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


It’s cool up north

It’s cool up north

The northern Dutch province of Groningen is unfairly being written off by some because of economic problems and the earthquakes. But it is a vibrant place to be and deserves to be treated fairly, says Sandra Beckerman, a candidate for the Socialist party in next year's provincial elections. When I decided to study archaeology I had already made up my mind to go to a university in the one of the four big cities. My school at the time made it a rule that would-be students also had a look at universities further afield. I had never been to Groningen and up north I went. It was 200 kilometres from where I lived and I didn’t know a soul there but I knew there and then that Groningen it would be. Now, 14 years later, I live there still. Groningen and the north are beautiful. I love the people, the city, the university, the unique landscape, the dolmens, the mounds and the sky-filled views. That is why I was struck by a recent newspaper headline which said ‘The north is a write-off’. Not because the author of the piece is wrong when she says that the northern provinces are disadvantaged and that the people there are fearful and dismayed at the earthquakes caused by gas extraction and struggling to cope with rampant unemployment and an ageing and shrinking population in the agricultural areas. Natural disaster What I objected to was the way it made Groningen’s predicament seem as if it is the result of some natural disaster and that no matter what the government does (decentralising government services, the Eemshaven project), Groningen is beyond help. I don’t agree. The north is where it is because of bad political choices. It’s not poor because it doesn’t produce wealth. It’s poor in spite of producing quite spectacular wealth. Groningen has generated some €265bn worth of natural gas since the sixties, not including the profits made by Shell and ExxonMobile, or NAM. The huge wealth generated in Groningen is not invested in Groningen. The compensation offered for the natural gas extraction is €1bn, a mere nothing compared to the €265bn. The Netherlands is experiencing an enormous gap in wealth, a gap between rich and poor, between the Randstad and other parts of the country. Studies, such as ‘The spirit level’ by Wilkinson and Pickett, show neither side profits from the situation in the long run. Endeavour Another reason why I don’t think the north is a write-off is that it makes the north look sad. Everyone who’s ever spent a long weekend here knows that it is anything but. There’s talent and there’s endeavour and plenty of it. But by putting the north at a disadvantage, the government is crushing people’s pride and self-confidence. People watch as the money leaves the area and poverty remains. That creates social unrest. Increasingly it’s ‘us versus them’. There’s an alternative of course. The north has plenty of economic opportunities to offer. Groningen University, for instance, is doing a lot of research into healthy aging. With an ageing population on its doorstep, the university has plenty of scope to study the phenomenon and introduce and test innovative schemes involving small-scale home care in cooperation with the national health service and educational institutions. Other regions would profit from this type of research as well. Another sector that could be made to thrive is fiber production. The north has plenty of land to grow fiber crops. It could become a centre for research into innovative applications for fiber, such as insulation material and batteries. A third opportunity lies in shipbuilding and the close proximity to Germany. Last but not least there’s heritage and tourism. Drenthe and Fryslân are popular already and if investment is made into nature, culture and heritage Groningen could follow suit. The north isn’t backward; it’s been set back. There are plenty of economic opportunities in the areas of health care, agriculture, technology, energy, heritage, culture and tourism. Investing in the north is good for both the Randstad and the north. So what are the political choices that should be made? Scale down natural gas extraction to a safe level Invest in the economy, livability and accessibility of the north. The SP makes that choice. The cabinet and its supporters don’t. Sandra Beckerman is an SP candidate for the provincial elections in March 2015 This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Dealing with debt, Part 2

