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


Please don’t bring the Olympics to Amsterdam

Please don’t bring the Olympics to Amsterdam

The Olympics are tainted and leave countries in debt, so please don't bring them to Amsterdam, writes cultural historian Thomas von der Dunk. As the Dutch were bagging golds in Rio, the attention of the media became increasingly focused on the sporting performances themselves. The number of stories about the dubious context in which they were taking place dwindled with every medal. It was only to be expected: sports is politics but as soon as ‘our’ golden boys and girls mount the podium politics is swept under the carpet so as not to spoil the party. Did you have any doubts when you were watching the Games? Did you think everything was clean and above board? What is the value of a performance where tenths of seconds can mean the difference between a gold medal and oblivion when we know that the doping virus is ravaging every sport there is? The Volkskrant published a cartoon by Jos Collignon in 1993 which said it all: the 100m race for men was won by 1. Ephedrine, 2.Gonadotoprin and 3.Clenbuterol. The disqualification of the Russian team in 2016 shows nothing has changed since then. When are we witnessing a feat of physical excellence and when are we looking at a pharmaceutically enhanced performance? It’s almost impossible to know. Cheating The Russian debacle taught us one thing: even the best controls are not watertight. With the state aiding and abetting these practices for political prestige this leads to massive cheating on a systematic scale. But if we don’t know what we are looking at, the Olympics and similar sporting events lose all credibility. To say that the IOC has done everything to make sure it won’t happen in the future would be an exaggeration to say the least. At Putin’s hissy fit at Russia’s threatened near-total ban the IOC passed the buck to the individual sports federations with predictable results. The Paralympics are completely out of bounds for Russia. The TPC banned the entire Russian squad, a very courageous decision. Too afraid to deny the big prize to cheats it comes down like a ton of bricks on the Paralympics because, with all due respect to the Paralympians, the event is much less politically significant. Confrontation The IOC didn’t have the guts to confront Russia head on, although it had reason enough. But that the IOC puts other considerations before objectivity and fair play is also abundantly clear. The  procedure surrounding the choice of venue is riddled with corruption and nepotism, as it is at FIFA. The Winter Games of 2014 in a seaside resort? I rest my case. Admittedly, the choice of venue is limited because most decent countries are less inclined to comply with the conditions of the IOC which can border on the absurd and which can’t be seen as separate from the increasingly megalomaniacal character of the event. The creation of a state within a state with all sorts of special privileges at odds with the state of law, especially for the IOC board itself,  will be tolerated to a greater extent by autocratic regimes. Protests against the forced expropriation of homes to build Olympic stadiums are that much more easily dealt with, for instance. Debt Such countries will also be more prepared than others to take on the financial debt that goes with prestigious events like the Olympics and tax citizens accordingly. Don’t be fooled by the propaganda: the Olympics, far from bringing prosperity, are a huge and long-term financial burden. The taxpayer is coughing up the money for this particular party, as the Brazilians well know. So please Dutch government don’t put up Amsterdam as a candidate for the Games. If you do we will call (anti-Olympics activist, DN) Saar Boerlage. She’s 84 now but she’ll pound some sense into the megalomaniacs again so they will end up at the bottom of the list, as they did in 1992. This column was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


