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


Youp drives a Jeep on holiday in Scotland

Youp drives a Jeep on holiday in Scotland

Comedian Youp van 't Hek is on holiday in Scotland and finds his left-hand drive is not as easy to handle as he thought. Driving a car with the steering wheel on the right-hand side is difficult enough so why not make life easier and go for an automatic. It’ll save you from having to change gear with your left hand. So said a good friend who likes to dole out good advice. This time he was meddling with my trip to the Highlands of Scotland. I wanted to take my own antique mid-life motor but the boat to Newcastle was full. My wife agreed with my friend. We should hire an automatic. I said we’d see when we got to Glasgow. In the meantime I hired a Mini via internet. I liked the idea of bumping through the beautiful Scottish landscape in a Mini. And all that stuff about changing gear would sort itself out. I can shoot a football with my left and right leg, I write with my left hand and I throw with my left. I am ambidextrous. No problem. The automatic car turned into a bit of a thing. Lots of people were wading in. Why was I being so stubborn? Why did I always do the opposite of what everyone else wanted? What did it matter if an automatic is that much easier and thus safer? Did I want to be responsible for the death of my family? I said we’d see when we got to Glasgow. Exchange Last Monday we arrived and I asked the Europcar lady if I could exchange my merry Mini for an oldie automatic. She searched the computer for a long time and then said they had one automatic left. I caught the word Jeep in amongst the Scottish which sounded like a promising deal. A Jeep among the Lochs. I felt like someone out of an advertisement for a really cushy pension scheme. I pictured our Jeep on the edge of a river full of jumping salmon. Perhaps I should buy a rod, some wading boots and an outdoor smoker and… The Jeep cost a hell of a lot more than the Mini. I said ok, signed 17 times on the dotted line and was given the key. The car was in spot 36B. And there, indeed, it was. The Jeep. It wasn’t one of those romantic jungle things you see in survival shows with Z list celebrities being bounced around deserts. This was a tank. I could single-handedly restore order in Syria, Yemen and Iraq in it. It was a car that would keep apart rioters and policemen on strike with ease and wouldn’t topple if required to lift a piece of bridge. Knobs and levers I climbed in and spent the next hour trying to figure out what the 921 knobs and levers were for. Windscreen wipers wiped, windscreen sprayers sprayed, seats shot back and forth, the roof opened and closed as did the boot, and the GPS could do just about everything except tell us where we were going. My wife suggested a couple of times we go back and ask for the Mini to be restored to us but I said no. Not with all that dangerous gear changing. At last we moved. We were actually driving, on the left side of the road. Or on the left side of the left side, in fact. I had to get used to the ridiculous width of the car, you see. Lots of Scots will have been be able to follow my progress. From Glasgow to Edinburgh the street lights were kissed by my wing mirror and the grass on the roadsides won’t have to be cut for years to come. I have given Loch Ness its monster. When you read this I have another two days to go. We drive at a snail’s pace as nice little Minis pass us by, beeping as they go. Will we survive? Of course. This is a tank, albeit one without wing mirrors and hubcaps, and you simply cannot get yourself killed in one. So the question for the airheads in Wassenaar and Blaricum where 90 percent of these vehicles can be found: how do you manage to do it? Youp van 't Hek is a comedian and writer. This column appeared earlier in the NRC  More >


