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


‘Libraries need to be closed or made relevant again’

‘Libraries need to be closed or made relevant again’

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


‘Big companies could do more to put Dutch start-ups on the map’

‘Big companies could do more to put Dutch start-ups on the map’

Big companies don't have the guts to work with ambitious newcomers, nor do enough venture capitalists to invest in start-ups, writes entrepreneur Roebyem Anders. According to start-up Delta director Sigris Johannisse Dutch start-ups are thinking small. They have to develop an attitude or else they will never find a big investor to turn them into world players. I beg to diiffer. It’s the big companies who could do more to put start-ups on the map. Dutch start-ups are bursting with ambition to go international. What is lacking are big companies with enough guts to work with these ambitious newcomers. As long as they shy away, the big venture capitalists won’t be interested either. Backwater In the past ten years, the Netherlands has changed from an entrepreneurial backwater into a place where ideas and entrepreneurship are thriving. There have been marked improvements in the infrastructure to help small businesses. The figures support this: in 2014, 75 Dutch start-ups raked in a combined €500m in investments. But Sigris Johannisse is right when she says that the Netherlands has so far failed to achieve an international reputation as a start-up hub, and that this is the reason it has not caught the attention of venture capitalists. This lack of visibility is standing in the way of a start-up’s chances of progressing to the fast growth stage; a stage which requires a far greater investment than smaller, informal investors can provide. Narrow scope According to Johannisse, it’s the narrow scope of start-ups that is to blame. But the reality is different. In order to appear on the radar of big investors, start-ups need to prove they have potential for growth. And nothing will do that better than bagging a big client. I know from experience how hard that can be in the Netherlands. Interruption risks or reputational damage in case things go wrong is keeping many big companies from entering into business with start-ups. The same fear is making governments give start-ups a wide berth. And so big investors are not aware of them. Innovation But both big companies and the government are in dire need of innovation and often have a problem generating it. This is where start-ups come in. They are cheap and flexible, have a proper understanding of the internet and have big data at the core of their services. Our own start-up, Zonline, almost collapsed for lack of investment. After several near-death experiences, we managed to land a big energy company (E.on) as a client and that opened the door for capital investor Sungevity. This is what it’s all about. The Netherlands has come on in leaps and bounds but if it wants to become a focus for investors, it’s the big companies that have to learn not to think small. Because you never know: another Google could very well be out there already, somewhere in a garage in Appelscha. Roebyem Anders is vice-president of solar panel provider Sungevity. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant.    More >


‘More women at the top? A database alone is not going to do the job’

‘More women at the top? A database alone is not going to do the job’

Education minister Jet Bussemaker is right to want more women in top jobs, but a database is not the way to achieve this, write executive search entrepreneurs Carien van der Laan and Monique de Vos. Full marks to education minister Jet Bussemaker’s wish to increase the presence of women in the boardrooms of this country. Aware of the issues surrounding the appointment of women in top executive functions, she is anxious to speed up the process. But setting up a database of ‘board-ready women’ is not the best way to go about it. The minister’s goal – to increase the number of female board members (executive and non-executive) to 30% by 2016 – is a requirement of the Administration and Supervision Act. At the current rate of female appointments, this goal will not be met. Many of the 4,900 employers who must comply with the requirement argue that ‘there are no women’. 200 To prove them wrong, employers' association VNO-NCW chairman Hans de Boer and Bussemaker agreed to set up a database of women qualified and willing to sit on company boards. So far the names of some 200 women have been put forward by non-executive directors. ‘Here they are. You weren’t looking hard enough.’ But a database in itself isn’t going to solve the problem. Many headhunters already have a database of women capable of taking on the top jobs. But no matter how clever or talented, not every woman will necessarily be right for a particular job. Specific job requirements, the candidate’s knowledge and experience, personality traits, the competences of the other team members and the candidate’s compatibility with the team all come into play. A simple list of names doesn’t do justice to the complex process of finding the right person for the job. Headhunters Moreover, Bussemaker’s database is managed by governance watchdog the national register, a name suggestive of an independent, government-linked resource. Nothing could be further from the truth. The national register is a private headhunting agency which has been given preferential treatment by the minister. This agency is not only provided with information on individuals and vacancies, it also asks for privacy-sensitive information on women who have been put forward for a board role. The consultants of the national register evaluate CVs and recommend training to women whom they feel are not quite board-ready. But what criteria is this advice based on? In addition, this role will  undoubtedly help the national register consultants increase their own commercial network, Chinese walls or no Chinese walls. Specific Other headhunting agencies are held to certain rules to gain access to the – public – database. They have to provide information on the specific position involved, the candidates put forward and the woman who is ultimately successfully appointed. In short: this is not a level playing field. The privacy of the women is not sufficiently protected and headhunters who have spent years identifying board-ready women are being put at a disadvantage by the government. Independent There’s a simple solution. If the government and VNO-NCW want to create a database to contribute to diversity in the boardroom and apply objective criteria in the process, they should give the responsibility for the database to an independent foundation managed by Talent naar de Top (talent to the top), an initiative which has done an excellent job of promoting diversity in the workplace over the past years. The foundation will then give every board-ready woman a chance to register with agencies which have signed up to the Code Executive Search, which means they are committed to putting forward as many female as male candidates for any given job. Let the specialists do what they do best: assessing female candidates for specific executive functions. That would be a much more effective way of achieving equality in the boardroom than imposing purely quantitative criteria and sanctions. Carien van der Laan is the founder of executive search bureau Van der Laan & Company. Monique de Vos is the founder of Chasse Executive Search. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad.    More >