The Netherlands under Wilders is a dismal prospect, and not just for Muslims

We might have hoped we could wait until the third week of September, when Parliament reconvenes, for the grim business of the Dutch election campaign to begin. But Geert Wilders is not a man to run to anybody else’s timetable, writes Gordon Darroch. On Thursday evening Wilders presented, through the mediums of Facebook and Twitter, a draft version of his manifesto for next March. If the opening gambit is any guide, it promises to be an ugly contest, tinged with the kind of desperate dog-whistling not seen since the Netherlands eradicated rabies. Asked to put his manifesto pledges in context, Wilders retorted: “The context is 1400 years of jihad.” On the face of it this seems an odd pretext for cutting vehicle duty by 50%, but Geert, like God, tends to move in mysterious ways. The main themes of Wilders’s campaign are the well-worn hobby-horses of immigration, immigration and immigration, as well as a pledge to leave the EU. Wilders reaffirmed his core belief in the need to ‘de-islamise’ the Netherlands by refusing all new asylum seekers as well as anyone whose application is still in progress. Closing mosques This will come as an unpleasant shock to the many millions of non-Muslims who are currently fleeing the swords and Kalashnikovs of Islamic State. More insidious is the plan to shut all mosques and Islamic schools, ban the Koran and outlaw ‘expressions of Islam that interfere with public order’ – in essence, putting the presumption of guilt on Muslims for any incidents they get caught up in. Wilders may protest that he does not endorse violence against Muslims, but such measures would do much to facilitate it. The rest of the manifesto is a list of tax cuts and spending pledges that reflect the awkward balancing act Wilders has to perform to satisfy both low-income voters and tax-busting fiscal conservatives. Possibly the one truly radical measure is the abolition of the excess charge on health insurance, which has risen steeply in the last five years, at an estimated cost of €3.7bn. This outflanks even the 50Plus party, which has only pledged to bring the cost down to €200 a year. Pensioners Wilders’ other sweetener for older voters is a proposal to bring the retirement age back down to 65 – matching 50Plus and cancelling the plan to raise the age to 67 which Wilders himself endorsed during Mark Rutte’s first term of office. Wilders’s plan to index-link the supplementary pension contribution brings the total outlay on pensions to €3.5bn. Reversing budget cuts in the care sector, especially care in the home, will cost €2bn. And another €1bn Wilders will go on reducing rent levels, though there is no detail whatsoever on how this might be achieved in an increasingly fragmented housing market. But a policy programme focused solely on giving money to the poor, the sick and the elderly would raise the hackles of the libertarian right, so Wilders matches his social spending commitments with tax cuts: a 50% reduction in vehicle duty and an unspecified cut to income tax, at a total cost of €5bn. Police spending Wilders also earmarks an extra €2bn for spending on policing and defence. We must wait and see if this includes a revival of the animal protection squad, one of the few PVV policies that came close to fruition during Rutte’s first cabinet, defying seemingly insurmountable ridicule, and which was given a swift mercy shot when Wilders pulled the plug on the government in 2012. Other party leaders have dismissed the PVV’s programme as an unworkable wish-list, but this misses the point. The really dubious claims lie not in the spending plans, but the savings Wilders would make to finance them. He believes his ‘de-islamisation’ programme would save €7.2 bn a year, largely through the closure of asylum centres and mosques, but the consequences of criminalising the behaviour of Muslims and removing their social support structures are not accounted for. Wilders also asserts he can save €10bn by cutting funding for public service broadcasting, innovation, the arts, overseas development, wind energy, ‘and so forth’. It is a puzzling piecemeal blacklist with no obvious common thread other than the fact that Wilders has denounced all of them at various times as ‘leftist hobbyists’ or subsidy-swallowing sinkholes. Setback Pulling funding for innovation, combined with quitting the European Union and turning its extensive investment in research and development, would be a catastrophic setback for the kind of cutting-edge engineering projects in which the Netherlands has consistently punched above its weight for the last 70 years. Even if Wilders succeeds in reclaiming €10bn in subsidies, the long-term cost of this economic self-laceration is incalculable. Similarly, in a country whose chief geographical features are a shortage of land and access to a large area of open sea, abandoning wind power makes as much sense as cutting out one of your own lungs. The Volkskrant has observed that next year’s election is likely to be a battle for the hearts of ‘hard-hit older voters’. The Wilders plan indicates, at any rate, where he thinks his votes will come from. Around 10% of the electorate has probably made up its mind to vote for the PVV on the basis of Wilders’s vocal stance on Islam. People who see little or nothing wrong in standing on a political platform and whipping up a crowd into chanting ‘fewer Muslims’ with gusto are unlikely to vote for anyone else; the main challenge is reminding them to get out and vote at all. More voters But to sustain his position at the top of the opinion polls Wilders needs to secure the approval of the next 10%, the more conservative voters who tend to drift away from the PVV as elections draw closer. So it makes sense for Wilders to concentrate his efforts on people in the second half of their careers, who may be in fairly secure jobs with a reasonable income, but have little saved up and are anxious about their retirement. His target voters resent paying hefty tranches of their income to the government in income tax and the cost of keeping a car. In particular they worry about their pensions going down while the cost of managing their declining health goes up. The freedom to move around in the European Union no longer forms part of their future, if it ever did, and so they see its open borders only in terms of inward-bound threats rather than outbound opportunities. Crucially, they have seen the country change immensely since the 1970s, but feel excluded from both this process and its benefits. Immigrants, as the most visible manifestation of these changes, have become the focus of this resentment. It is not a wholly irrational thought pattern, but to stake the future of your country on a nostalgic desire to turn the clock back 40 years, as Wilders does, is wilfully delusional and self-destructive. This column was first published on blog Words for Press   More >