Dealing with debt, Part 2

Last week I wrote that family finance institute Nibud calculated that Dutch families in debt cost society €11bn a year. That amount would cover the cost of redesigning and implementing a new tax system twice over with something to spare for education and health care innovation. And that’s just a single year’s worth. Work The standard solution for families with problematic debts is debt relief. After the debts have been written off families are free to carry on as normal. At this moment over 172,000 families are on debt relief with an average write-off of nearly €44,000 each. I don’t think this is a sustainable solution. It doesn’t change behaviour. 30% of the people who were on debt relief go back to their old ways and end up in debt again. They are not allowed to go back on debt relief for the first ten years and end up as dramatic payment recovery cases for energy companies and eviction candidates for housing corporations. It would be much better to give people in debt an alternative and a sense of responsibility. My solution would be to swap debt for work. An hour’s work for every ten euros of debt. A debt of €8,000 would be translated into 800 hours of work. People on benefits can work during the day and people in work will have to do it in the evenings or at the weekend. It’s a bit of a pain but then debt is a personal responsibility. Solution No doubt critics will argue that such a plan would cannibalise paid jobs. The solution to this is to offer up the jobs that aren’t getting done at the moment, such as removing graffiti from buildings or bridges, extra cleaning work in parks or providing social support for the elderly. Working off debt is much better than writing it off. People’s behaviour will change. They will manage their finances differently because if they don’t this is what they will have to do. They will think twice before committing the same mistake twice. We need a society in which everyone takes his or her responsibility. What we don’t need are sympathetic social workers and debt ‘victims’. Companies like Nuon, Eneco and KPN will have to spend much less on debt recovery and we can cut back on administrators, social workers and civil servants. Society will be the better for it. It’s a sustainable solution which local authorities and companies can work together to achieve. Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and investor This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Manure hits fan in Dutch dairy farming

Manure hits fan in Dutch dairy farming

Dairy farming shouldn’t go the way of pig farming and poultry farming, say Cees Veerman and Herman Wijffels. Dutch dairy farmers have a good reputation. Their grazing cows represent a number of important values: an attractive landscape and care for the wellbeing of the animals. Grass fed cows also ensure short cycles of nutrients (grass – manure – grass) and some biodiversity. The dairy farmers are doing very well indeed economically. In short, it’s a sector to be proud of. Grass fed cows and short cycles are part and parcel of the type of land-bound farm which uses the manure on its own land and produces most of its own feed. The majority of dairy farms works like this but now it seems as if this way of managing the land is under threat. On April 1 next year the EU milk quota system will be abolished. This means dairy farmers can produce as much milk as they like. In order to comply with the environmental rules the government can limit the intensification of dairy farms. It can impose a limit on the number of animals per hectare, the amount of milk they produce and the amount of manure they use. But now junior agriculture minister Dijksma has come up with a draft law in which she advocates production without any such restrictions. For farms are already at the limit of what they can produce the only restriction is that they export the manure surplus or take it to a manure processing installation. That obligation can be sold on to pig farmers, who, in turn, will have to increase the amount of pig manure they export or put up for processing. Fraud and scandals If manure processing is offered as a way out to farmers the consequences will be dire. Many dairy farmers are already intensifying and they are quickly going the way of the pig farmers and the poultry farmers: feed from external sources, manure to be processed elsewhere and artificially extended or broken cycles. More manure will enter the market which will open it up to more fraud and scandals. There is a EU upper limit to the extension, however: the amount of manure produced by the whole of the country’s livestock. If that amount is exceeded Brussels will impose stricter norms on the Netherlands. Dijkstra wants to avoid this by introducing a fixed number of animals per farm. This will result in dairy farmers wanting to produce as much milk as possible with the cows they have, to the detriment of the animals. Strangely enough the junior minister professes to be in favour of land-bound farms and pasture-raised cows. She also feels it is up to the sector itself to decide. Dijkstra probably feels the VVD breathing down her neck, a party reluctant to impose further environmental measures. But isn’t is strange to give dairy farmers space to grow and then to ask the sector to take some of it away again? The sector itself is asking for a tighter environmental law; a unique step for the businesses involved. Circular economy Approving Dijkstra’s draft law would be a historic mistake. The positive image of Dutch dairy farming – the biggest dairy exporter bar one – will be tarnished. Parliament would do well to cut off the manure processing route. The VVD won’t like it but there’s a trump card: the government accord. It contains a telling phrase: ‘The cabinet wants to promote a circular economy.’ We think the circular economy of dairy farming is under attack. Why not use that phrase from government accord to make sure Dutch dairy farming remains a sector to be proud of. Cees Veerman is a former agriculture minister and Herman Wijffels is a former ceo of Rabobank and professor of sustainability at the University of Utrecht.      More >


