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


Working together is a key part of the Dutch psyche

Working together is a key part of the Dutch psyche

Working together to reach consensus is one of the essences of being Dutch. No wonder then that even at school children learn all about making deals with their peers, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe The Netherlands is now in the middle of a long and complicated process to create a new coalition government. The Dutch political system invariably creates coalitions and the process can take months and months. Manifesto points are ditched, compromises reached, trade-offs agreed and finally the parties that have managed to find enough common ground publish their long-awaited coalition agreement – their blue-print for the country for the next four years. Consensus Those who romanticise the Dutch tradition of consensus like to see its origins in the Dutch fight against the sea – when everyone had to work together to ensure the dykes were high and the waves kept at bay. This may well be the case. But consensus is not just confined to the corridors of power in The Hague. Consensus also looms large in industry and economic policy in the form of the polder – the Dutch word for reclaimed land which is also the name given to the tripartite talks between employers, unions and the government that always take place when a major issue needs to be dealt with. But the Dutch love of consensus starts well before you’ve reached a position of influence in politics or industry. It permeates every level of Dutch society – right down to the education system. Yes, if you’ve got children at a Dutch school, you will not be able to avoid the practice of working together in groups. Working together I’ve never been sure about whether the Dutch school fondness for group-based projects is about teaching kids to get along and work together, to get them to accept how to make the best of things or because the teacher can’t face the idea of marking 30 different projects on World War II or fossil fuels. The trouble starts when junior comes home cursing about the fact he has been put in a group with three others who are, he says, stupid and lazy. They’ve already had a meeting to decide who is going to do what and he just knows he’s going to fail because the others are sooooo useless. Three of the four have decided that X will be in charge of finding the pictures because he or she is dyslexic and can’t be relied on to produce a coherent 500 words on the greenhouse effect. Of the three writing the text, one goes awol or comes up with endless excuses why her or she have not completed their required part. The two who are left over have a blazing fight about the dreadful quality the other has delivered, one bows out and the other stays up all night rewriting the whole thing to their own exacting standards. Hard lesson Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn about this group approach is accepting the fact that your future – well, your exam mark at least – will partly depend on the performance of your peers. A mate of mine has just been asked if she could possibly edit – rewrite – a 20 page project on England which has to be in English because her god-daughter is convinced she will fail because three of the girls in the group can’t string two words together. The final project won’t say much about their English skills but it will show the importance of ‘who you know’ in getting what you want. As junior becomes more experienced about the process, he or she learns to make sure they get in with the other kids who will be most useful to them… the one with the rich parents who will pay for the final project to be perfectly printed, the one with the uncle who just happens to be a climate change advisor to the government – name dropping at a young age never hurt anyone - the one who always gets top marks and can actually spell and, most important of all, the one who can whip up a power point presentation at the age of seven. Yes, when it comes to convincing the teacher you actually know what you are talking about, style definitely wins over substance and making sure your team puts on the best presentation is crucial. Tantrums So in a few weeks, or maybe months time, the new Dutch government will be presenting its plans for the future, based on endless meetings, late night rewrites and goodness knows how many tantrums behind closed doors. We can say with some certainty that PVV leader Geert Wilders is the kid no-one wants in their team. While the group who have decided they can work together make their presentation, he’ll be sitting at the back of the class making snide comments. As for the marks? That will up to us to decide in four years time.  More >


