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


Lodewijk Asscher: Ignore real injustice at your peril

Lodewijk Asscher: Ignore real injustice at your peril

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


What happened when fraudsters put my home on Airbnb

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


The government must get on with energy transition, urge CEOs

The government must get on with energy transition, urge CEOs

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


Bringing back conscription would be a light version of slavery

Bringing back conscription would be a light version of slavery

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


And they’re off: a six month election campaign started with the budget

Tuesday's budget was a predictable good news story and the launch of a six-month long election campaign, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe So, what a surprise! We’ll all be better off in election year. If last year’s budget was all about treading water and waiting to see what the economic upturn would bring, this year's is the coalition's last before the general election next March. Little wonder then that the emphasis is on boosting spending power across the board and rewarding voters who have gritted their teeth through four years of crisis, cautious recovery and cuts. A little extra in top-up benefits for the poorest families, the healthcare own risk payment gets frozen and more money for defence and public safety – all measures which can be guaranteed to generate a few positive headlines for the struggling VVD-PvdA coalition. Debate The pre-election nature of the budget will only be emphasized in the subsequent debate in parliament, where all the opposition parties will set out their stalls for the 2017 vote. Freezing the healthcare own risk? It should be abolished altogether, say the Socialists and the PVV. More money for education? Ministers are not doing nearly enough, D66 will claim. And you can bet that MPs from the VVD and PvdA, as their four-year partnership nears the end of its life, will also call for changes to the budget plans. Labour in particular are staring into the electoral abyss and need to recover a lot of lost ground on the left. It all goes to show that the third Tuesday in September is more about pomp and ceremony than real substance. And I for one am a little tired of all these forecasts about the impact of the budget on the euros in our wallets. Does anyone really notice if they have 0.4% more to spend? And is that really going to encourage them to vote for the coalition parties next March? We will find out soon enough.   More >


Want to become Dutch (again)? This government is making it harder

It is incomprehensible that the government is pressing ahead with its plans to increase the residency requirement to become Dutch from five to seven years and is continuing its crusade against Dutch citizens who live abroad, writes Eelco Keij. With parliamentary elections set to take place in March 2017, the current coalition government - an alliance between the PvdA and VVD - entered the election season by giving the finger to foreign nationals who want to become Dutch citizens. They are pressing ahead with new legislation which will increase the time needed to become a naturalised Dutch citizen from five to seven years. Their basis for this is 'a feeling in society' - according to the official statements. In other words, the measure looks good in the light of growing support for far-right and anti-establishment parties. This new piece of legislation - not in effect yet, the senate still needs to have its say - will have a strong impact both on hard-working foreign residents in the Netherlands and the partners of Dutch citizens. After all, they don't have vote until they've become Dutch, so why not sharpen up the procedures and win a few votes at the same time? Equally blind to the new times, the government has been on a four-year-long crusade against Dutch citizens abroad. An unambiguous prohibition of dual nationality, severely cutting down on subsidies for Dutch education abroad and stripping a decade-long built network of consulates and embassies are examples of this government's idea of enlightenment. Whereas countries close by - for example France, Portugal, Italy and most notably Switzerland - understand the added economic and cultural value of their citizens abroad, the PvdA and VVD seem to be longing for a country that ceased to exist in the past century. Ex-Dutchies A third group that has been treated with disdain for decades are those people who  lost their Dutch citizenship, the 'ex-Dutchies'. Most of them lost their Dutch passports involuntarily and often only found out that they had years later, because nobody warned them or informed them of the risk. Their number even includes people who fought in the resistance during WWII. A recent appeal from the national ombudsman to fix this situation fell on deaf ears; quietly but quickly the government dismissed the report, and its suggested solutions. The parallel between these three groups of people is clear: they represent value to Dutch society. Economic impact Obviously, active foreign residents in the Netherlands have a direct impact on the economy. Both Dutch and former Dutch citizens living abroad have economic value as well. One only needs to have a look at the incoming tourist statistics, for example, to see that they were spurred by the Dutch living around them. It cannot be a coincidence that most tourists come from areas with a high-density of Dutch residents like Germany and the US. Dutch people abroad, with or without a passport, still hold their culture and country dear - as immigrants nearly always do. Their economic ties locally are both often strong and beneficial for trade relations with the original home country. In all, it is time for this government to leave. We need a new set of rulers that understand that building international bridges rather than burning them, is mutually beneficial, both culturally and economically. Eelco Keij was a parliamentary candidate for D66 in 2012 and is hoping to run again next year. Follow him on Twitter  More >