Yuri the Terrible and Maurits the Humourless

Yuri the Terrible and Maurits the Humourless

Comedian Youp van 't Hek thinks Olympic hopefuls should be able to get away with a tipple or two. I can’t resist another look at that hilarious YouTube clip that showed the NOC*NSF  a completely sozzled Erica Terpstra in the studio with Edwin Evers. Vancouver 2010. Erica had just had a liquid lunch with the then still heir to the throne Prince Pils. I liked her for it and I liked her even better when she drunkenly explained what the great and the good are up to during the Olympics. Not a lot, it turned out, except entertaining each other. Cheers. Was Terpstra put on the next flight home? Perhaps, but my bet is she never managed to explain to the taxi driver where she was headed. But Yuri did have to go home, all because of a night on the tiles. Nine days before the final he had a couple of beers away from the stifling atmosphere of monomaniacal sport psychologists, fanatical fat percentage monitors and other weird folk. Perhaps he made a little noise when he came in. Perhaps he woke up the kids. I mean those poor little gymnasts who have been mentally abused by creepy gym teachers from the age of six. I bet they were jealous and went to Maurits Hendriks to tell on him. Hendriks, a man whose beard always puts me in mind of a German porn actor, said: Rules are rules! Yuri could have been a little bit smarter, it’s true, but a good shepherd keeps his flock together. Yuri and his coach should have sorted it out among themselves, without involving Hendriks the Humourless. After the Olympics our Chef de Mission will be off on his lucrative rounds once more, going to boring congresses three times a week to talk to office types about management. What he should have done is protect enfant terrible Yuri van Gelder, from himself and from public opinion. And there’s worse than Yuri in Team NL. Remember woman beater Camiel Eurlings sucking up to Putin in Sochi? Cheers Vladimir! Great to see you! Legendary hockey coach Wim van Heumen acted as night porter at 5am in Cologne. Two pissed stars from the team thought they were throwing pebbles against the window of a mate. It turned out to be their coach’s room. Van Heumen told them goodnight, put them in the team the next day and gave them a big fat wink when they scored. Van Heumen remembered he had been young once. And there you have it. Hendriks was an OAP by the age of twenty, you can tell. Dead serious about sport and eager to show it. It’s only a couple of medals, Maurits. Get a life. So why did he ditch Yuri? I would have let him stay just to boost the medal count. Or as an example to the swimmers. All they have done up to now is manage not to drown. Most of the other Dutch contenders might do well to have a quick one before they start. Only the hockey players and the rowers are doing the job and no wonder. Their club homes come with well-stocked bar facilities. The judge, meanwhile, has spoken. Spoil sport Maurits wins, bon vivant Yuri stays where he is. I congratulate Maurits and which him luck in his next job as Chef de Mission for North Korea. And I’m inviting Yuri to my next show. He and Erica can share the royal box. Cheers! This column appeared earlier in the NRC  More >