‘Uber and its like are not hip and innovative’

‘Uber and its like are not hip and innovative’

We shouldn’t hail Uber as a model of innovative entrepreneurship. WalMart should be a warning to us all, writes Daan Brouwer. There are quite a few politicians and economists who are in favour of total entrepreneurial freedom for businesses, investors and speculators. Eager to point out the pros, any harmful long-term cons this might have for a majority of citizens are overlooked. Advocates are outnumbering objectors, that much is clear from the current trend towards low wages, the scrapping of rules and regulations, the paring down of redundancy rights, the side-lining of unions and the holes that are appearing in the social safety net for the unemployed, the sick and others who, for some reason or another, depend on benefits. All this is primarily in aid of allowing these companies, and their exceedingly rich owners, to pay fewer taxes. Cheap taxis ‘Businesses’ like Uber fit this bill perfectly. Uber uses cheap fare prices to tempt the public into using their taxis. Bona fide taxi drivers are the first to suffer but ultimately the great majority of people will be seriously affected by the consequences of such a development too. Low cost companies such as Lidl, cheap mail order companies and Uber will have the same effect on Dutch society as supermarket chain WalMart in the United States. The disastrous effects of this commercial giant’s success not only on the economy but society as a whole have been eloquently painted by Clinton’s Labour minister Robert B. Reich in his bestselling Supercapitalism. The company, exploiting unemployment and the powerlessness of workers to the full, pays absurdly low wages. It forces suppliers into selling at such low prices that they, too, lower wages or move production to low wage countries. Competing supermarkets are left with no other choice than to follow suit. Inner cities are depleted because one by one traditional shops are forced to close their doors. Inequality WalMart is now the single biggest cause of the outrageous inequality between rich and poor in the United States. The Walton family, who own WalMart, are worth 152 billion dollars and the richest in the world by far. Businesses like WalMart and Uber are seducing people as consumers but screwing them as workers, self-employed people and citizens. Uber is portraying itself as hip and innovative but look closer and you’ll see a handful of American investors making bucket loads of money on one side and a lot of desperate would-be taxi drivers struggling to make a few euros on the other. It’s the sort of shabby set-up you might expect in Albania or Bulgaria, but not here. Is this the kind of innovation we need in the Netherlands? Self-proclaimed experts can spout nonsense about ‘the new economy’ and ‘the dynamic internet society’ as much as they like, but the fact is that Uber and its like will pull down society and make paupers of most of us. Daan Brouwer is author of 'Waarom de mensen balen van de politiek' (Why people are fed up with politics). This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant.  More >