The Dutch are a pragmatic folk when it comes to death

The Dutch are a pragmatic folk when it comes to death

The Dutch are a pragmatic lot when it comes to many things in life – and death is no exception either, says DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe The Netherlands’ approach to euthanasia always generates a massive postbag on DutchNews.nl – hardly surprising when you consider the emotion that death brings with it. But for the Dutch themselves, euthanasia is an extremely rational choice. This was brought home to me recently when a friend told me about a bizarre phone call he had just had with an elderly client. Anna was in her early 90s, blind and suffering from terminal cancer – and she had been expecting to die before Christmas. She didn’t. Every week my friend would ring her on a Friday and have a chat – they would discuss their respective health issues and talk about the weather. A couple of weeks ago my friend decided to ring on a different day. Anna picked up the phone. ‘Oh I am glad you rang,’ she said. ‘The doctor is coming this afternoon and by 6pm it will be all over.’ Anna then went over to complain about her lily-livered family who were hanging around with sad faces. ‘I’m fine,’ she said to my friend. ‘It has been a pleasure knowing you.’ Final step The next day the card came announcing that Anna had taken ‘her final step’. It was on thick white paper with a nice photograph of her on the front – and had obviously been printed and stamped ready for posting well in advance of her actual death. Well prepared, well organised and unsentimental – how Dutch can you get? It is not the first time I have been confronted with euthanasia in the Netherlands. The first occasion was perhaps more bizarre. A good mate cancelled our lunch date, telling me ‘my grandmother’s euthanasia date has come through’. I was not quite sure how to respond. ‘Oh,’ seems a rather inadequate comment. My friend was very matter of fact. ‘She’s being trying to sort it out for weeks,’ she said. I know which way I would choose to go. Knowing that you can be helped to end it all when the pain gets too much must make it so much easier to enjoy the time you have left. There is no dread of the bitter end, no being whisked into hospital against your will and overstuffed with morphine. At home My Dutch mother-in-law - let us call her Margaret - did not want euthanasia so it was never an issue in her final weeks. She died at home with her children at her side after my husband and his sister pulled out all the stops to keep her out of a nursing home. It was not the most elegant of deaths, but it is what she wanted. Actually, the one thing which she really wanted was to make sure that neither of her children fell for the funeral insurance salesman’s smarmy ways and ended up having to pay extra money for services they did not want or need. Like most of the Dutch, particularly the older generations, Margaret had taken out funeral insurance to make sure her family would not have to pay after she died. Margaret was a wily one. She’d stapled the policy to the newspaper advert which prompted her purchase. The ad stated clearly that the deceased and the family need not worry. There would be no extra charges. This was an all-in funeral for €3,500 and that meant no additional bills. Car and cake Of course, the funeral director had all sorts of ideas up his sleeve – a more expensive coffin, different sorts of cake, an extra car for the mourners. He also pointed out the lump sum was index-linked to family spending not inflation and so, very sorry about this, there would be a top-up fee of €600. My husband and his sister told the funeral director there would be no limos for the mourners at all, that we would only be seven and we did not want their machine-made coffee and slices of cake either. So no, they would not be paying the extra fee. More than that, what did we want with the 50 cards to send to family and friends? With Margaret’s words ringing in their ears, my husband and his sister stood their ground. They were taking no extra services so they would not pay any extra bills. More than that, once it was all over, they demanded the funeral director hand over the unused stamps from the 50 funeral cards – they had been paid for after all. For months, we were sending our post with the grey stamps used to announce that someone had died. God knows what the recipients thought, but Margaret would have been proud of us. This column was first published in the Xpat Journal.  More >


Jeroen Dijsselbloem: Corporate bonuses must come down

Jeroen Dijsselbloem: Corporate bonuses must come down

Executive pay at companies in which the government has a stake is being reined in, but private sector bonuses are on the up and this needs to change, writes finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem in Thursday's Volkskrant. The cabinet is currently finalising its policy on purchasing power. Although the economy is doing better, purchasing power is still falling behind. Senior executive salaries, on the other hand, have been firmly on the up. In 2015 senior executive salaries at Dutch companies rose by 4.25% according to the Volkskrant's annual analysis, a rise which the paper called ‘moderate’. It is telling that an increase of more than three times the average collectively-bargained pay rise of 1.4% should be labelled ‘moderate’. At the same time, the paper’s analysis showed that the policy of capping executive pay at companies in which the government has a stake is beginning to bear fruit. It is time the corporate world followed suit. Trends There are three trends that can be distinguished in the development of executive salaries. Figures show that corporate bonuses are continuing to rise. A top executive’s annual bonus is now one and a half times his fixed salary. And although a majority of managers claim not to be motivated by bonuses, behavioural science tells us that big bonuses often invite doubtful decisions. Secondly, the total amount paid to executives continues to rise. Over the past 20 years, average executive pay more than doubled in relation to the minimum wage. And thirdly, senior executives in companies like Ahold, Heineken and Unilever are now earning over a hundred times the pay of the average worker. At times when the income of every citizen is under pressure, this kind of development cannot be justified and it is understandable that it has been widely criticised. It is one of the reasons the cabinet decided to take measures, including a 20% cap on bonuses in the financial sector. In line with this, we've made agreements about a similar cap on bonuses at companies in which the government has a stake. The maximum top executive wage in the public sector has been put at €179,000. Salaries in companies in which the government is shareholder have been lowered by an average of 28%. The move did not prompt a single top executive to leave. Code This spring, the Van Manen monitoring committee handed in a concept report on a new Corporate Governance Code. The report mentioned remuneration policy but had very little to say about public perception. The committee did not take a moral stance on the subject and the report hardly mentions any proposals to curb top executive pay to restore the balance with regard to workers’ pay. In my view this is a missed opportunity. There are plenty of ways of bringing corporate salaries into line with what would be considered acceptable. I will give the commission three examples. A good start would be to provide openness about companies’ remuneration schemes, which British companies already have in place and which will pass into law in the United States from next year. As a stakeholder I have asked the companies concerned to report on their remuneration schemes. Another solution could be to link the rise in top salaries to the rise agreed in the collective pay deal for ordinary staff, with a cap of 20% on bonuses. This is already happening in the financial sector and at companies in which the government has a stake. The public debate about this issue will not stop any time soon. On the contrary, the pay gap between what is seen as the elite and ordinary citizens is widening and people are angry about it. If we want to remain a united society, executives will have to realise what the consequences of that anger can be. It’s time for the corporate world to come into line, and I hope the Van Manen committee will help them do it. This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant Translation by DutchNews.nl with the kind permission of the finance ministry. This translation has not been approved by the ministry.  More >