Holiday rental giant Airbnb is harming Amsterdam’s communities

Airbnb is becoming greedy. It needs to invest in Amsterdam for the long-term benefit of its communities, not just for short term financial gain, says Leiden University's David Zetland. Airbnb is a popular service for connecting tourists who want a cheaper place to stay in a city with ‘hosts’ willing to give them a room or a flat to stay in. Oh, did I say ‘give’? Sorry, I meant ‘rent.’ Like Facebook with its claims of helping you communicate with ‘friends,’ Airbnb uses ‘share’ in a way that replaces a child's use of that word with an alt-truth definition that means ‘rent.’ That distortion of reality is not a bug but a feature: Airbnb co-founder (and billionaire) Nathan Blecharczyk made his first millions spamming people's inboxes while claiming ‘there were frankly no rules around it’ in 2002. I don't know about you, but I knew that spam was a plague well before 2002, and I'm going to spend the rest of this post talking about how Airbnb's founders need to stop spamming and start helping the cities that are making them rich. By the way, let me clarify that I love Airbnb's service, which I am happy to use as a host and guest. What I am not happy about is how Airbnb seems to be taking the greedy route towards doing business by focussing more on short-stays than strong (and attractive) communities. I say this as someone who studies communities and how their ‘common spaces’ are built on an intangible web of relations among neighbors more than a common postal code. I'm from San Francisco (where Airbnb is based), but I live in Amsterdam, which may be Airbnb's most popular city. According to one source, 2-3% of all Amsterdam residences (and perhaps 7% in popular neighbourhoods) are listed on Airbnb. In many cases, Airbnb is driving a trend to replace affordable housing with illegal hotels owned by investors. In most of Amsterdam's neighbourhoods, residents share common stairways, garbage bins and personal space. It's not unusual to hear each other through floors and walls as we go about our business. In many cases, these noises are comforting because they represent the ‘metabolism’ of the building's inhabitants, some of whom have shared stories, assistance and common challenges for decades. Airbnb's site and philosophy say very little about the neighbours (the ‘community page’ is for hosts to swap tips). Their focus on making deals may be appropriate for San Francisco but not for Amsterdam, a city that has worked for centuries to balance the needs of art and commerce, private and public, rich and poor. In 2014, Amsterdam and Airbnb signed a memorandum of understanding in which Airbnb agreed to ‘notify hosts in a powerful manner that they are obliged to offer homes for rent in compliance with applicable rules.’ This mentioned 60-day limits on hosting, encouraged hosts to ‘download the notice card for neighbours,’ and clarified that the municipality was responsible for reinforcing its own rules. Not included but mentioned, was an agreement for Airbnb to collect and pay the city's 5 percent tourist tax, which amounted to €5.5m in 2015. That amount implied that Airbnb guests paid over €100 million to hosts, of which about 3% (€3 million) went to Airbnb. Late last year, the city and Airbnb updated their agreement to provide a ‘more powerful’ reminder of the 60-day hosting limit. Now, hosts are notified of their total remaining days and told that they will not be allowed to use Airbnb after the 60-day limit is reached. But that update has omitted two major factors that are undermining Airbnb's benefit to Amsterdam. First, Airbnb is not reporting host income to the city (or government), data that it possesses and already reports to American authorities for ‘high volume hosts.’ If Amsterdam hosts are billing over €100m in charges, then the tax authorities should be making around €40m (based on the 42% marginal tax rate that many homeowners would face for renting their own place for less than 60 days). That money would come in handy for a city forced to cut €25m in spending on garbage collection, public spaces, youth programmes, and so on. Second, Airbnb is not doing very much to help the neighborhoods that make its service so popular. Hosts and visitors give each other ratings and feedback, but the neighbors are the ones who must deal with banging bags, morning departures, and strangers who contribute nothing to the neighborhood. Airbnb can address this problem by allowing neighbours to leave feedback on guests. Although this system might take a little while to set up, it's obvious that Airbnb's very clever staff could help Amsterdam's city staff with notifying neighbours and ensuring that strangers would, in the words of Airbnb, ‘belong.’ Airbnb's license to operate in Amsterdam depends on whether it helps or harms the city. Airbnb can help Amsterdam collect its fair share of taxes and guests fit into the community, but it can also resist and damage Amsterdam's quality of life. Let's hope that Airbnb invests in Amsterdam for the long run. David Zetland is an assistant professor of economics at Leiden University College and resident of Amsterdam. Thanks to Kim Zwitserloot and Joes Natris for their help on earlier drafts of this post.   More >