The Dutch economy: The old and the new normal

The Dutch economy: The old and the new normal

Economist Mathijs Bouman says the 2% growth rate predicted for 2015 by the number crunchers at the CPB hides a rising structural deficit. It’s taken a while but the optimism virus has now definitely spread to the economists of the CPB. Over the last year, the government forecasters have become more cheery-faced with every new projection although they hardly went overboard. Last year the CPB would not go further than a 1.25% economic growth rate for 2015. The euro nose-dived, as did oil prices, the housing market started to show signs of life and internal demand rose. But the forecast by the number crunchers in The Hague only made it 2% tops in June. There has been much bad news since. The cabinet has been scaling down gas production in Groningen, the Chinese economy is cooling down, the Brazilian and Russian economies are in recession and world trade is stagnating. But in spite of all this the CPB forecast remains at 2% for the whole of 2015. And next year it says it will be 2.4%. Should this really come about the growth rate will be higher than the average pre-crisis rate. Forget the ‘new normal’ of 1%, the Netherlands is growing again at a pace we thought was normal before the crisis. Unfortunately the ‘old normal’ is surfacing in other CPB figures: the budget deficit is going down at a slower pace than predicted. With revenues from gas down and a €5bn tax reduction, the budget deficit for next year will be 1.5% of gdp. In June the SPB prediction hovered around the 0.8% mark. Granted, 1.5% is still well under the maximum deficit of 3% allowed under the European stability and growth pact. Nevertheless, the cabinet is starting to go back to its old spendthrift ways. This is especially clear from the so-called structural deficit, or the budget deficit corrected by conjunctural ups and downs. Next year the structural deficit will go up to 1.1% of gdp. According to the budgetary rules of the European Union this figure should be around 0.5%. A hike in the structural deficit during a conjunctural up is understandable politically but not very wise from an economic point of view. Economists call it procyclical budgetary policy and they never pronounce these words without a moue of distaste. I would like to know if all the Keynsian economists in this country who booed the policy of cutbacks of this government in the last few years will be equally outraged about the rising structural deficit. Mathijs Bouman is a macro-economist. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


A blast from a distant past: the basic income

A blast from a distant past: the basic income

Economists Rick van der Ploeg and Willem Vermeend don't think the basic income, which a number of local councils want to experiment with, is a very good idea. Long ago, in the 1970s, left-wing parties dreamt of a basic income for everyone: young, old, rich and poor should all get a free, no strings attached, hand-out from the state. The amount would be around the poverty threshold, currently at around €1,000 a month. According to advocates, a flat income would do away with complicated social security schemes, such as benefits. Many would lead happier lives, their dignity intact. People on benefits would no longer have to suffer the indignities of having to apply for jobs and pesky controls would also be a thing of the past. Unfortunately for them, the idea was laughed out of parliament by a large majority of politicians. Not only would it be prohibitively expensive, it would also reward laziness, the kind of hammock scheme which would lead to fewer people in work and higher taxes for businesses and workers. And so the basic income idea – which was never implemented anywhere in the world – was quietly shelved. In the past, right-wing economist Milton Friedman proposed a similar scheme which abolished all benefits via a so-called negative income tax system. This idea, too, was relegated to the bin. It’s back Now the basic income is back. Its adherents never really gave up on the idea and here they are, 40 years on, waging a summer offensive. Over the past few weeks the media, in the middle of the silly season, offered ample coverage to enthusiastic left-wing aldermen in places like Wageningen, Nijmegen, Tilburg, Utrecht, Groningen and Maastricht wanting to experiment with local variations of the basic income in their towns. Although it is not entirely clear what these experiments entail, the fact is that they constitute an additional, far-reaching adjustment of the present benefit system. Some propose a three-year period of around €1,100 a month for people on benefits (on a voluntary basis). This money will be paid out unconditionally. There is no obligation to apply for jobs. They will receive no further financial support from the council and they will be allowed to earn extra on the side. Advocates of the scheme say that the fact their extra income will not have a negative effect on their benefits will make people want to work more. Whether this is true we will have to see but if it is, then it would be an obvious case of false competition. People with a free basic income would settle for lower pay and so take jobs from the working people who are in actual fact stumping up the money for this scheme. The lack of any controls surrounding the scheme would also promote the black economy. Contradiction The experiments are in complete contradiction to the incentive-led social security policy the present cabinet is trying to achieve. For this reason alone the government should put a stop to these silly season schemes sooner rather than later. Surely local councils have better ways of spending their money. The tenacity of basic income adherents is astounding. They now want to impose it via the local councils. Any argument against this pie in the sky scheme is regarded as right-wing nonsense. They also claim that detractors of the scheme have a jaundiced view of humanity and that those economists who say the sums don’t add up belong to the classic (the right-wing) school of economy. But they forget that not only the left and the right of the political centre are against a basic income, the SP is as well. The socialists rightly fear that doling out free money will cause serious cracks in our current social security system. Elections It is to be expected that the basic income will resurface in the election programmes of some parties in 2017. GroenLinks is almost certain to make it a campaign issue. In order to save those in favour from having to do the sums, we have done them for them. The CPB, in an earlier report, has already concluded that a basic income of half the social minimum (around €750 a month) will lead to job losses of around 350,000. A simple sum also shows that a basic income of €1,100 per month for every Dutch citizen would cost around €200bn. Minus the benefits which adherents of the scheme say can then be abolished, the cost will be much lower, around the €75bn mark. In order to cough up this money a significant hike in taxes will be necessary. Economist Raymond Gradus in his article for Mejudice put it at a staggering 25%. The adherents of the scheme don’t agree with these ‘right-wing’ figures. They think the positive effects will do much to bring down the final cost. Based on unproven and tenuous assumptions, they think many more people will return to work and that many billions will be saved on bureaucracy, care and policing. And people will be happier, they claim. That is as maybe, but adherents of the scheme must surely agree that those who have to foot the tax bill for all this free money will feel less than elated. Willem Vermeend is a former State Secretary of Finance and Minister of Social Affairs in the Dutch government and currently entrepreneur and professor at the University of Maastricht. Rick van der Ploeg is a former State Secretary for Eduction, Culture and Science in the Dutch government and professor of economics at the University of Oxford. This article appeared earlier in the Telegraaf .      More >