Bureaucratic maze stifles small businesses

Bureaucratic maze stifles small businesses

The social insurance system is confusing and expensive for small firms, says entrepreneur Annemarie van Gaal. Unemployment is down slightly, but with over 633,000 people out of work we are still nudging our old 1980s record. Add to this the enormous number of self-employed and entrepreneurs who, while not unemployed, are struggling to make ends meet and you realise that we are facing a very big problem. The economy is recovering but this is not reflected in the employment figures. Government policy has concentrated too much on protecting existing jobs and too little on stimulating growth. It has gone too far in its protection of workers: redundancy pay, social insurance rules, bureaucratic procedures and collective labour agreements cover all businesses, whether they employ a thousand workers or ten. Responsible In both cases, employers remain responsible for a sick worker for a period of two years. That not only means they have to set in motion a re-integration process and pay the worker’s salary during that time, they are also forced to immerse themselves in hundreds of pages of incomprehensible jargon to find out exactly what is expected of them. And they had better not make any mistakes or they’ll be paying out an extra year’s salary. And here’s the difference. A big company has a personnel department to navigate the bureaucratic maze. A small entrepreneur has to do it all himself. This is time and energy he can’t put into the running of his business. Every small entrepreneur who has experienced the nightmare that is an unwilling or dishonest worker will never employ anyone again. We seem to forget that economic growth is propelled by small and medium-sized businesses. Even multinationals such as Philips or ASML started out small. The rules are stifling growth. Small companies can’t grow because they are fearful of hiring people. Two-tier Why don’t we devise a two-tier system? Big companies follow the rules imposed by the government and the unions. Smaller businesses, of up to say 20 workers, are exempt from collective labour agreements and will apply a less stringent form of social insurance law. Of course, smaller businesses will still be obliged to pay the minimum wage and social insurance contributions, but that is all. For them there would be no distinction between long-term contracts or temporary or variable contracts, and no sick pay or previously determined severance pay. Workers who want security can choose to work for a large company, while the more adventurous can opt for a smaller company. This could bring down unemployment and be an incentive for growth at the same time. Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and investor.  More >


What did our elders ever do for us? They spent more on education for one thing.

What did our elders ever do for us? They spent more on education for one thing.

What has distinguished one Dutch cabinet from another over the years? Economist Mathijs Bouman goes down memory lane. Last Thursday Piet de Jong became a centenarian. The submarine commander turned prime minister took the helm between April 5 1967 and July 6 1971. In the year he stepped down, Mark Rutte and Jeroen Dijsselbloem went to kindergarten. Halbe Zijlstra celebrated his second birthday. Diederik Samsom was born four days later and Lodewijk Asscher wasn’t even a twinkle in his father’s eye. The toddlers and babies of those days have grown up and are governing the country. Are their priorities any different from those of that earlier generation? Has government expenditure grown or shrunk in the intervening years? Public spending In 2015, Dutch public spending will end up marginally higher than in 1971: 45% of gdp compared to 43% in De Jong’s final year as prime minister. At 45% it is at its lowest since the start of the credit crisis in 2008, and well below the average percentage since 1971. Under Labour prime minister Joop den Uyl public spending shot up to 49% of gdp, and in spite of a programme of reforms, successor Dries van Agt and his prudent finance minister Onno Ruding, both CDA, saw it go up to 57%. In 1987, CDA prime minister Ruud Lubbers set the record with 58%. Under control Lubbers eventually managed to get public spending more or less under control. In 1994, his final year as prime minister, public spending was reduced to 51% of gdp. It wasn’t until 1999, when Labour leader Wim Kok became prime minister (and Gerrit Zalm his finance minister) that public spending was brought back to the Piet de Jong level of 43%. Under CDA prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s four cabinets the percentage varied little. The credit crisis pushed it up to 48% in 2008 and at 45% in 2015 we’re back to what it was in 1971. Priorities But that is where the similarity ends. The priorities of the present cabinet of Mark Rutte and Lodewijk Asscher couldn’t be more different from 34 years ago. We are spending much more on health care, a well-documented but still astounding increase. Public spending on health tripled from 2.9% of gdp in 1971 to 9.6% in 2015. An aging population, developments in medicine and greater public demand for higher standards are developments which take place largely outside of the political arena. But the often heard story of relentless cutbacks on health care is groundless, at a macro-economic level at least. Spending on social security, however, has taken a hit: currently at 12.7%, it is just a little higher than De Jong’s 11%. In 1983 it stood at a whopping 20% of gdp. Education What else? In 1971 defence spending was 2.8% of gdp, now it is less than half. Infrastructure accounted for 2.9% under De Jong, now it is 1.4%. Subsidies for companies are down significantly too. And shockingly enough, this cabinet is now spending quite a bit less on education: 5.3% compared to De Jong’s 6.4%. The low interest rate is advantageous too. De Jong paid an interest rate of 2.5% of gdp on a much lower national debt. Rutte’s bill comes to 1.3% of gdp, the lowest percentage of the post-war years. However, we don’t have a Dutch prime minister to thank for that but the Italian president of the ECB. Mathijs Bouman is a macro economist. This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad.  More >


