in the battle against climate change. We also see the acceleration of the transition as an opportunity to develop a new economy. In order to realise this we need an enterprising, stimulating government, one that creates space for companies to fulfill their role in the process. That calls for long-term, integrated policies in the areas of climate, energy and economics. In order to be effective such policies need a consistent implementation at various administrative levels. That is the way to create a future in which sustainable products and markets can thrive and companies can invest, innovate and create new jobs. Priority We are convinced that investment and innovation and the application of new techniques will provide a boost to the Dutch economy. We are also convinced that Dutch companies have a world market to win with the knowledge and experience they will gain along the way. True, acceleration will be more expensive in the short-term but it will be profitable in the long-term. That is called entrepreneurship and looking ahead. Energy transition will demand a great effort from citizens, authorities and companies. A quick and successful transition needs a multi-annual, robust policy framework. That is why we call on the government to give priority to: Drawing up climate legislation to implement the objectives of the Paris Agreement in 2050, with specific intermediary objectives in 2030 and 2040. Appointing a minister for economy, climate and energy who will ensure policy cohesion. Setting up an independent climate authority that binds the parties and calls them to account regarding a dynamic and consistent implementation, and guarantees the agreements made irrespective of which government is in power. Establishing a national investment bank to facilitate further innovation and major energy projects on land and sea. There is no such thing as an exact blueprint for energy transition. But our commitment to it is clear: we embrace the climate agreement and we want to step up efforts to make it happen. How exactly the transition will take shape in the coming decades is something we would like to discuss with authorities, NGOs, other companies and umbrella organisations, The agreements we will reach will have to be binding because they form the basis for investment. In the past few weeks we have made contact with other Dutch companies about our call for an accelerated energy transition. At this moment some 40 companies have come out in support and their number is growing daily. Ab van der Touw is CEO of Siemens Nederland Allard Castelein is CEO of Havenbedrijf Rotterdam Jeroen Haas is CEO of Eneco Marjan van Loon is CEO of Shell Nederland Pieter van Oors is CEO of Van Oord This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant   More >


Bringing back conscription would be a light version of slavery

Bringing back conscription would be a light version of slavery

The Christian Democrats should stop banging on about bringing back military service. It’s not good for the economy and not good for the hapless youngsters who have to do it, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. Parents, lock up your 18 year-olds: Sybrand Buma is coming to get them. The CDA leader presented his manifesto this week and a prominent part of the Christian Democrats’ programme is a re-introduction of conscription, not just for boys but girls too. Apart from the army, Buma is proposing several alternatives for those less eager for military discipline, including care homes and the police force. The Christian Democrats want to start small. It’ll be the ‘troublemakers’ first (i.e. the terror vloggers ) then the rest of the 18+ target group until all youngsters will be dedicating six months or a year of their lives to the greater good of society. That, says Buma, will ‘combat rampant individualism’. According to the CDA compulsory civilian service will solve such societal ills as vandalism and people going around insulting each other. Foolish and dishonest A couple of doors down the political corridor, at the ChristenUnie’s headquarters, equally enthusiastic cheers can be heard for this form of slavery-light. CU leader Jan-Gert Segers thinks it’s a great way for the young to learn about the norms and values of our society. It’s a clever plan: take a year out of the life of every young person and hey presto they become useful members of society. But from an economic idea it’s a foolish and dishonest plan. Here are five reasons why it shouldn’t go ahead. Ever. Argument 1: Compulsory civilian service affects the supply of labour. If a certain job is important to society then workers should be paid accordingly. That work will then be done by normal employees. Consequently, compulsory civilian service jobs will be those jobs that can’t be done at market value. In other words: of the say fifty years a person contributes to the economy one year will be wasted doing work that society claims is important but won’t pay for. And this at a time when an aging population is already leading to a decrease in the working population. Without a compulsory civilian service the working population (between 20 and 67) will go down from 10.5 to 9.8 million people over the next 25 years. A compulsory civilian service carried out by people with an average age of 21 will lower that number by another 200,000. That is wasteful. Argument 2: A lot of the youngsters having to work as an assistant in the army or the police force or as a care worker are probably better at something else. That is mis-allocation of labour on a very big scale. Let people do what they are good at and everybody benefits. Argument 3: History tells us that government interference with the labour market leads to displacement. Normal jobs became subsidised and now they may become compulsory civilian service jobs. Civilian service is dumping in disguise. Argument 4: Compulsory civilian service is bad for you. Economist Wouter Leenders wrote a nice article about the personal cost of conscription. Research shows that ten years down the line the incomes of conscripts were 5% lower. A year’s career delay costs money. Leave them alone  Finally, let’s not pretend that Dutch youngsters are crime-prone layabouts. They are extremely busy studying and working. In fact, the percentage of youngsters  (18-24) that neither studies nor works is the lowest in Europe. Please Mr Buma and Mr Segers, leave those youngsters alone. Let them have their unbroken education and a clear career path. Don’t waste their time by having them go ‘bang bang’ in the army’s trenches, doing odd jobs in a care home or getting tea and coffee for coppers. It really would be better for everyone. This column was published earlier in the FD  More >