‘Dijsselbloem is sidelining the democratic process’

‘Dijsselbloem is sidelining the democratic process’

The Netherlands may be proud to have one of its own mingle with the high and mighty but the fact is that Jeroen Dijsselbloem is side-lining the democratic process, write David Hollanders and Merijn Oudenampsen. Writer Milan Kundera distinguished two kinds of provincialism. The kind manifested by big countries ignores outside influences and favours its own. Small countries, however, show their provincialism by showing a great appreciation for what happens outside their borders. That outside world remains alien and unattainable, however, which is why small nations tend to embrace their influential figures as symbols of pride and stability. Kundera was referring to writers but the same is true for politicians. The re-election of Jeroen Dijsselbloem as chairman of the Eurogroup led to proud reactions in this country’s press. ‘He has the patience of an ox,’ the Volkskrant proclaimed. The journalist, barely able to contain his enthusiasm, went on to describe the ‘dominance of Holland’. The piece was accompanied by a picture of a cool looking Dijsselbloem towering over his colleagues. With Kundera’s words in mind such a reaction is not an unexpected one. But it’s obstructing a proper reflection of what is actually happening. Private creditors In 2010 it wasn’t Greece that was saved but the private creditors - from Deutsche Bank to ING. The troika operated like a collection agency. It took over Greek debt and has been trying to land the country with the bill ever since. The state comes armed with a weapon that banks don’t have at their disposal: the threat to destroy the Greek banking system by the European Central Bank. As everybody knows and the IMF have since admitted, the Greek debt cannot be paid back. However, the loss is not borne by the original creditors but by the European citizens. This effectively pits the Greek taxpayer and the non-Greek taxpayer against each other. The fact that Dijsselbloem is part of this set-up is not really something to be proud of. If we look at his plans for the rest of Europe more questions arise. His agenda for Europe is set out in the letter he wrote to support his candidature and is a personal election programme of sorts. Competitiveness In his letter Dijsselbloem proposes further integration and centralisation of European economic policy in which ‘competitiveness’ is key. Part of the programme is the flexibilisation of labour markets, deregulation of product markets and pension and social security reforms. Dijsselbloem wants a European framework of ‘national competitiveness councils’ managed by Brussels which will supervise these reforms and tell national governments what they can and cannot do. This is a programme with a clear political bias and one that, in a functioning democracy, should be put to the national vote. What Dijsselbloem is proposing is diametrically opposed to anything his Labour party stands for and should be cause for action among its members. But this is more than an internal party matter. Whether left or right-wing, all citizens should be concerned. Where is the democratic mandate for what Dijsselbloem is proposing? He is part of the Eurogroup as a minister in a government which has pledged to reduce the powers transferred to Brussels. And yet here he is, making a case for a far-reaching convergence of economic policies and handing over more national powers to Brussels. More influence We are being told that Dijsselbloem’s position will give us more influence in Brussels but the reverse seems to be true. The Eurogroup is accountable to who exactly? It’s an informal club with a foggy organisational structure. Its minutes are not accessible to the public. As Max van Weezel rightly noted in Vrij Nederland, national parliaments can ask questions in advance about what their ministers will propose in Brussels but they have no way of knowing what is being decided in the back rooms. Parliaments are being side-lined, a state of affairs which the Dutch Council of State warned against in 2013 when it said the strong increase of informal European coordination could have a detrimental effect on the democratic process. To ignore this because our minister is rubbing shoulders with the great and the good is provincialism of the worst kind and one that no country should display. David Hollanders teaches finance at Tilburg University. Merijn Oudenampsen is a sociologist and political scientist. This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