Bring on the robots

Bring on the robots

Don't fear robotisation but prepare to enjoy the benefits it could bring, says GroenLinks leader Bram van Ojik. Even brilliant economists can't always be right. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called ‘Economic possibilities for our grandchildren’ in which he predicted that in two generations’ time a 15-hour working week would be enough to produce whatever we would need. Those grandchildren are us, but instead of working fewer hours we’re putting in more. If we have a job, that is. While people in work are expected to work longer hours, the number of people out of work is growing: no experience, not enough skills, too old, too expensive, not healthy enough. The Keynsian ideal of full employment and plenty of leisure time for everyone seems further away than ever. No matter how seductive Keynes’ picture of the future may appear, it doesn’t seem to have survived as a political ideal. Jobs are still sacred for most political parties. We have to work harder and longer is the message. And if you don’t work, the cabinet has all kinds of sanctions handy to kick you onto a labour market which everybody knows is devoid of jobs. I would argue that work should no longer take centre stage in our lives. In a time of mass unemployment and unstoppable technological progress politicians too should realise that there’s more to life than just work. What we need is to establish a new political agenda. In a recent speech social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher made a first attempt to do just that. Referring to publications by American researchers which showed that computers and robots are set to replace people in the workplace, he said  ‘technology driven unemployment’ awaits us. Unskilled and middle class jobs will disappear without being replaced by other types of work. The nightmare scenario according to Asscher is the extreme inequality between those who own and make the robots and the rest of society. It’s not a very nice prospect. Claptrap It’s good to see the discussion has been kicked off at last. Until recently any worries about robotisation and jobless growth were dismissed by the minister as apocalyptic claptrap. The cabinet was busy creating jobs and things would soon be back to where they were. I’m glad he changed his mind, especially as the much predicted tightening of the labour market as a result of an ageing population doesn’t seem to be materialising and the shortfall of workers will turn into a robot induced structural surplus. The many reactions to Asscher’s speech are mainly concerned with the question of whether robots will create more or fewer jobs. More jobs is good, fewer jobs is bad. It’s a limited view to take and one that takes a lot for granted. It would be far better to start a much more fundamental debate about the role work has in our lives, the opportunities working less would give us and which conditions would have to be in place for us to use these opportunities to the full. Keynes may play a part in this after all. Robotisation will impact on at least five interrelated areas. Robot comes from the Czech word ‘robota’ which means work or forced labour. I wonder what is so terrible about getting rid of heavy and poorly paid work. If robotisation is really going to happen on a large scale it seems to me to be a blessing, not a curse. And if it is, we will have to find a way of sharing the remaining work among more people and bring down the average number of hours we work. Let’s start with a four-day working week as the norm. Less work, more leisure time, what’s not to like? Relax We’ll have time to relax and do all the other stuff we normally have to squeeze into our working day, including socially useful things like neighbourhood activities, doing your bit for your child’s school, looking after a sick relative, or purely individual pleasures such as walking, reading and being with friends and family. Bring on the robots: the ideal of a relaxed society is nigh. If fewer people have paid jobs we also need to look at how we deal with prosperity. The gap between workers and non-workers can only be bridged by a radical redistribution of wealth. That means our tax system would come in for a slightly bigger reform than is currently being contemplated by the government. The robot builder elite and technicians would be asked to contribute more and tax on wealth, company profits, energy waste and pollution would replace the tax on labour. Labour would be cheaper and employees would be left with more money (so they can work fewer hours) while employers can hire workers more cheaply. Cue social security. In a society in which fewer people are working we must abolish the link between social security and premiums on labour. There simply won’t be enough people to prop up the social security system through premiums. A different way of financing social security has the added advantage of making labour cheaper and opening up new markets, for instance for personal services. We could start today by extending the possibility for people on benefits to do work part-time and unpaid work and relaxing the rules surrounding the number of job applications they have to comply with. Shackles Less work and a fairer division of wealth would also have an impact on care. Robotisation will free up stressed-out parents and home carers. The elderly will no longer have to put up with sub-standard and expensive care. Just imagine how nice it would be to actually have the time to look after a dear one without having to juggle a job as well. Maybe the biggest challenge is the question of what to do with ourselves once we free ourselves of the shackles of work. Research shows that most people would like to spend time on their own personal development. That means education will change from being focused on work to being geared towards personal fulfilment. Lifelong learning will finally happen. All these proposals lead to a loosening of the knot that binds labour and income together. I quite like the prospect. In order to make it happen we need to act now and look beyond the question of whether robots bring more or fewer jobs.  We need to get rid of the mantras surrounding yesterday’s problems: making work pay more (as if that’s the problem), tightening up the rules on job application (as if the jobs are just waiting for people to step into) and promoting growth (even if it doesn’t result in more jobs). At the other end of the spectrum there’s the relaxed, ideal society which because of the rapid technological advances and a historically high level of highly skilled people may just come within reach. Let’s not be afraid of the robots. Let’s prepare for a time when we won’t have to earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brow. Bram van Ojik is an MP and the leader of left-wing green party GroenLinks. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Thou shalt live a healthy life