Insurers, start looking after patients instead of agonising over budgets

Insurers, start looking after patients instead of agonising over budgets

District nurses are hurrying from one patient to another, frantically consulting overlong checklists. Labour leader Diederik Samsom tells insurers to stop agonising over budgets and concentrate on providing appropriate care. For six months now I have been working alongside home healthcare workers on a weekly basis. I experienced at first-hand the dedication and professionalism with which they do their jobs. I also watched with bated breath the revolution that is taking place in care. The checklists and government protocols which determine who is eligible for home care are on the way out. From now on, the district nurse can make his or her own assessment. It’s as if the old choked-up system is being revived with a blast of oxygen. People not numbers At last it’s people who matter, not numbers.It’s that man who had a stroke and can no longer handle his insulin pen and who, under the old rules, would have been allocated ten minutes home care a day which would not have helped him at all. Instead, he now gets half an hour of ergotherapy to learn how to manage his pen and give himself injections again. It seems a no-brainer. But it was the exception. This is the kind of home care we want. I also listened to the discussions about which diagnostic system to use. I heard about the difficult talks with patients whose care regime is changing. I saw the frustration with failing computer systems and the pitfalls surrounding the cooperation with local councils. These are all challenges that come with change and can be overcome. But there is also the real danger that the new care system will be crushed under the weight of the rules and regulations of a new bureaucracy. Strategic manoeuvring and rigid behaviour from insurers, care institutions and authorities are threatening to endanger the new system and it’s time to raise the alarm. Complicated demands Insurers are still imposing demands that are constantly changing and becoming increasingly complicated. This excessive need for control is threatening to paralyse the whole system. One example is the insurers’ demand that all registered patients must be diagnosed again before May 1. This means that the best visiting nurses have been stuck behind a desk doing administration when they could have been out and about looking after people. This demand should be scrapped immediately. The excessive accountability insurers demand from staff is also incompatible with a care system in which we trust the professionals who run it. Registers of care needed by patients and care given to patients are already in place. Insurers can manage on a simple extract from these registers instead of detailed care plans. Rushed staff Another thing insurers and home care organisations should stop doing is rushing staff. I see examples of so-called ‘cutback targets’ of 20% which rigid managers translate to the time staff spend with patients. This can effectively turn an hour of care into 50 minutes. This is completely wrong. What we need is a different approach to home care. Bringing back the care of a grossly overweight man who can’t look after himself from 25 minutes a day to 20 is not the way. This man needs extra care to regain the self-confidence he needs to change his lifestyle so he won’t need care in the longer term, a win-win situation for patients, care staff and taxpayers alike. District nurses would like nothing better than to work in this way. At the moment, they can. But they won’t be able to if the focus remains on financial risks instead of providing the most appropriate care for patients. Fragmentation Another danger is fragmentaton. Too many care providers in one district is a recipe for disaster. I have seen how important it is for the family doctor, the district nurse and other care givers to be able to know and communicate with each other without problems. A family doctor who has to deal with seven different home care organisations will be in trouble. One day, on leaving the home of a client, I saw a district nurse from another organisation enter the house of a neighbour. That is a waste of call-out time and, moreover, the family doctor will end up with reports from two different organisations. Integral care it is not. It’s important for people to choose their own care provider but the ensuing perverse incentives should be limited. Community care is not a market. This is why the government has stipulated that first line care, the family doctor and home care must be financed differently. Instead of so much for one minute or action, finance will be based on good results, such as fewer hospital admissions and patients choosing a healthier lifestyle. Only then will family doctors and other care givers be free from the interference and negotiating power of the insurers. The cabinet must now make haste with the implementation of the agreement. Insurers must be stopped It took guts to finally introduce this reform. It will take more guts to implement it successfully. We can’t do this without confronting the insurers. They need to be told in no uncertain terms to stop over-managing their own risk and start concerning themselves with the needs and complaints of their care staff and patients. I have seen at first-hand how important it is to allow staff more space so both staff and patients benefit. We have given them that space but we must see to it that vested interests don’t snatch it from them again. Diederik Samsom is leader of the Dutch Labour party PvdA and an MP. This article appeared earlier in the NRC.    More >