‘Gay wedding tourism would be good for everyone’

‘Gay wedding tourism would be good for everyone’

More can be done to make Amsterdam and the Netherlands the gay capital of the world, write D66 politicians Jan Paternotte and Sjoerd Sjoerdsma. They believe we should give gay couples from all over the world the right to get married here. Amsterdam is getting ready for its twentieth Gay Pride canal parade. The capital's waterways will once again be a showcase for freedom and tolerance. Not only is it the best party in the world, it is also a celebration of the city’s great historical tradition of allowing people to be themselves, whoever they are and whomever they love. We should be proud of a city that was the first to welcome marriage between same-sex partners. This Gay Pride marks yet another step in the emancipation of gays which started in Amsterdam. But more can be done to make Amsterdam and the Netherlands the gay capital of the world: give gay couples from all over the globe the opportunity of tying the knot in the Netherlands. There’s plenty to celebrate. In many countries the emancipation of gays is progressing apace. The United States now forbids the discrimination of LHBTs, and gays in all 50 states now have the right to marry. Even in conservative Ireland a referendum has made same-sex marriages possible. But there are still many countries in which acceptance of homosexuality is far from being a reality and where gays and lesbians are being denied even the most basic of rights, some by law but mostly by a society which will only tolerate relationships between men and women. Missed opportunity Many couples from countries such as these would like to celebrate their love by getting married. The Netherlands could help by letting LHBT couples get hitched in Holland. At the moment the law stipulates that one of the partners must have the Dutch nationality, or reside in the country. That, in our opinion, is a missed opportunity. By allowing foreign LHBT couples to get married in the Netherlands we would stimulate the worldwide acceptance of marriage for everyone. ‘Wedding tourism’ would once again put our country at the forefront of the emancipation of LHBTs, with Amsterdam as the gay capital of the world. Opening up the right to marry to people from all over the world would be of great symbolic significance but it would be more than that. In some cases it could help the legal situation of foreign LHBT couples. A court in Italy, where gay marriage hasn’t been legalised yet, recently recognised the status of a couple who got married in the United States, with all the rights this entailed. LHBT couples from Poland and other countries are contemplating doing the same and hope the case will serve as a precedent in their courts. The United Nations have been busy as well. In July 2014 the UN secretary general changed his staff policy to recognise all marriages, even if the member of staff’s home country does not allow same-sex marriages. That means that if two German or Chinese women were to get married, the UN would regard them as a married couple, even if Germany and China are still sitting on the fence. Champion Little by little, same-sex marriages are being recognised throughout the world. As far as D66 is concerned the introduction of ‘wedding tourism’ will make Amsterdam the champion of the right of gays and lesbians to marry. We want to improve the legal position of LHBTs worldwide, and simply give people in love a chance to get married. Let’s give really open up the institution of marriage to everybody. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if LHBT couples from all over the world would not only come here to take part in Gay Pride but also to celebrate their love by getting married? Jan Paternotte is the chairman of the Amsterdam branch of D66 and Sjoerd Sjoerdsma is a D66 MP. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Boosting the Beach Body Index