Thou shalt live a healthy life

The government is telling us to lead healthy lives but who handed over the pulpit to the authorities? Mind your own business and let people worry about their own salvation, says Patrick van Schie.   Not a week goes by without some newspaper article telling us that scientists have found that a certain food is harmful - or beneficial - to our health. The effects of exercise – how much, what type – are also explored in detail. Those who want to live healthy lives apparently should never skip breakfast (with plenty of roughage), walk or cycle to work, take the stairs instead of the lift and – in case of a sedentary existence – stand up every now and again or go for a little walk, eat a varied diet, lunch on a fruit salad, limit snacks to apples or kiwis, fill their plates with vegetables and a tiny amount of lean meat or oily fish, play sports or take up gardening in their free time, drink at least 1.5 litres of water a day, suppress cravings for crisps by eating celery sticks, go to bed before midnight and sleep 7 to 8 hours. Commandment This constitutes a healthy lifestyle and those who want it are, of course, welcome to it. But are the rest of us allowed to stray? What if we hate carrot juice and veggi burgers and drool over crisps and a juicy steak? Is that a sin? Are we sinning against the commandment of Thou shalt look after thine health? It seems that many scientists and politicians think we are. They know what is good for the people of this country and while everyone is free to make unhealthy food choices such behaviour should really be discouraged. For our own good, of course. Nudging This is where nudging comes in. Nudging means that instead of telling people how to behave, ‘good’ behaviour is rewarded and ‘bad’ behaviour punished. The government could, for instance, reward (subsidise) the production of what are considered healthy greens and punish (tax) the purchase of unhealthy foodstuffs. The quasi-neutral WRR (Scientific Council for Government Policy) has shown itself to be an enthusiastic adherent of the concept of nudging. It is recommending a policy which gives citizens an illusory freedom of choice, all the while pushing them in the direction scientists and politicians feel is best. Proof? Real scientists know that findings don’t necessarily hold up. Today’s healthy food could end up on tomorrow’s strictly forbidden list. Many of these findings are based on questionable research methods (using very small test groups, for example). Often only the slightest of statistical links is ‘proof’ enough. We are told that eating a certain food will increase our chances of getting cancer/having a heart attack by 20%. Of course, that doesn’t mean all of us. There are individuals who despite a big intake of fat and alcohol manage to live to a ripe old age without being struck down by anything major. A citizen is not a statistic, something politicians tend to forget. Gourmet But nudging presents a far more serious problem: it undermines the freedom of the individual to determine what to him constitutes the good life. That choice may very well increase a person’s  chances of dying prematurely but perhaps he prefers a (shorter) life of gourmet pleasures to the ascetic lifestyle. It’s up to him, after all. Can he please make this choice without being admonished by the government and punished with extra taxes? An adult person shouldn’t be talked down to by the authorities. Once upon a time the church told people how to live. Do as we say and you will save your eternal soul, it said. Liberals argued that it is up to citizens to decide what and if they believe, and that everyone should be entitled to live by their own convictions as long as they can do so without harming others. Isn’t eternal salvation a far bigger issue than the alleged health effects of certain foods on our temporary life on earth? And if we agree that citizens are masters of their own personal salvation, why should we allow politicians to climb into the pulpit and decree what we should and shouldn’t eat?   Patrick van Schie is an historian and director of the VVD think tank Teldersstichting. He wrote this column in a personal capacity. This article appeared earlier in Trouw  More >


Fight radicalisation but stay cool (and tolerant)

Fight radicalisation but stay cool (and tolerant)