Dutch election: anti-rights rhetoric goes mainstream despite Wilders’ defeat

Dutch election: anti-rights rhetoric goes mainstream despite Wilders’ defeat

Last week's general election in the Netherlands was one of the most closely watched in years. But the fact that Geert Wilders' radical right party failed to make major gains does not mean he has not had an impact, writes Anna Timmerman of Human Rights Watch. While most of the world was focused only on one party, the radical right populist Party for Freedom (PVV) and its leader Geert Wilders, the Dutch cast their votes widely across 13 parties, two of them winning seats for the first time. No party got more than 22% of the vote. For the rest of the world, the fact that the PVV fared less well than many polls had predicted and was soundly beaten by the centre-right Liberal party (VVD, 21.3% of the vote and 33 seats) is an understandable cause for celebration. Populism failed its first big test since Trump’s election and Brexit. While its share of the vote (13.1%) and seats (20) are an increase from 2012, they are lower than the party garnered in 2010, when this brand of radical populism was on few people’s radar. People are also heartened by the share of the vote won by the centrist D66 party (19 seats and 12% of vote) and GroenLinks (Green party), which scored its best result ever (14 seats, and 8.9%). Dirty campaign But the news is not all good. While a mainstream party won, the Liberal party’s triumph was tarnished by a dirty campaign where it emulated the PVV’s rhetoric, lashing out against Islam and telling Dutch-born citizens whose families came from other countries to integrate or 'get out'. These citizens could not be blamed for thinking the party likely to lead the next government won’t govern for them. It was a similar story with the Christian Democrats (CDA), who ran on an anti-refugee agenda. They were rewarded with 12.5% of the vote and 19 seats. The Christian Orthodox SGP party ran a campaign along similar lines and won 3 seats with 2.1%. It remains to be seen who will join the ruling coalition. The main parties have all eschewed a coalition with PVV, and it’s important they honor that pledge. Political expediency Before the elections, Human Rights Watch spoke to candidates from most of the parties. Those interviews made clear that the VVD, PVV, and CDA – parties that make up almost half the seats in the new parliament – are willing to set aside human rights for the sake of political expediency. Indeed, a Dutch lawyers group concluded that all three parties’ election manifestos include measures that are contrary to human rights or are openly discriminatory toward certain groups. In short, the worry is that Wilders’s ideas will prevail even though his party did not. The Netherlands’ civil society will need to work with those parties supporting human rights. And they should call it out when mainstream parties set aside core values for political gain.  More >


Geert Wilders and Donald Trump can learn from Marine Le Print

Geert Wilders and Donald Trump can learn from Marine Le Print

Economist Mathijs Bouman thinks The Donald and The Geert could learn something from Marine Le Pen. It’s easy to come up with populist schemes. But how to pay for them? Donald Trump wants to lower taxes and invest in infrastructure at the same time. Geert Wilders is going to lower the state pension age, abolish the health insurance own risk element as well as lower income tax and halve vehicle tax. Meanwhile in France, Marine Le Pen wants to lower the state pension age, up benefits and lower income tax. Lots of fun things for citizens and lower taxes is the message. Because money doesn’t grow on trees the creatives of the right have to resort to trickery to make things look affordable. Marine Le Pen’s Front National came up with the most creative trick of all: to print money and lots of it. But first: the optical illusions of The Donald and The Geert. Straight face Trump, who has taken a good look at how Ronald Reagan used to handle things, managed to keep a straight face when he said that lower taxes and higher government spending are totally not mutually exclusive. Lower taxes are lucrative if they boost the economy and make tax evasion less of an attractive option. The person who came up with this fairy tale is Art Laffer, the Hans Christian Andersen among economists, who said last year he had the utmost faith in Trump. But according to the calculations of the independent Congressional Budget Office Trump’s policies, like Reagan’s in the 80s, will lead to a public debt of massive proportions. The PVV is keeping its programme well away from the financial scrutiny of the economic policy analysts at the CPB so the party has nothing to worry about on that score. The PVV website shows a party programme consisting of 1 A4 page dating to 2016 with a ‘financial paragraph’ containing the estimated costs and benefits of the proposals. Exactly zero Bringing the state pension age back to 65 will cost €3.5bn, abolishing development aid, windmills, art and public tv will bring in €10bn. The final balance come to exactly zero. It’s quite a feat, especially since two expenses have not been factored in. The costs of quitting the EU and introducing a law to introduce binding referendums have been marked Pro Memorie, or we haven’t a clue. Tip from Wilders to CFOs and treasurers in the land: include a couple of Pro Memories and you can balance the books whatever you do. Le Pen’s optically enhanced budget is much more like it. She wants France to trade the euro for a new French franc. The French Central bank will then be placed under the direct authority of parliament after which the money presses can start printing. Benefits can go up and the pension age can go down because, pouf, the money goes straight from the Banque de France to the Élysée. It’s brilliant! Now why didn’t Trump and Wilders think of that. This column appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Expatriate life has made me a fickle friend