Boosting the Beach Body Index

Summer’s here and the Dutch are heading for the beach. It’s a time when it becomes very obvious indeed that physical health, self-confidence, a positive self-image as well as charisma and attractiveness really do matter, writes the SCP's Kim Putters. We tend to underestimate the importance of this sort of ‘personal capital’ for the rest of the year. In the discussions about (in)equality we immediately trot out income policy or education but very often health and a pleasant demeanour that are the crucial life and career determinants. So here’s a thought for a summer’s day. Health and beauty are not equally divided among the population, as you cannot have failed to notice as you watch the world go by from your deck chair. This has partly to do with age. Older people are or perceive themselves to be less healthy than young people, for instance when it comes to mounting the stairs, or during work. But when we look at self-confidence and self-image the reverse is usually true. Wisdom comes with age, even if young people beg to differ. Men are thought to become more attractive as they age whereas women don’t believe the same goes for them. Does any of this ring a bell yet? Gender This brings me from age to gender. On average, men have more self-confidence and a more positive self-image than women who, again on average, are insecure and look for confirmation more often. That is why women invest more in their physical, mental and aesthetic welfare than men. They go to the gym, watch what they eat, and do mental relaxation exercises. Men suffer somewhat from hubris in the looks department, however: people don’t find them quite as attractive as they think. But men just don’t let it bother them as much. Education and income also influence health and beauty. People with relatively little education don’t go in for sports and fitness training and clothes shopping as much as their highly educated and better-paid counterparts. With more money also comes an interest in healthy eating, and the possibility to do what is needed when confronted with illness. People on higher incomes also go in for activity holidays, and have several short breaks throughout the year to relieve stress. Healthy and attractive In short, healthy and attractive people are more often well-educated and earn more money. Men with a lot of self-confidence are more often men with higher incomes than women, or people with a disability. They have more social contacts and are positive about their quality of life. If they’re tall, chances are they are even more pleased with themselves. Success, then, is not evenly distributed and often unrelated to education or experience. 'Is this something the government should be concerned with?' ask those with an allergy to government interference. It is, of course, every individual’s responsibility to look after him or herself, live healthily and try to look presentable. But as your day at the beach will have shown, many people don’t seem as if they are handling their responsibility very well. Health and beauty are not always manageable. Physical disabilities significantly lessen a person’s chances of a job. Employers can be of help here by not fighting the 5% quota of people with disabilities in their workforce but by upping it to 10%. And if they would stop leaving people by the wayside because of their age it would make Holland an altogether happier place. Interview training is not a luxury for the long-term unemployed or ethnic minorities. Too often the focus is on additional training, or made to measure employment when it is self-confidence and demeanour that need to be worked on. It’s something to think about on the beach this summer. The question whether they can look more attractive, fitter and friendlier is not one the Dutch ask themselves often enough. Take a relaxed summer selfie and see how you can improve. Think about this as you sit under your umbrella: a more attractive, fit and self-confident population is a happier population and the best guarantee for a stable society. I wonder if this August we will come back with a tan that says we have finally breezed past the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Swiss in the international happiness index. Kim Putters is the director of the Netherlands Institute of Social Research (SCP) This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Annemarie says goodbye