Government urged to invest in science: Nobel prizes come at a price

Government urged to invest in science: Nobel prizes come at a price

Invest in science or those Nobel prizes may well become a thing of the past, the Netherlands' leading Dutch scientific organisations are warning. The fact that Ben Feringa won the Nobel prize for chemistry is a huge boost for Dutch science. But a coincidence it is not. A prize of this magnitude is the result of decades of investment in the lengths and breadths of scientific research. The Dutch scientific community is proud of its home grown Nobel laureate, a man who not only excels in his field but  who is modest to boot. Feringa, rightly honoured for his work, never fails to point out that he is not a scientific soloist. The gold medal he will receive in Stockholm in December is the result of teamwork. Many scientists from a number of disciplines and universities here and abroad have been working on the development of molecular motors from the early nineties. Team sports The Netherlands is good at scientific team sports, with just the right balance of competition and cooperation. The Netherlands is a small country and involving partners to tackle important societal issues (poldering) is in our genes. No other thinks less of uniting all the big scientific players – and students and young researchers – on the same day. The National Science Agenda, which was drafted last year, conveys the same message:  Dutch scientists are good at working together on important themes not only with other scientists but with people from outside the academic world. It is that cross pollination and mutual inspiration that gives the Netherlands such a broad scientific base. And it’s this ecosystem of cooperation that attracts young talent. Investment A gold medal is the result of decades of investment, not years. It is investment in science in its broadest sense, over long periods of time. It may not always be possible to predict when important developments will take place but it is possible to recognise and foster talent early on. Politicians find it hard to resist a quick score by announcing investments in the trending topics of today. But short term policies are not for science. If the Netherlands wants to attract and keep scientific talent it must invest in the basics: solid academic training, good facilities and a climate of intellectual challenge and inspiring cooperation. The invention of the Groningen team only saw the light of day as a result of decades of public investment in fundamental science. In recent years these investments have been cut back while other countries increased their scientific budgets. And now the Dutch scientific structure is beginning to show the cracks. Scientists are saying it can’t hold up much longer and Feringa, at his first major press conference, said the same. It is understandable for a small country such as the Netherlands to boast about winning a Nobel prize. But amid the rejoicing the Dutch government must take  responsibility for the proper finance of the basics of science – and future Nobel prizes. Businesses also look upon this as a crucial investment in the future earning capacity of the country and a stimulus for private investment in Research and Development. If the government ignores the call this country will cease to be attractive to home grown high flyers, never mind young talent from across the globe. The Dutch lowlands are a scientific plateau with many peaks and must remain so. That means an annual one billion euro extra, both to secure a structural basis and for the realisation of projects outlined in the national Science Agenda, something the coalition of knowledge institutions and employers’ organisations recently asked for. We urge politicians to heed the call of our latest Nobel prize winner Ben Feringa who didn’t speak out for himself but for the future of this country. José van Dijck is president of KNAW Karl Dittrich is chairman of VSNU  Stan Gielen is chairman of  NWO This article was published earlier by the Volkskrant  More >