Amsterdammers must fight intolerance without becoming intolerant, says the city's mayor Eberhard van der Laan. A week and a half from now, on November 2, it will be 10 years to the day since film maker and television presenter Theo van Gogh was murdered. Much has happened in Amsterdam since that sad event but lately it seems as if we’ve come full circle. Tensions in the city are growing and radicalisation has become much more visible because of the recent conflicts in the Middle East. Fortunately Amsterdammers aren’t the sort to get worked up very easily. Research carried out recently showed that the number of locals who say they have experienced tensions in relation to people from a different ethnic background had only increased from 15% to 19.5% But many people are worried, as they were 10 years ago, about the possibility of a terrorist attack. The Dutch involvement in the fight against the Islamic State makes it more probable that the Netherlands could one day become a target. In 2012 terrorists were active in Toulouse and London and earlier this year the Jewish Museum in Brussels was the scene of a deadly attack on visitors. Last week a man was arrested in Amsterdam on suspicion of planning an attack on policemen. We need to be alert and vigilant. The local authorities, the public prosecution office and the police have agreed on a number of measures, both visible and invisible. More police protection of synagogues is one such measure, but there is more. Some of what we do I can’t discuss here, but the fact is that ever since Theo van Gogh was murdered Amsterdam has been combating radicalisation. Theo’s death is the very sad reason we now have a head start. One example is the effort put in by 150 key figures, a group of dedicated young people who understand the importance of ‘winning back’ the hearts and minds of fellow Amsterdammers who have become radical. These specially trained youngsters give out information and talk about the problem with others in their network. Sometimes they are ostracized for it, or even abused. But this doesn’t stop them. I’m proud of these courageous Amsterdammers. In spite of all this, we must realise that a terrorist attack on Amsterdam could still happen. There is only so much preventive measures can achieve. Amsterdammers themselves must be vigilant and keep an eye out for suspicious situations and alert police and the local authorities to signs of radicalisation. But there’s something else we must do, something that is at least as important. We must continue to live our lives as open-minded people who are interested in our fellow citizens. We must combat intolerance without becoming intolerant ourselves. It is this attitude that has made Amsterdam the wonderful city it is and we must never let that go. If we do, the extremists win and we lose. Eberhard van der Laan is mayor of Amsterdam. This article appeared earlier in Metro.  More >


Share value of a hospital? Between 0 and a second home in France

Share value of a hospital? Between 0 and a second home in France

If the tax office has anything to do with it, medical specialists will have to become entrepreneurial. But that might jeopardise that second home in France, writes Barend van Lieshout. By January 1 self-employed medical specialists will have to choose between a contract with the hospital or a bigger financial share in the hospital. The tax office thinks the present structure for specialists isn’t entrepreneurial enough. Behind the scenes furious negotiations are taking place between specialists and hospital managers. The central hot potato is: how much is the hospital worth? Transactions You can buy a hospital these days for no more than a couple of million euros, at least that is what a number of them went for in the last few years. Of course, these were foundations in distress which came into private hands after a capital injection. The only transaction from shareholder to shareholder was in the case of the Slotervaart hospital and the share price that was paid is controversial to this day. This hospital, too, was on the brink. Haircut Fortunately, we can still have recourse to the classic cash flow based valuation. But even that can’t be used on hospitals willy nilly because politicians don’t like the idea of dividends paid by hospitals. Shareholders do not get dividends at the moment. Health minister Edith Schippers is preparing a draft proposal in which this problem is tackled to a degree, but it is far from certain whether this will become law. An added difficulty is that dividends are subject to a myriad of conditions. That is why hospitals rather than offering a dividend flow to shareholderes are offering an option on dividends. This situation calls for a drastic haircut. Upside In the enterprise that is the hospital, stakeholders have a big influence on dividend flow. Health insurers are keeping a beady eye on the annual accounts of hospitals. If things are looking up too much, costs can come down until the profits are brought back to an acceptable level (typically 1% without corporation tax). This effectively puts a ceiling on the upside. What is more, the minister can impose budget cuts on hospitals when spending gets out of hand. This is the final deathblow to a value explosion in this sector. Only the most reckless of investors would put his money in hospital shares. Say In practice things are not this bad. The medical specialist has more than one iron in the fire. Becoming a shareholder has other, non-financial advantages. Although the medical staff of a hospital would never become the majority shareholder it would have some say in hospital matters. And being an independent medical specialist is a very well paid job, thanks in part to a number of fiscal perks. It would be a shame if the tax authorities were to put a stop to this because they are failing in their entrepreneurial duties of investing and running the concomitant risks. The advantage for the medical specialist then is not connected to dividend flow but to the fiscal consequences of his position. If his present fiscal perks outweigh his participation in the hospital, no medical specialist will invest in shares. We can therefore conclude that the value of a share is somewhere between 0 euro and a second home in France. Barend van Lieshout is a healthcare advisor at Rebel      More >