Annemarie says goodbye

All good things must come to an end, and that includes this column. For almost seven years I have shared my opinions, my indignation and my ideas with you. Today is the 350th and final time. I’m going to be a member of supervisory board of the Autoriteit Financiële Markten (AFM, the financial sector regulator, DN) and it wouldn’t do to cause raised eyebrows every week. Instead of commenting from the sidelines I will move into a field I love: the financial market where so much is happening, and which needs a critical eye. It’s with mixed feelings I’m saying goodbye. On the one hand this column took up much time and energy. All week long I considered each news item for column suitability. I would start writing on Friday evening and mail my piece to the Financieele Dagblad on Sunday evening. The following Monday I would start thinking about the next one. A British fellow columnist once compared writing a column to being married to a nymphomaniac: ‘as soon as you’re through you have to start all over again.’ My significant other Rhandy will also miss my columns because I would ask him at least three times to read the final version as he was trying to watch the sports programme on Sunday night. It’s a bit of a shame I won’t be using my folder ‘half-finished columns’ and the list of subjects I would have liked to have written about but won’t now. Bu I will also miss the influence my columns gave me. It’s exciting to have finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem assure MPs that the AFM really doesn’t have 'a fetish for ticking boxes' because of something I wrote, or that social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher reacts to figures I have used, and MPs retweet my columns. I walk on air for a day when one of my columns has caused ministers to revise or adapt a decision. I love it when columns can sharpen and improve discussion. My new role will certainly not blunt my edge, as some have suggested. I will stay on the ball and offer my opinion as I always do. And now I will press ‘send’ for the last time. I hope I have made you frown or smile every once in a while. I will miss you. Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and a member of the AFM supervisory board This column appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad. All her columns have been republished on DutchNews.nl with her permission.  More >


‘Prisoners should pay for bed & board while in jail’

‘Prisoners should pay for bed & board while in jail’

If the elderly are made to contribute to their care why should prisoners be exempt from paying towards their own upkeep? Some have plenty of money and prisons don't come cheap, says entrepreneur Annemarie van Gaal. The governing coalition of VVD and Labour have proposed that the inmates of prisons should contribute all of €16 a day for bed and board. It’s a drop in the ocean if you know that the true costs of each inmate’s stay in prison is over €200 a day. Unfortunately the opposition doesn’t like the plan and it’s unlikely to succeed. The Christian Democrats thinks all inmates are the same and that it’s no use trying to squeeze blood from a stone, while the Socialist Party think the poor inmates shouldn’t be made to suffer more. With attitudes like this it’s going to be hard to turn this proposal into law. Wherewithal Why are the Christian Democrats so convinced that prisoners haven’t the wherewithal to pay those €16? Plenty of inmates have partners who work, own a house or have a sizeable savings account. Take John and Linda de Mol’s blackmailer. He’s awaiting trial in his luxury penthouse in Zeist with a bulging bank account. Why shouldn’t he pay towards his upkeep when he goes to prison? Some inmates have money resulting from criminal activity which can’t be impounded because of lack of proof. A contribution would be a way to get at some of the money at least. It’s bizarre that we are having this discussion in a country where the elderly in care homes have been contributing to their own care costs for years. How is it that law-abiding citizens in need of care are expected to pay and inmates are not? Income-related And another thing. The contribution of people who need care varies with income. Elderly people in a home who rely only on their pension pay €159 a month. But if they have worked hard all their lives and have a good pension, or own a house or capital, the contribution can go up to almost €2,300. So why not introduce an income-related contribution for prisoners? Prisoners who have nothing, or whose partner doesn’t work and is on benefits pay a small amount. But prisoners who own a home with positive equity, or a savings account, or whose partner works pay more. Prisoners who are proven to have obtained money from extortion or drug trafficking pay full whack; some €6,000 a month. Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and investor. This article was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


‘Is it time for change in democracy as a new Senate takes its seats?’