Expatriate life has made me a fickle friend

There's something cruelly disposable about the expat friend and it is easy to become pragmatic about dealing with their comings and goings, says Deborah Nicholls-Lee. I have adopted a sort of no-strings-attached attitude when it comes to expat friendships; we can see each other but I can’t promise commitment. They are transient, itinerant types who will love you and leave you, so why invest in the relationship? And there’s always someone more interesting just getting off the plane. Cold nonchalance When a good friend recently told me that she was moving away, it was all I could do not to shrug my shoulders. You see, I’ve started to view my expat relationships a bit like an airport lounge. You might spend a little time with people there but essentially we’re all just passing through. I’m not heartless; I’m just pragmatic. In Amsterdam, where I live, nearly 8% of the population moved out of town in 2015 and around 60% of them were foreigners like me. That’s a lot of people to say goodbye to. I’ve learned the hard way. I made some of my dearest friends at a meet-up at the English bookshop in Amsterdam’s Jordaan when I was fairly new in town. A Facebook group was born and a friendship circle founded. Six years later and half that crew have gone. Cripes, even the bookshop has closed. It’s unsettling and sad when your friends keep leaving. There have been the home-made cards with pics of the good times glued in; expensive keepsakes; long-distance skype calls; and huge, scruffy envelopes filled with hand-written letters, stickers and drawings, sent from my children to theirs. It’s been emotional and exhausting. So I’ve learnt to focus on the now; to share a moment with people but not seek any more. More fish in the sea The advantage of living an expatriate life in the city is the steady flow of newcomers with diverse life experiences who are looking to make new friends. Some, like Arash, a journalist and a refugee from Iran, who I met recently, are seeking a safer life here; and some, like my neighbour Claire, a French illustrator who moved here last year from the UK, have come in search of adventure and fresh surroundings. But these are also people who often have a strong wanderlust, who will move onto the next experience soon, and it is pointless forming a strong attachment. My children’s preschool, in particular, provided a conveyor belt of lovely acquaintances and as - one by one - they moved abroad, a new person took their place and helped heal any sense of loss. Yara segued into Sasha, who segued into Senay. We bonded on what we had in common at that point in our lives: our children, our work, finding our feet abroad. I learnt to be pragmatic: a friend doesn’t have to be for life. And with around 140,000 people leaving the Netherlands each year, it’s just as well. In fact, the temporary nature of expat friendships has made me more picky than desperate. Anyone resident here who still orders coffee in English is a bit of a swipe left to me. Parenting style is a huge factor, as is Facebook activity. If they annoy me in cyberspace, it’s unlikely that we can make it work in three dimensions. And these people probably don’t like me either, because it works the other way too. Several friendships, that I did not deliberately cast afloat, have ebbed away. If the relationship doesn’t work for them, that’s fine. I never give chase. Go Dutch Dutch friends should be a safer option but I have still come a cropper. My dear friend Wies who I’d met at pre-natal yoga as we birth-danced in giggles to whale music, deserted me when our children were just three years old. I should have seen it coming: she was married to an expat. Still, my circle of Dutch friends is widening and I take some comfort in that. Though two are leaving Amsterdam this year for more space and fresh air, it’s reassuring to know that they’re still in the country. And if we do get to meet up again, at some cosy café or bar, I know that they’ll order in Dutch. Deborah Nicholls-Lee  is a writer and the content manager for Amsterdam Mamas.   More >


It is almost impossible to tell a jihadist from an asylum seeker

It’s very difficult to tell a jihadi from a genuine asylum seeker and the government should acknowledge the fact, say criminologists Joris van Wijk and Maarten Bolhuis. After the terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, the Dutch are also wondering whether the government is doing enough to identify jihadists among asylum seekers, especially at a time when the government inspectors have established that screening is inadequate. ‘We’ll pick out the terrorists at a later stage,’ the then justice minister Ard van der Steur told the Telegraaf in a reaction to the inspection report, which said checks on asylum seekers constituted the first of a number of steps. He might as well have told us not to lose any sleep over it. It was reassuring, but was it realistic? About a month ago we published a report called ‘Jihadisme en de vreemdelingenketen’ (Jihadism and the asylum chain partnership), written for the justice ministry. Asylum chain Its findings showed the minister’s reassuring comments in a different light. People who work for organisations which are part of the asylum chain, such as the IND and COA, are saying that the public has unrealistic expectations of what they can do to flag up terrorism. There is ample scientific literature to back up the contention that establishing a reliable method to spot jihadists is very difficult indeed. Risk profiling and the usage indicators based on utterances, external characteristics or behaviour are controversial. They are ineffective and can lead to stigmatisation. The report also quotes respondents working for the security services and the counter-terrorism body NCTV who are critical about the lists of indicators. Jihadist social media are explicitly advising jihadists to keep a low profile: displaying normal behaviour and keeping nerves in check will make detection very unlikely. At the same time we conclude that the public expects an organisation such as the immigration service IND to be alert and pick out jihadists from among asylum seekers. Since the time spent by IND workers with asylum seekers is limited they have expressed a need for concrete tools to help them. Guidelines This results in the IND issuing complicated guidelines to its workers. They are being told that certain behaviour (such as refusing to shake hands with women), certain language or external characteristics may possibly indicate jihadism. They are told the indicators should not be the main focus but that they should rely on their experience and professional intuition. It’s a complex brief for professionals who are assessing asylum seekers’ stories. The final conclusion of the report is that the organisations involved in the asylum chain are doing their best to spot jihadists, but it is extremely difficult. Moreover, it is unclear if the lists of indicators are a help or a hindrance. We are surprised the minister’s reaction did not include a comment on this particular problem and our recommendation to monitor and evaluate the use of these lists. No-one knows Although the minister stated earlier that there is no such thing as ‘100% security’, his comment that terrorists will be ‘picked out at a later stage’ suggests incorrectly that the IND or CIA can really identify jihadists who enter the country. We think it would be better for all involved if the minister recognised that much is being done to separate the jihadists from the asylum seekers, but no one really knows how to do it. You may not sleep as soundly as Van der Steur would like you to, but the truth would be better served. Translation by DutchNews. This article appeared earlier in the NRC  More >