How to go Dutch: Every time I pass an exam I lose an excuse to speak English

How to go Dutch: Every time I pass an exam I lose an excuse to speak English

Five years ago Molly Quell moved to the Netherlands with her husband, an academic, for a short-term project. Now she’s single, has fallen in love with the country and finds herself in the unexpected position of having to integrate. Read the first and second parts of her series here. I was honestly terrified that as I sat down to write the third piece in this series, I would have to confess that I had failed the inburgeren examen. In fact, if you’d talked to me after I'd written the last piece I would have told you I was considering taking up residency in any country that didn’t require me to speak Dutch (which, it turns out, is most of the world). But that is not what happened. In the past three months, I have sat and passed two of the five exams – with 9s. As I explained in my first piece, the integration exam has five components: Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking and the infamous Knowledge of Dutch Society. I have passed Reading and Listening and am due to sit Writing at the end of September. Before I get too cocky, however, I should point out that I tackled the easiest exams first and am slowly working my way up to the hardest. So there is still plenty of opportunity to fail. Writing, which I nearly never do. And speaking, which I do less than writing if I can help it. (Unless I am drunk. Or around American tourists in Amsterdam. Nothing gets me to switch to Dutch faster than American tourists.) And finally the cultural exam, which is just as absurd as you'd imagine. It’s so absurd I haven’t even had the heart to schedule it yet. Soviet prison Since I live in Delft, I’ve been taking the exams at the testing centre in Rijswijk, which has all of the charm of a Soviet prison. When I arrived for the very first exam there wasn’t even a sign to indicate which room it was in. In fact, the testing centre is on what looks like the first floor of an apartment building, so I spent about 15 minutes mulling around the lobby, checking my phone and generally acting like a serial killer before realising the door was literally a metre in front of me. Once inside, there are no instructions about what to do. I walked up to the reception desk but no one was there. I took a seat. The layout of the room meant I couldn't see the desk from where I was sitting, so I didn’t realise it had opened until the line for registration snaked past my chair. I suppose part of integrating is learning about the Dutch attitude to customer service, so I see this as part of the inburgeren process. Early 1990s As the testing centre makes its announcements in Dutch and everyone waiting is there because they are not native Dutch speakers, there was a lot of confusion when we were called to take the exam, but eventually we all got sorted into the correct room. The testing system is identical to the examples provided on the website. It also hasn’t been updated since the early 90s. Frankly, I was surprised the examiner didn’t have to insert a floppy disk to start the exam. For the second exam I repeated the process, except that this time I knew where the door was so I looked less like an idiot to the building's residents. In the first piece in this series I described my Dutch language ability as 'limited'. Now, with two 9s under my belt, I am rapidly running out of excuses for not speaking Dutch. I have taken to claiming that I can listen to Dutch, but soon I expect I will have passed the Speaking exam as well so I can no longer lean on that excuse. Follow tourists My friends offer to help me practice, but the the truth is everyone finds it frustrating when I switch to Dutch. The conversation is less fun and much less intelligent. There are only a few people in my social circle who have the patience and the interest to actually help. Those people are a godsend. The best trick I have discovered for speaking more Dutch, other than following around American tourists and mocking their apparel with my Dutch friends, is to leave Delft. It’s not a big city and after living here for a few years, everyone at my nearby Albert Heijn, at the market, at my regular bar all switch to English as soon as they see me. Surprisingly, I have many more opportunities to practise in Amsterdam, with the added benefit of not embarrassing myself in front of people I see regularly. Belgium is even better. The Dutch government should subsidise day trips to Belgium for Dutch practice. We might pick up Flemish accents but, hey, the Belgians understand us perfectly. Molly will update on her progress again in the winter.  More >