Usually little attention is paid in the media to the election of the upper house of parliament in the Netherlands. The system is not quite as archaic as Britain's House of Lords, but hardly an example of modern democracy, writes commentator Nicola Chadwick. The senate voting system is a complicated one. Generally the result can be predicted in advance, as the provincial councillors vote for their own party. However, residual votes from one party can be passed on to another party to make up a seat. So before last week’s election, representatives of both coalition parties exhaustively drank coffee with possible waverers, as a single vote could make the difference of a whole seat. Four years ago in the lead up to the last Senate election, Rutte summoned a Zeeland provincial governor to his prime ministerial tower in The Hague to secure a majority of one seat. Johan Robesin of Provinciaal Belang Zeeland (PBZ) pledged his support in exchange for a promise not to flood a ‘polder’ (reclaimed land) in his province. Not doing so breached government agreements with the Belgians. It seems Rutte preferred damaged relations with Brussels to the risk of a minority in the Senate. Politically promiscuous Now the coalition has fallen short of 17 votes in the Senate. Although the VVD is still the biggest party, Labour has lost almost half its seats. Even with the support of the constructive three (C-3) parties, which have helped Rutte II get legislation through the Senate so far, the coalition is still two seats short of a majority. This means Rutte will probably have to become more politically promiscuous than ever, changing partners frequently to carry out the rest of his programme before his term ends in 2016. And that will be almost impossible as all the parties will demand conflicting concessions for their support. It became painfully obvious that the support of the C-3 parties no longer sufficed when D66 declined to take part in the pre-budget talks. Rutte, ever the optimist, says it will be easier to find consensus from now on, as he is planning tax reforms before his term in office ends. And everyone is in favour of tax cuts, aren’t they? Hmm, but they do not agree on WHO should benefit. Electoral reform For many years, politicians have been openly asking whether an upper house is still a valid chamber for sanctioning new laws. Up until the past few years, the senate assessed new legislation on whether it was workable or constitutional. However, it has become more and more politicised, with legislation increasingly being rejected along the lines of party dogma. Last December, three of Labour’s own senators rebelled, refusing to pass a new health bill, which threatened to remove the right to a second medical opinion. The incident brought the government to the brink of collapse. Meanwhile the government is looking to set up a commission on the future of the Netherlands’s political system… or rather on whether or not to scrap the Senate. But it has to tread carefully.  The Christian Democrats for instance enjoy a lot of regional support and do relatively well in provincial elections and therefore also in the senate - so they are not about to get rid of it. Anyway asking politicians to get rid of an albeit indirectly elected house is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. Last year, the senate approved the introduction of an advisory referendum. The odds are stacked against petitioners for change. Once a referendum has been organised, at least 30% of the electorate have to vote for the result to be valid. And then politicians can ignore the outcome. At the same time, the first passage of legislation for a corrective referendum took place. However, a change in constitution is required for a corrective referendum, and that means the initiative has to pass through both houses of parliament a second time after a new parliament has been elected. In a collective referendum, citizens can undo new laws they don’t like. The Netherlands briefly introduced referenda to elect municipal mayors, but it was scrapped due to lack of interest. Turnout was only 9% for the first mayoral election in Utrecht in 2007, as both candidates were from the same party. So if referenda do not lead to more democracy, what’s does? The organisation Meer Democratie has launched a citizen’s initiative to end political appointments for public office. It says former politicians are over-represented in all kinds of public functions. Even though anyone can apply, the jobs have often been handed to whoever’s turn it is depending on their political colour. Likewise, Dutch anthropologist turned finance journalist Joris Luijendijk warns that too often former politicians are drafted onto the supervisory boards of banks and financial firms to keep the lines short between business and government and maintain the status quo Pharoah of the Netherlands Comedian Arjen Lubach recently launched a bid to become Pharaoh of the Netherlands – as a cheerful protest against the monarchy. His citizens’ initiative instantly attracted 50,000 signatures, which is enough for the Lower House to put it on the agenda. However, it is unlikely to be taken seriously in The Hague. What The Hague should take seriously is that interest in elections is dwindling. In spite of Dutch politics being relatively clean, politicians are thought to be about as trustworthy as second-hand car salesmen. There is a sense that that it makes little difference which party is in power. And many people do not feel represented when they fail to see ‘people like them’ among MPs. As a result, populist parties are filling the gap. And even a dandy leader like the late Pim Fortuyn was seen as ‘one of the people’, much like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, who although he is often seen downing a pint, is hardly your regular man in the street. In spite of its initial popularity and rapid spread to cities across the Western world, the OCCUPY movement failed to turn into a force to be reckoned with. Its aims were not sufficiently articulated and perhaps it was more an expression of discontent than a popular uprising. Not to mention the terrible situation that has arisen in the Middle East and northern Africa since the largely failed Arab Spring. Democracy “without elections” So what if legislators didn’t have to carry the burden of re-election. Would that free them to draft legislation which really cracks those tough political cookies. In Iceland, it worked. A lottery determined which citizens would draft a new constitution after the financial crisis triggered by the Icesave debacle. The event of internet and social media has made people more vocal. However, democracy is slow to reform and fails to reflect the rapid changes that are taking place in society. Dutch politics has seldom been so fragmented. In the lower house, disgruntled MPs hold onto their seats and some set up splinter parties, when they leave or are thrown out of their original parties.  Suggestions have been made to raise the electoral threshold to prevent mini-parties from entering parliament. But that would mean the end of long-standing parties like the GroenLinks, ChristenUnie, the SGP and even D66 in its less popular days. So where is democracy going? And will the current coalition be able to weather all the storms it still has to face with so little support. In a way it has too. The Netherlands is due to hold the six-month presidency of EU next January and it will be an embarrassment if the sixth coalition in a row fails to make it to full term. Nicola Chadwick is a freelance translator/journalist/editor who regularly blogs on Dutch current affairs and politics.  More >