A G&T please, but hold the ice and all the rest of the trimmings

A G&T please, but hold the ice and all the rest of the trimmings

One of the great pleasures of summer in the Netherlands is sitting in the evening sun on a cafe terrace watching the world go by with a nice G&T, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. Gin and tonics have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The Gordons in its dark green bottle was a permanent fixture in my parents' drinks cabinet and the tonic was Sssh you know who Schweppes, without exception. As a student, cider was my drink of choice - it was cheap and I hated it, so a pint would last all night - but when I started working for the BBC in London, a G&T in the BBC club or a nearby pub was the order of the day. In the Netherlands too, gin has been my favourite tipple for years - although the impossibility of finding a decent tonic anywhere did somewhat spoil the moment. That wretched Royal Club in every AH or Gall & Gall is just too sweet. So when the G&T craze first hit the Netherlands I was delighted. For a start, it gave me a veneer of hipness. I was no longer the weird English woman who wanted ice and lemon in her drink. Other, more bitter tonics were on offer - as were other gins. The choice quickly became bewildering - as did the variations on a theme. You could chose from twenty, 30, 40 different types of gin and every flavour of tonic possible - some of which cost more than the gin itself. Fabulous. Alas, my hipness was short lived. I now find myself back to square one when I order my pre dinner G&T in a bar. It goes like this: 'A gin and tonic please.' 'Sure, which gin would you like?' I look at the bar and I look at the menu and I say' Bombay Sapphire with tonic and ice and lemon, but no herbs, no cucumber, no liquorice root and no bloody rosemary and not too much ice please. And in a long drink glass, not a bowl.' And they look at me like, 'duh?'. It takes them a while, but eventually I get my drink even though they never get it right about the ice. So I then spend a few minutes with the cocktail stirrer - why does everyone put it in upside down? - trying to fish out some of the 20 ice cubes which have been packed into my glass and dispose of them discretely somewhere. By which time half of the ice has melted and I have dripped drink all over the table. Can it get any worse? Oh yes it can. Last week in some hipster joint I was served a gin and tonic in a jam jar.  I am now moving on to Pimms.  More >