Dutch would be world champions with a 60% income tax rate

Dutch would be world champions with a 60% income tax rate

The proposals to raise taxes for companies and high earners which the left-wing parties have included in their election programmes are out of step with current trends and should be ditched, say economists Rick van der Ploeg and Willem Vermeend. The election date is drawing near and campaigns have kicked off. Important issues include health care, immigration, integration, security, jobs and pensions. The parties on the left of the spectrum are making efforts to enter higher taxes on the election agenda as well. SP, GroenLinks and Labour are all in favour of raising taxes for companies and high earners. They feel such a move would be fairer and promote equality. They also need the money to finance the items on their wish lists, such as more spending power for people on lower incomes, lower health care costs and measures to protect the environment. These lists constitute a political choice which we won’t go into now. We are limiting ourselves to the effects of the tax proposals and their supposed benefits to the national coffers. Tax raise First off let’s look at the proposal to raise the top income tax rate from 52% to 60%. The present top rate already ranks with the highest in the world and the 60% rate would make the Netherlands the undisputed world champion. That is not something to be happy about. In most European countries as well as the United States top income tax rates are set to come down. The move could open up a whopping 20% gap between rates. Companies and high earners paying the top rate are already moving to countries with lower rates. Another hike would very likely increase their number. A 60% tax rate is hardly a welcoming gesture. Companies will find it harder to attract international top talent and international start-ups will likewise look elsewhere. Then there’s the annoying fact that a hike of the top rate will cost money which will leave even less money to finance wish lists. In 2013 the government's macro-economic forecasting agency CPB estimated that a higher top rate would set the treasury back over €100m. Here is why. Initially a hike would lead to an extra €300m in revenue. But this extra revenue is counter balanced by lower revenue as a result of job losses, people and companies moving abroad and a worsening climate for foreign companies. Ultimately a higher rate will end up losing the tax office money. And because more and more countries are lowering their top tax rates things will be even worse than the CPB predicted. Economist Bas Jacobs and a number of his colleagues have set the rate most advantageous to the Dutch economy at around 49%. The argument for not raising corporate tax is roughly the same. Higher corporate tax would have an even more disastrous effect on the economy, largely because of the worldwide corporate tax rate war. Countries have been lowering corporate tax rates in a bid to prevent companies from moving to countries with lower rates while at the same time attracting foreign companies. Join them All attempts to stop this race to the bottom have proved futile. And the chances that it will happen this year is precisely nil. If anything, Donald Trump’s presidential victory and Brexit will cause an acceleration of an already strong trend towards lower corporate tax rates with the Brits aiming for 10% and Trump for 15%. Other countries, such as Belgium, Hungary and France are also planning rate cutbacks. The Dutch 25% corporate tax rate is already putting the country in a vulnerable position internationally. Corporate tax rates are an important deciding factor for companies looking for locations. And globalisation and digitalisation are making it easier for international companies to move their headquarters to a tax-friendlier country. With a high corporate tax rate and a 60% income tax rate the Netherlands will stop being an international player. If we can’t beat them we will have to join them. Politicians will have to march to the international tune and lower tax rates. If they don’t departing companies will leave hundreds of thousands out of a job and a much lower tax revenue than we have at present. Attempts at convincing existing companies and start-ups to come to this country will flounder and it is doubtful that our ‘recruitment experts’ will even get a foot in the door. That is why we trust that a new cabinet will be wise enough not to ignore the international tax trend. The Netherlands will not be able to avoid lowering the present corporate tax rate to around 15% and the top income tax rate to below 50%. Such a measure can be financed by scrapping deductions and exemptions. This will have the added advantage of clamping down on tax evasion. This column was first published in the Telegraaf  More >