Uberpop is the solution, not the problem

Uberpop is the solution, not the problem

Uberpop is only doing what others have failed to do: promote competition, improve quality and lower prices, writes Dutch Uber general manager Niek van Leeuwen. The Dutch transport Inspectorate (ILT) thinks new private driver service Uberpop contravenes the law governing the transport of persons (WP2000). Uber disagrees. Not only does it disagree, it maintains that Uberpop is the only organisation which actually fulfils the main goals set out in WP2000. These include ‘strengthening the role of the taxi in the traffic and transport policy by increasing its use’, ‘stimulating the market and promoting competition within the taxi sector in order to improve quality an lower prices’. Fourteen years after the document was drafted, everyone agrees that these goals have not been met: the number of taxis doubled, prices went up by 25% and the number of customers went down. Market forces The success of Uber has everything to do with innovation and technological developments. In the year WP 2000 became operational there was no Dutch version of Facebook, no iPhone and even Facebook hadn’t been invented yet. These innovations helped Uber to do what others failed to do: stimulate market forces, improve quality and lower prices. The story of Uber began over four years ago when American entrepreneurs Travis Kalanick and Garret Camp tried to get a taxi after attending a technology congress in Paris. Back home in America they developed an innovative app which enabled people to order a taxi with one push of a button. It was an easy, cheap and safe way of bringing together supply and demand. The rest is history. Uber is now operational in over two hundred cities around the world, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. On July 30 Uberpop was introduced in the Netherlands by means of a pilot project in Amsterdam. We selected a group of people who used the Uber app to book a safe and affordable ride with a private car owner. Every Uber driver is screened and has to hand over an official certificate of good conduct (VOG). Every ride is completely covered by a supplementary commercial car insurance. A unique rating system guarantees the quality of the driver’s driving skills. According to a pole by management consulting firm Accenture both customers and drivers are extremely positive about the service. Over 80% of customers are enthusiastic about price, travel time, ease and safety. 87% of clients and 97% of drivers think the Uber system for rating drivers is a good way of guaranteeing quality without government interference. Transport policy A wide-spread use of Uberpop in the big cities could even become a safe and cheap alternative to car ownership. Accenture found that 5% of clients would give up their car if Uberpop were to be available 24/7. 42% say they would use both their cars and Uberpop. This means Uberpop could fulfil a prominent role in the transport policy as described in WP2000. It would also fit in with a broader vision in which a more effective use of private cars can have a positive impact on bottle necks, pollution, pressure on public space and energy use. And this is why Uberpop does not contravene WP2000, far from it. Uberpop is the first organsiation to fulfil the goals originally set out in WP2000. Now that WP2000 will be evaluated soon we hope that the government will embrace the new opportunities offered by Uberpop so that the goals of WP2000 – stimulating the market and offering better quality and lower prices – will finally be achieved. Niek van Leeuwen is general manager of Uber Nederland This column appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Fatal flaw in the benefits system

Fatal flaw in the benefits system

Many over fifties are playing a flawed benefits system and this means they are in no hurry to find a job, says Annemarie van Gaal. As unemployment figures are down slightly in the Netherlands, unemployment among the over-fifties is rising. Almost 200,000 older people are on unemployment benefits and half of them have been unemployed for more than a year. According to social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher, this presents ‘a grave and worrying problem’. Since last year Asscher has been allocating more than €100m for schemes to get this group back in the workplace. The money is being spent mostly on networking evenings and job application courses, organised by benefits office UWV. But however much money he throws at the problem it won’t help as long as the flaw in the system isn’t rectified. Henk Allow me to explain, using Henk as an example. Henk is 54 and lost his job as an administrator a year ago when  the company he worked for went under. He is now on benefits, or WW. Henks says: ‘The UWV doesn’t have a clue. Most people over fifty don’t want to go back to work.’ The flaw in the system is that most over fifties will have more money coming in on WW than if they were to start a new job. Henk: ‘We worked during the good times and every year our salaries increased. If you go back now and work for 70% of your old wages you have nothing left by the end of the month.’ The period workers are entitled to unemployment benefits depends on the number of years they have been in employment. This is another incentive for older people to remain unemployed for as long as possible. Our system is slowing down the search for work when it is important, especially for the over fifties, to find a job as quickly as possible. Henk thinks the UWV training courses are useless. ‘At the end of the course they ask you to fill in a form and mail it to the coach who can then evaluate the results. No one wants problems with the UWV, or the coach, so we all say positive things about the course.’ Self-regulating Why don’t we have a look at this flaw in the system, rectify it and turn the system into a self-regulating one? Suppose there wouldn’t be a WW but that every person were to go on welfare, or bijstand, straight away. The UWV would monitor the amount of unemployment benefits you have built up over the years which you can dip into every month if you don’t have enough to pay your fixed outgoings or want to do a course. When you find a job the money will still be there for the next time you find yourself temporarily out of work. And when pension time comes, the UWV will give you half of what is left in the pot. That would be a much better system. It stimulates people to find jobs instead of using the benefits system for their own advantage. Who is willing to rectify the flaw? Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and investor. This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad.              More >


Royals: thrifty or spendthrift?