A once liberal party is now known for money-grubbing

A once liberal party is now known for money-grubbing

It’s been a changing of the guard for the VVD since the provincial elections, but why are so many of the party's prominent politicians involved in grubby dealings? asks Nicola Chadwick. Firstly the new minister of justice Ard van de Steur and his junior minister Klaas Dijkhof were installed. They were reportedly not the first choice as apparently a number of candidates turned down the honour. Was it because they did not want to burn their fingers on the wasp nest that the liberal party has become in recent months? No sooner was VVD politician Ard van de Steur sworn in as the new minister of justice, replacing Ivo Opstelten, than questions were raised in parliament over €400,000 in subsidies for the restoration of his castle. Apparently, Van de Steur lives in an apartment in the stately building, but subsidies are not normally given for residential buildings, although exceptions are made. It’s not likely to really dent his reputation. Van de Steur is described as a 'classical man' (read old-fashioned and a stickler for protocol) by health minister Edith Schippers. He studied law in Leiden, is an expert in etiquette and a champion debater. Klaas Dijkhof has replaced junior justice  minister Fred Teeven. His first good deed was to grant 11 children (and their families) residential status. The children had failed to receive asylum status and narrowly missed (on a technicality) the general amnesty for children who have spent more than eight years in the Netherlands. So it looks like he may be prepared to be a little more lenient than his hardline predecessor. The two hardly match the crime fighter reputation of the Opstelten-Teeven duo. They have a tough job ahead as they take on the ramifications of the Teeven drugs money deal, serious crime trials of Holland’s self-styled mafia, the aftermath of the MH17 plane crash, the problem of jihadis leaving for and then returning from Syria and a major police reorganisation. Persona non grata In the meantime, there are VVD seats to be filled in parliament. One returning parliamentarian is less than welcome. Former VVD MP Johan Houwers was forced to stand down after he was accused of mortgage fraud back in 2012. Now convicted and having paid a fine, he is still eligible to take up the newly vacated seat left behind by disgraced Limburg politician Mark Verheijen. The latter had to leave parliament for wrongfully declaring expenses and for arranging a free VVD party at the Floriade during his time as alderman in Venlo in 2012. Houwers has not been allowed back into the VVD parliamentary party, as leader Halbe Zijlstra says there is no room for fraudsters. Ahem… Mr Houwers is now a one-man party, bringing the grand total of parties in parliament to an all-time high of 16. Houwers says he holds his own principles on integrity. His inauguration was held in an empty parliament as MPs boycotted the ceremony. They consider him to have stolen a seat belonging to the VVD. At present there are five one or two-man splinter parliamentary parties in the lower house. The presidium which runs parliament is currently considering removing the rights of dissidents to form splinter parties as of the next general election. Instead they would be regarded as independents with limits on speaking time, funds and staff. Ins and outs Fred Teeven has returned to parliament after standing down as junior justice minister. When it became clear his boss Ivo Opstelten had misinformed parliament over a 4.7 million guilder deal with a criminal, Teeven had to go too. The intriguing thing is why Teeven – who made the deal in the first place as public prosecutor - didn’t inform his boss about the amount.  