How to go Dutch: The waiting continues as the stakes are unexpectedly raised

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, second and third parts of her series. Well, I did it. I have officially passed all five sections of my inburgeringsexamen. Four language sections (reading, writing, speaking and listening) and the infamous culture exam. Before anyone jumps in with: ‘Well, now you should speak Dutch!’ and immediately switches to some complicated narrative in their regional dialect, this exam does not prove I am fluent in Dutch. It proves I can pass a standardised exam about a basic level of Dutch. In my third instalment, I had already passed Reading and Listening. In the three months since I have added Writing, Speaking and Culture to the pass list. Exam results But first I had to wait. Because in the Year of Our Lord 2016 the Dutch authorities send the test papers in a rocket to Mars and Elon Musk has to build a human colony there before they can be reviewed, results take eight weeks to come through. Despite being warned that this was the case, I compulsively checked the website for my results, starting two days after I’d taken each exam. The website itself doesn’t tell you your score, only if you passed – so once I’d discovered I’d passed, I then anxiously waited for the letter with my numerical score. Under duress, I will confess my scores here. Straight 9s with one 10 in Reading. Anyone who has heard me speak Dutch (which is a handful of Belgians and an Albert Heijn cashier in Amsterdam, once) is aware that this demonstrates just what a poor job the exams do of assessing one's actual ability to speak Dutch. As I said before, all it proves is that I can pass a Dutch exam. Exam practice As I had suspected, writing and speaking were the most challenging elements. The biggest challenge, for me, was that you couldn’t really take a practice exam. Reading, Listening and Culture are all multiple choice, so in my preparations I took a number of practice papers and had a good sense going into the actual exam that I would pass. Writing is an actual written exam (on actual paper) and for Speaking, you must record your spoken answers to be graded later by an examiner. As such, the best I could get for feedback was to have my Dutch instructor and unlucky Dutch friends grade my responses. For the writing exam was relatively straightforward: you print the practice exams, you take them, you give them to someone to grade. The Speaking exam proved to be more difficult, since you can’t send your recorded answers via the practice exam system. Instead, I recorded my answers via WhatsApp and sent it off. Shout out to my friend Paul, who was subjected to my 35 answers to questions such as “What do you think of the weather in the Netherlands?” and “What is your favourite thing to cook?” Dutch culture My final exam was Culture, which I left until last because, well, it’s supposed to be terrible. Everyone who has taken the Culture exam has their favourite absurd question. Mine involved a worker who felt he was being maligned by a colleague. First, you watch a short video clip of two men working on an assembly line. One of them, Ali, who is darker skinned, is working next to his blonde-haired, blue-eyed colleague Jeroen. Jeroen appears to be avoiding Ali’s attempts at conversation. Ali thinks that this is because his colleague is racist and is unsure what to do. Your options are: Ali should speak to the company director Ali should speak to his wife Ali should speak to his colleagues. Since you're not given the answers, I still have no idea what the correct response is. Feel free to comment below with your thoughts. Comedian Greg Shapiro has written extensively about the various absurd questions on the culture exam if you’d like to see more. I accidentally scheduled this final exam for the day after the US elections. Being both an American and a person who doesn’t want to spend the rest of their life living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I was deeply unhappy with the election results. Being a journalist, I had several stories to file about the election results. Being a crazy person, I stayed up all night to watch the election results. It started out fine, with a group of friends drinking beer and watching the news, but as the night dragged on and the outcome became more and more inevitable, the crowd slowly drifted away. I took a short nap at 8:00 in the morning, filed my stories and then got on my bike to head to the test centre. The stakes for the exam results were suddenly a bit higher. At the counter, looking like a person who has had 30 minutes of sleep, I handed my ID off to the testing official. He glanced at it. Glanced up at me. Glanced back at it. Glanced up at me and leaned forward. Then he whispered, 'I’m sorry'. 'Ik ook,' I replied. The next step Now that I have successfully passed all of the required (I think, though I’ll only believe it when the IND sends me my permanent residency card), I had to prepare my permanent residency application. The form itself is 18 pages and required everything from copies of my passport to a letter from my employer. Ultimately, I mailed the IND 68 pages of supporting documentation proving that I am a good citizen, that I passed my exams, that I am financially secure, that I have a job and that I eat both cheese and hagelslag. Since the IND system is an old-fashioned paper one, I had my short video demonstrating my enjoyment of cheese printed into a flip book. I anticipate this will be sufficient. Two weeks later (much faster, incidentally, than it took for the exam results to arrive) I got a letter from IND confirming my application and a request to pay them a lot of money to process it. With that final bit arranged, now I wait. Again. Molly will update us with her progress in the spring, when her application is processed.   More >