The Dutch Turkish community must speak out about the anti-Gülen violence

The Dutch Turkish community must speak out about the anti-Gülen violence

Labour MP Ahmed Marcouch calls on Turkish-Dutch organisations to speak out about violence and intimidation and to build bridges instead. There’s a silence and it’s hurting my ears. It’s the silence that surrounds the violence against the Gülen supporters. What happened to the organisations normally so quick to ask for protection against intolerance? Where are the political parties who recently demanded protection for all mosques when one was attacked in Deventer? Now that Gülen supporter buildings are being targeted in Deventer and other cities, the silence is deafening. It is these representatives of the Turkish community who should speak out against this hatred. They hold the key to reconciliation. Gülen supporters in the Netherlands, who are in fact supporters of the Hizmet movement, are being branded traitors and terrorists by a foreign government. The campaign began by boycotting Turkish entrepreneurs thought to support Gülen. It soon became clear why many of them started to contact me. Their mobile phones were full of threats, to parents, to children. ‘Your blood is halal, your blood will flow,’ said one message. These people are telling me that they are now being refused entry to mosques and restaurants. Taxidrivers tell them: ‘Erdogan sends his love.’ Little boys hardly tall enough to look over the garden fence tell their former playmates: ‘I can’t talk to you anymore.’ A father showed me a message from his son who is holidaying in Turkey. His good friend tells him: ‘When you’re back we will call you names until you come out in support for Erdogan.’ When a mosque in Enschede was attacked with Molotov cocktails last year political party Denk demanded protection for all mosques. But when the same thing happened to a building used by the Gülen movement the silence was deafening. Denk and local Islamic party Nida remained bafflingly quiet, activists against racism and bigotry never uttered a word and the Centraal Orgaan Moslims and Overheid CMO had gone into hiding as well. This time none of these groups demanded protection against alleged discrimination. Holidays It’s gone very quiet but at the same time my ears are buzzing with the noise of demonstrators shouting their support for Erdogan. People are carrying flags and some are shaking their fists. So why are solid organisations like Mili Görus, Dinayet and Süleymanci not using their - religious or non-religious – moral authority? Why are they not telling angry Dutch Turks to calm down and protecting Gülen supporters? Why are they not trying to bring together the Turkish-Dutch groups and formulating a response to Erdogan’s propaganda? I wonder what will happen in three weeks’ time when the Turkish Dutch holidaymakers return from a country where for a month they have been bombarded with accusations against Gülen supporters on state television. Every day images of shouting demonstrators rejoicing in the torture of soldiers, the firing of judges and the incarceration of journalists suspected of supporting Gülen fill the screen. How are the children of AKP supporters going to interact with children of Gülen supporters when school starts again? The danger is not that our eyes are failing us. It is our hearts that are blind. To combat discrimination and bigotry means we must open our hearts. Firmly rooted identities have become our strength in the Netherlands when we left behind the rigid system of political and religious denominations. Once a tool for emancipation we see what the adherence to such a system is doing in the here and now: it causes isolation, engenders mistrust and instills feelings of superiority. We see how Turkish-Dutch organisations are caught up in this system, led by the parent organisations in Turkey. Of course I’m asking justice minister Ard Van der Steur and integration minister Lodwijk Asscher to do what they should do: to encourage people to go to the police and file a complaint, to speed up the apprehension of the culprits, to provide adequate protection and to admonish the Turkish ambassador. But the battle against intolerance needs the support of society as a whole. The Turkish-Dutch community has a responsibility to leave isolation behind and build bridges. Men of Milli Görüs, Diyanet en Süleymanci and others who combat discrimination, where are you? How are you going to open hearts? This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


How to go Dutch: I can chat to the supermarket check-out girl but not about politics

Five years ago, Molly Quell moved to the Netherlands as the wife of 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. You can read the first part of her series here. You know how there’s always that kid who sits in the front of the class, always does the extra credit and is generally an annoying suck up? That was me at university. I’ve approached the inburgering exam with that same level of obsequiousness. Multiple textbooks, an online learning programme, two language apps. I’ve got flash cards and podcasts. I’ve got Donald Duck comics. Yet, I am pretty sure I am going to fail. Languages do not come easily to me. I’ve always struggled to retain pronunciation and grammar rules. I think working in communications makes me worse. I know I’ll never be able to convey myself as well in Dutch (or another language) as I can in English, so I’m easily frustrated. Plus my initial forays into the language went poorly and I am left with a deep insecurity about using the language. Unsurprisingly, not practising means not improving. Challenging Before anyone sets about telling me to practise more, it’s more challenging than you think. 'Talk to the shopkeepers in Dutch,' people say. Well, sure, I do that. I can order at a restaurant, I can chat with the cashier at Albert Heijn, I can even speak to the tax office. 'Then practise with your friends and colleagues?' You know who that isn’t fun for? Your friends and colleagues. I can’t have a real, grown up conversation with them in Dutch the way we can in English. People don’t want to sit around in the pub, talking to a six year old with concussion (which, I am told, is about my conversational level.) My language acquisition is stuck in a rut, slightly greater than 'Mag ik de rekening?' but not exactly 'Let’s discuss the economic impact of Brexit.' Of course, the exams are more than just about the language. I must also take the dreaded culture exam. (I am fortunate to have arrived before 2015 so I am not required to take the employment portion of the exam.) This exam is the one that Dutch politicians on late night talk shows fail. Men kissing Honestly, I’ve been so focused on learning the language sufficiently that I haven’t given much thought to the culture exam. Until my Dutch instructor gently pointed out that I should probably start considering it. In true me fashion, I immediately purchased two textbooks and an audio package. In true Dutch fashion, I had to head to the local pharmacy to collect my books after the DHL guy attempted twice to deliver them while I wasn’t home. In truer Dutch fashion, I took my dog along with me who waltzed into the store like he owned the place and took all of 30 seconds to steal a chew toy from the actual owners actual dog. When I returned home, I managed to take the books out of their boxes, if only so that I could put my cardboard out with the paper recycling. I optimistically thought that perhaps mastering the portion of the exam that covered fryer oil and men kissing might make me feel more optimistic about my chances. Instead, I struggled yet again to comprehend the very basic level of Dutch the books were written in. I struggled with feeling dumb and worthless. I put the books on the shelf, next to my language books, claimed to my Dutch instructor that I was incredibly busy with work and abandoned that goddamn Duolingo owl and his judgemental eyes. It took me a few weeks of dodging my Dutch instructor and the push notifications before I could bring myself to crack the books again. The language lesson was focused on weird things about the Netherlands. An amazing thing happened. I could read the text without an issue. I might not know about fryer oil, but I know a heap of strange facts. Flipping the switch Nothing has taught me more that the world isn’t black and white than learning a new language. You aren’t simply fluent in a language or not fluent in a language. Fluency isn’t a switch that gets flipped. While I am certainly not fluent, I know considerably more Dutch than when I arrived. I also bike to work, want a cup of tea at 15:00, complain about the weather and the NS, have a birthday calendar (though not in my bathroom), get annoyed with tourists in the city centre (really, how hard is it to not walk in the bike lane?), bring an apple pie to work with me on my birthday and look forward to asparagus season. I’ve had two bikes stolen. How much more Dutch would you like me to be? My feeling well-integrated is, of course, not going to count a lick when it comes to the exam, however. The next time I sit down to write an update I should have taken at least two of the exam sections. Actually, I should be optimistic and say 'I will have passed two of the exam sections'. But if I am mustering all of my newly acquired Dutch-directness, however, I should probably say that there is nothing the matter with failing anyway and morgen gaat het beter. Molly will update on her progress again in the autumn.  More >