Ironically, as an MP he will now be expected to draw conclusions on an inquiry into the deal now named after himself. Meanwhile elsewhere, former VVD senator Jos van Rey has been elected to the provincial council of Limburg on preference votes for his new party Volkspartij Limburg. He put his name at the bottom of the list to attract voters, but as often happens, the popular name at the end received many preference votes. Usually politicians decline the honour, but not Van Rey. In spite of being on trial for corruption, he seems to be holding onto whatever political power he can. As a result, he has been promptly kicked out of the VVD for 'damaging the party'. Amazing! You would have thought he would have been thrown out when he set up the Liberale Volkspartij Roermond last year, which took VVD seats in the local council elections. However, the VVD would not be the VVD if it had not waited first to see whether the renegade liberal would vote for the VVD in the upper house in May. And remember MP René Leegte, who was overheard in the train on the phone saying he’d avoided journalists during a visit to Groningen where gas extraction has caused earthquakes? He was forced to give up acting as parliamentary spokesman on gas because of his careless words. Well, now it turns out he failed to declare a conflict of interest and has also had to give up his parliamentary seat. Although he has also not declared what his conflict of interest was. Now prominent VVD politician Ton Hooijmaijers has been sentenced on appeal to a two and a half year prison sentence for corruption. Hooijmaijers is convinced that he did nothing wrong. He saw it as his duty as provincial governor to facilitate businesses. Although he was acquitted on a number of counts, he has been found guilty of 13 counts of fraud and 11 counts of bribery and money laundering to the tune of €260,000. The appeal judge showed some leniency because of the publicity generated by the case. Liberal principles? It is a sorry record for a party which has tightened scrutiny through its integrity policy. The question remains why so many VVD politicians or former VVD politicians are so unscrupulous. Maybe it has something to do with its close relationship with big business. While the party strongly condemns any kind of benefit fraud at the bottom of Dutch society, it seems to have a softer approach to money grabbing at the top. Former VVD finance minister Gerrit Zalm,  who now heads ABN AMRO, had to be reined in by the current finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, after he awarded the nationalised bank’s executives a €100,000 pay rise shortly before it was due to be floated on the stock market. As a former politician you would think he would still have a political antenna for what might not go down well with the public. Apparently not. Nor is it to do with the party´s beginnings. According to De Correspondent journalists Rutger Bregman and Jesse Frederik, the original liberal ideas of the VVD party now read like a Marxist manifesto. Prime minister Mark Rutte himself appears to have abandoned the party´s founding principles. One hundred years ago, the party would have shunned speculation or inheritance as so-called 'unearned income'. Now Rutte, the Dutch prime minister note bene, refers to the taxman as the 'blue danger', inheritance tax as a 'death tax – the most unfair tax', and taxes on the rich as 'jealousy tax'. Originally Liberals, according to De Correspondent, valued earnings for hard work, but not the ill-gotten inheritances of billionaires like Paris Hilton, who has never had to work for a living. So where did it all go so terribly wrong? Nicola Chadwick is a freelance translator/journalist/editor who regularly blogs on Dutch current affairs and politics    More >