Nice work if you can get it – no wonder so many 20-somethings still live at home

Most people in their early 20s are not financially independent – which is hardly surprising when you consider how few of them have real jobs, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. A while ago Dutch newspaper Trouw published a report which found that only 25% of 20 to 25-year-olds in the Netherlands can support themselves financially nowadays, compared with 45% at the turn of the millennium. As a parent of two sons in that age group, I can only nod in agreement and mail the link to all the other parents I know who are bewailing the fact their offspring are still turning to the Bank of Mum and Dad. Independence You know that when your 23-year-old son rings on a Monday morning, he’s not after a jolly chat. The conversation always starts with 'Hello mum, how are you?'. To which my reply is inevitably 'How much?' It’s a scenario that has everyone with children in their 20s nodding and reminiscing about how gloriously independent we were in our day. But it would be wrong to say that my children are not doing their bit. They work and always have done: stacking shelves in our local organic supermarket for the princely sum of €2.30 an hour, delivering leaflets door to door for a few spare euros, carrying coffins at funerals, flipping burgers on boats, manual labour… everything they can to keep down the student loan to a more manageable size and pay the bills. But now they are graduates, or nearly graduates, things are changing. The world of eternal internships looms. Working a 40-hour week for expenses of €300 a month is far from unusual. So how can you pay the rent, your health insurance, your dry cleaning (a sharp suit being compulsory for your office-based work experience) and go out for the occasional beer without a handout from the most reliable of banks – the one based at your parents’ kitchen table? Start-ups Of course, there is the ever-popular option these days of going it alone: founding your own company and becoming that most glamorous of persons, a start-up entrepreneur. Start-ups are so achingly hip. Every Dutch city wants to be a start-up hub. And they all seem to rely on interns who are expected to take on grand job titles for pocket money, a pat on the head and the glory of being exploited by a company with a silly name. The government sees start-ups as the key to future economic growth and job creation. Unless, of course, they are looking for an endless supply of interns to make sure operations keep ticking over. Those 20-somethings struggling to earn their keep could do worse than join the ranks of start-up entrepreneurs. There are lots of initiatives out there to help get them started. And who knows, a loan from the Bank of Mum and Dad might even lead to great things – and a decent return on our investment.  More >