Royals: thrifty or spendthrift?

It is fine to spend money on the king as a symbol for unity but not on the king as a man in need of a private jetty, writes D66 leader Alexander Pechtold. When queen Juliana visited a school in The Hague on the occasion of the centennial of the vocational education association those present noted she arrived in a smaller car than was her wont. The Ford Continental had been swapped for a more modest Ford Granada. At a time when many people were facing petrol restrictions, the queen wanted to do her bit. It was a modest gesture but one that showed she understood the cares of the people. But most of all it showed she understood the times she lived in. I was reminded of this when, on a number of occasions this summer, the present king hit the headlines because of the costs incurred by the state as a result of several royal expenditures. Holiday home Eyebrows were raised at the amount of money spent on a security gate around the king’s Greek holiday home and a jetty to moor the royal yacht. A number of parties, among which my own, were surprised at the tens of millions of euros budgeted for the refurbishment of Huis ten Bosch palace, the renovation of Noordeinde palace and the erection of some temporary offices in the grounds of royal residence the Eikenhorst, a few kilometres from Noordeinde. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Dutch kingdom, a time of reflection on both past and future. What has changed and what needs to change? How do we prevent the head of state from becoming vulnerable in an increasingly open society? Responsibility In a parliamentary democracy such as ours the prime minister is responsible and accountable for the actions of the king. His ministerial responsibility is to protect the head of state, not an easy thing in this day and age. Society demands ever more transparency and accountability. This could clash with the – understandable - wish of the royals to shield their privacy from prying eyes. It’s up to the prime minister to strike a balance. The king has an important function as head of state. He prepares the way for companies abroad. He is a symbol of national unity at times of great tragedy, as we have seen with flight MH17, and times of great joy. At these moments the king personifies the unity of the nation. And the money spent on those occasions is money well spent. The question that we have to answer now is how damaging the prime minister’s forced and careful reactions on less than positive royal news are to the king’s important symbolic role. Why should a Greek villa be a ‘private matter’ when the state is responsible for its security and maintenance? Why talk of ‘coastal works’ when what is being built is a jetty for the king’s speedboat? How can the refurbishment of princess Beatrix’ The Hague residence cost €900,000 one minute and then shoot up to €3.7 million the next? Does the statement of the cabinet that the Huis ten Bosch palace needed to be renovated because of ‘extremely out of date technical installations, necessary improvements to security and the presence of wood rot and asbestos’ mean that our former head of state was subject to a lack of security and at great risk of damaging her health? I should hope not. And why should the people, including MPs, hear of this from the media rather than a cabinet spokesperson? Reticence Surely some financial reticence would be in order, especially in times like this. At times when people are worried about their jobs and income, high government spending on palaces and holiday houses raises perfectly understandable questions. Does the prime minister think such costs are really necessary? Wasn’t it prime minister Rutte who praised the ‘Dutch tradition of frugality’? This summer I visited the renovated Silver Museum in Schoonhoven. Princess Beatrix opened an exhibition there of silver gifts given to the monarchy over the centuries. It’s not only an art historical journey but also one that marks a changing mentality. In the course of time sumptuous extravagance makes way for soberness. The present king is a different monarch compared to his grandmother forty years ago. But whoever sits on the throne, it is always the prime minister’s role to protect him or her. Former VVD minister Gerrit Zalm already made the costs incurred by the royal household more transparent by separating the king’s public and private spending. Maybe his fellow VVD member Rutte could take the next step. Stop spreading the costs over different budgets. Be constructive when it comes to informing parliament. Don’t hold back information. Communicate openly and stop using woolly language. The monarchy is an important symbol in this country. High costs and little transparency are making it vulnerable. A future-proof monarch is royal when needed and frugal when possible. Rutte will have the last word at this week’s general budget meeting. Alexander Pechtold is the leader of Liberal Democratic party D66 This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant      More >