‘Government leaves protection of online gamblers largely up to operators’

‘Government leaves protection of online gamblers largely up to operators’

The government's proposed new gambling act is leaving the protection of gamblers largely in the hands of the gambling operators. Not a very good idea, according to gaming expert Sytze Kingma, lecturer at the VU Department of Organisation Sciences. The government wants to legalise internet gambling. It makes sense: hundreds of thousands of people are gambling on (illegal) foreign-based sites. Legalisation would make it easier to protect people from deception, fraud, whitewashing, match fixing and gambling addiction. It would also increase tax revenue. The problem is that the protection of players is not a simple matter, even where ordinary casinos and gambling machines are concerned. Most gambling operators are based abroad, the technology is untransparent and players hard to trace. Questionable It is questionable whether the cabinet is sufficiently aware of these problems. The protection of players as described in the legislation it is proposing, for example, puts a remarkable amount of trust in the internet gambling operators. In exchange for a licence they must undertake action to prevent punters from becoming addicted to gambling. But operators must also compete and make a profit. There is much we don’t know about internet gambling. How big is the risk of addiction? Is being addicted to a digital game the same as being addicted to a physical game? Are all internet games equally dangerous? No research has been done into this so we don’t know. Internet gambling is an activity that takes place in the home in front of a computer and internet gambling addicts rarely seek help. Nor are the government’s plans very ambitious. It proposes the legalisation of 80% of the internet gambling market, leaving 20% illegal and unsupervised. In Finland, which has a total ban on foreign sites, only 7% of the gambling market remains illegal. What would constitute a socially acceptable number of gambling addicts? The cabinet has plumped for 20,000, the same number as in 2011. But there are no guarantees. The main impetus to tackle addiction will have to come from gambling operators and addiction care professionals. Together they will have to formulate a plan to keep addiction in check. Measures The policy to prevent gambling addiction also leaves something to be desired. Granted, internet gambling operators have to abide by detailed measures geared towards protecting players, from imposing a minimum age and warning players, to offering players the possibility to exclude themselves from a game. But these measures are mainly creating an illusion of protection. There is technology in place to detect problem gambling, as operators are at pains to point out – but the same technology is used first and foremost to stimulate playing. Duty of care In the present projected set-up, gambling prevention will depend too much on what the gambling operators choose to do about it. Yes, they have a duty to protect players against themselves by giving them ‘an insight into their own gambling behaviour and inform them properly about the risks of the game’, but this is no more than an obligation to put in an effort. It would be much better to have a performance-related obligation in place. Those who are unable to show the effectiveness of their prevention measures will have to withdraw from the Dutch market. Even a fund to finance care for gambling addicts and research into addiction to which operators would contribute is not as good a plan as it might seem. As long as operators are not stimulated into putting in place extra prevention measures such a contribution would be no more than a buyoff. This article appeared earlier in Trouw  More >