The strange death of the Dutch Labour Party

The Dutch Labour party (PvdA) might be part of the current coalition government, but its support has plummeted since the last election. Gordon Darroch examines the party's collapse. Just before Christmas the Dutch parliament gave Diederik Samsom the kind of send-off reserved for much-loved colleagues who are moving on after a spat with the management. Most MPs joined in a standing ovation for the departing Labour (PvdA) leader, who was praised by parliamentary chair (and party colleague) Khadija Arib as ‘indefatigable and combative’, ‘the type who pointedly refuses to accept that there are only 24 hours in a day’. Prime minister Mark Rutte, whose full term in office owes much to Samsom’s ability to keep his party on side, commended him as a man of his word who had instrumental in putting the economy back on course. Samsom himself contended, in his swansong speech, that the economic recovery ‘should silence the cynics for all time’. So why was Samsom quitting parliament, having been deposed as party leader in a contest that he brought on his own head? The immediate reason is obvious: the PvdA is haemorrhaging support. At the last election four years ago Samsom almost single-handedly steered the party out of the doldrums to win 38 seats, more than double the number the opinion polls predicted at the start of the campaign. His combative style and articulate case for a ‘social’ solution to the economic crisis made him the star of the television debates and took the PvdA to a close second place behind Rutte’s Liberals (VVD). On current projections it could be down to single figures when the votes are counted next March. Policy programme From the outset, Labour found itself bound to a policy programme with a distinct Liberal flavour. The leitmotiv of Rutte’s second cabinet has been to shift the focus of accountability from the state to the individual. The welfare state was repackaged as a ‘participation society’ in which everyone, including the elderly, disabled and sick, was expected to do more for themselves on fewer resources. Responsibility for administering these services was transferred from central government to the municipalities, fulfilling the small-state dream of the fiscally conservative VVD. Funding for the arts was slashed. The increase in the pension age, one of the last acts of Rutte’s first cabinet, was confirmed and extended. The ambitious plan to put the Netherlands in the vanguard of renewable energy is being bankrolled not by central government, but by consumers through their power bills. Many of these measures were devised and enacted by PvdA ministers such as Lodewijk Asscher and Jeroen Dijsselbloem. But in doing so they had to sacrifice a large part of the PvdA’s raison d’etre. Samsom had promised a ‘social way’ out of the recession; in practice the economy recovered, but society became more polarised and fragmented. And the voters who had rallied behind the party in the summer of 2012 simply drifted away. In the most recent opinion polls Labour was projected to score as little as 7% of the vote, compared to the 25% share Samsom achieved four years ago. Despite being under little serious pressure in his party, Samsom called a leadership election, hoping to shore up his position and revive the party’s fortunes before March. But Samsom’s success in 2012 had been eclipsed by the unremitting decline that followed. The party faithful no longer believed in their saviour. Instead they chose Asscher, the deputy prime minister who was brought into government on Samsom’s recommendation. Aboutaleb NRC’s political commentator Tom-Jan Meeus speculated recently in an article for Politico Europe that Labour might have saved itself if Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, had been persuaded to run for the leadership in the spring. Some senior PvdA figures, including Dijsselbloem, suspected Aboutaleb of putting his own ambitions before the party and in the end, Meeus writes, the mayor decided not to put his reputation for integrity on the line. I wonder if Aboutaleb didn’t simply take a more practical view, namely that not even he could rescue the PvdA from its current predicament. Labour’s downfall has been cataclysmic. Some national polls have the party in eighth place. In the local elections two years ago it lost control of Amsterdam for the first time since 1949. Cities that were once impregnable Labour fortresses, such as Groningen and Nijmegen, fell to its rivals – chiefly the ‘soft’ liberal D66 group. In many ways Samsom’s achievement in 2012 was a blip that obscured a long-term malaise. The PvdA’s working-class voter base has splintered. The white working classes have thrown in their lot with Geert Wilders’s PVV or the Socialists. Metropolitan progressives have switched to D66. Older workers, anxious about the erosion of their pensions, put their faith in 50Plus, which is the latest party to overtake the PvdA in the polls. And minority ethnic voters are dumping the party for Denk, a new party formed by two ex-Labour MPs, of whom more presently. Economics In a recent television interview, Samsom commented that ‘one of the paradoxical developments [of the last five years] is that as conditions have improved in this country, increasing numbers of people, with increasing anger, have perceived that they are not sharing enough in that progress.’ But the situation is only paradoxical to a politician who focuses on the economic figures. Unemployment has fallen from 700,000 to 500,000 in the last two years, but at the same time the proportion of permanent contracts has fallen to less than 75%. The casualisation of the workforce has continued apace. Many people coming back into work are on short-term or flexible contracts where they were previously employed full-time, and now have a reduced pension and a later retirement age. The cost of greater prosperity in a Liberal-led age has been greater insecurity. Samsom accepted that the economic improvement had so far mainly benefited people with jobs who owned their own homes. Those who feel left behind include much of the PvdA’s core support. Identity crisis Demographic changes have hurt the party too. Meeus writes that the Netherlands has entered the era of identity politics, but perhaps Labour’s bigger problem is that it is grounded in a form of identity that people no longer recognise. For years the PvdA hoovered up migrant votes, because most migrants identified as working class. Increasingly nowadays, however, the fault lines are between communities, shaped by Wilders’s fixation with the ‘Moroccan problem’ and the late onset of the debate on race relations. Historically the PvdA was the most diverse group in parliament, reflecting its support among minority voters. But under Samsom’s leadership two of his six minority MPs, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, split from the party following a bitter row with Asscher and formed DENK, chipping away another layer from Labour’s support base. Shift to the left It remains to be seen whether Lodewijk Asscher can revive the PvdA’s fortunes as spectacularly his predecessor did five years ago. He has already signalled a shift to the left with a pledge of a new 60% tax band for people earning over €150,000 a year and an increase in corporation tax. The extra money raised would be interested in elderly care and raising wages for low earners, in a clear bid to restore Labour’s core vote. Asscher also plans to use the Brexit negotiations to argue for reforms to freedom of movement within the EU so foreign workers are no longer brought in purely to push down wages. Asscher is admired as a behind-the-scenes negotiator, but that is unlikely to cut much ice in the heat of an election campaign. As deputy prime minister he is arguably even more closely associated with Rutte’s policies than Samsom. And given his role in DENK’s breakaway, it seems optimistic to expect him to win back the confidence of minority voters. One of the Dutch folk tales I learned growing up was the story of the little boy who sticks his finger in a dyke to stop his village flooding. It’s a simple tale that seems to epitomise the Dutch spirit of pulling together for the common good. Only recently did I learn that the story was the creation of an American children’s author and far less well known in the Netherlands. But perhaps it’s an apt image for the fall of Samsom, who plugged the dyke but couldn’t save himself from being swept away by the tide. This column was first published on Gordon Darroch's blog Words for Press  More >