‘Turn ABN Amro into a consumer bank which will benefit society’

‘Turn ABN Amro into a consumer bank which will benefit society’

  ABN Amro is still owned by the state; it is time the government did something useful with it, write Reinier Casteleijn, Erik Hallers, Adjiedj Bakas and Wim de Ridder. Finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem has decided to postpone the flotation of ABN Amro for now. A wise decision, not only because of the ill-advised salary hike for the bank’s top executives but because ABN Amro should be a bank at the service of Dutch consumers and entrepreneurs. As long as ABN Amro is state-owned the government can force it to make innovations which will turn it into a consumer bank. This will increase the bank’s market value and make it future proof. It will also compensate the Dutch taxpayers somewhat for having paid the bank’s hefty bail-out bill. The banks in this country, including ABN Amro, have let down consumers and small and medium-sized businesses alike over the last few years. It’s not for lack of money: the European Central Bank is printing it as we speak. Consumers and businesses are losing out nevertheless and it’s time for a re-think. Client friendly The Netherlands needs a bank which serves clients looking for finance in a modern and client-friendly way. It needs a bank with vision; innovative, socially-minded and not at the beck and call of shareholders. The state should have demanded ABN Amro fulfil this role when it took ownership of the bank in 2008. Politicians, the Dutch Central Bank and financial services regulator AFM may have put in place a comprehensive organisation to control banks, but they haven’t shown any vision or insight when it comes to the commercial potential of a modern, socially-engaged bank. The result is that small and medium-sized companies are looking elsewhere for finance. Google, Apple and Amazon are getting into banking and Microsoft has developed a digital platform which can turn any organisation into a bank. Crowd funding, credit unions and peer2peer banking are on the rise. Digital age In the global marketplace all banks want to be top players. But what good will that do us, the owners of ABN Amro? Flotation doesn’t guarantee good service to citizens and entrepreneurs. In the past, government intervention in banking resulted in important innovations and new financial tools. The Rijskpostspaarbank, for instance, introduced the national giro-based payment system Girotel, the first form of electronic banking. The government also introduced a highly successful credit facility guarantee via the Nederlandse Middenstandsbank for small and medium-sized businesses. Now technology is here to prepare banks for the digital age. Banks are mainly concentrating on digitalising traditional functions, such as payments and administration. They are neglecting to digitalise their commercial function. Many companies are looking for new business models which will make them more flexible. Banks should facilitate this by providing finance. Social relevance Social relevance is a form of success that we think ABN Amro and its workers should be very happy to achieve. Many prominent companies in the digital world, such as Tesla and Google, think social relevance is a key variable in their commercial policy. Car-maker Tesla allowed its patents to be used by anyone and called on businesses to develop a new generation of batteries because ‘all cars should run on electricity'. The kind of bank we would like ABN Amro to become would formulate robust goals regarding its function in society. This can only be done if the government turns (part of) the bank into a disruptive, client-orientated bank, shows vision and demands socially-relevant innovation, as it did earlier in the case of the Rijkspostspaarbank. The postponement of the ABN Amro flotation should be used to create a bank that will make a difference. Parliament should call on the Dutch Central Bank and the financial regulators to develop a plan for a game changing bank, a bank which would ultimately be of much greater value to society and the state coffers than is now thought. Reinier Casteleijn is chairman of De Unie, Erik Hallers is owner of Sublime FM and Adjiedj Bakas is a trendwatcher, Wim de Ridder is a professor of futures studies at the University of Twente. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant.  More >


Party-of-one MP is a waste of taxpayers’ money

Party-of-one MP is a waste of taxpayers’ money

As ABN Amro bankers are actually renouncing their pay rise, some politicians keep raking it in, writes Annemarie van Gaal. The installation of Johan Houwers as MP and chairman of brand new parliamentary party-of-one Houwers has come and gone. It didn’t get much coverage and the general opinion seemed to be one of complete indifference: ‘What can you do, those are the rules.’ It deserves another column at least. An expelled member of the VVD sits on the bench for two years and, for the simple reason that it is his turn, it falls to him to occupy an open seat. Houwers doesn’t see it this way: ‘I was voted in,’ he says. It’s very odd. Houwers didn’t get enough preferential votes to assume he was voted in. After he was – rightly - made to leave in 2013, he was awarded severance pay. The payments into his MP’s pension never stopped as they would for ordinary mortals who have been given the sack. Not a bad deal. Houwers’ pay-out extended over a period of 38 months. More than half of that time has now passed, but now that he is an MP once more he will get a nice little extra on top of his already generous income of €120,000. And as party chairman he is also allowed an annual €150,000 budget. Suppose this cabinet manages to complete its term. That means that in March 2017 Houwers qualifies for another 38 months of severance pay. He will be coasting towards 2020 on a very comfortable monthly income, with a great pension to boot. Houwers will be 63 in 2020. ‘I’ll take it from there,’ he says. The VVD is talking of ‘a shameless case of seat robbing’ but I’m sure Houwers will vote for any VVD proposal that comes along. What surprises me is that this sort of thing is still allowed to happen. It’s money and talent down the drain. We’re saddled with a useless MP who will cost the taxpayer over two million euros over ten years when we could have had someone worthwhile in his place. Suppose you’re a football player and you end up on the bench. If a player is injured during a match would you expect the substitute to be the one who was there longest? No, you would want the best player to go in, one who will win the match for you. The rules are making us waste money and talent. I hope this particular mismatch will irritate parliament into changing them. Then Houwers will have been good for something after all. Annemarie van Gaal is an investor    More >