The Dutch economy is relatively crisis-proof

The Dutch economy is relatively crisis-proof

The gloom merchants were wrong: the Dutch economy did better than expected, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. At national statistics office CBS they work with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other. They meticulously enter the economic growth figures in their note books only to start adding and subtracting all over again. The old figures are erased and a new set is pencilled in ready to be erased again until, at long last, the figures are entered in indelible ink. It’s a bit of a pain for journalists who are trying to make sense of the figures for readers. The first so-called flash estimate of GDP growth which comes out about a month and a half after each quarter gets a lot of coverage in the media. Journalists interview economists about disappointing/promising growth figures, ministers are asked if they will impose extra cuts while the opposition prepares for a good moan about an ‘economy destroyed by cuts’. Fast forward another month and a half to the first proper growth estimate. If it deviates from the flash estimate the newspapers will report it on the inside of page 5. Subsequent CBS updates hardly make even the smallest of headlines. When, some two and a half years later, the definitive figures are published not a soul is interested. And that is how it should be. Newspapers are for news, not economic history. The growth rate of two and a half years ago is seldom relevant for the here and now. Waves But sometimes it is. The economy has been in such choppy waters for the last seven years that it was hardly possible to predict even the present. The banking crisis, plummeting house prizes, the threat of a broken up Eurozone and the huge cutbacks and tax hikes, each with their own momentum, buffeted the Dutch economy from all sides, like a little boat in a pool full of unruly children. Economists and statisticians were hard put to ascertain where the boat would be heading next, and if indeed it wouldn’t be sunk by the next wave. Now that the children are playing quietly and the economy is on an even keel it makes sense to look back. Last week the CBS published its latest estimates for economic growth in 2013 and 2014. They show that the recession in 2013 was not as deep as predicted while the 2014 recuperation was much stronger. Earlier the CBS had already adjusted the figure for economic shrinkage in 2012 from 1.6% to 1.1%. Now the GDP shrinkage for 2013 has been reduced from 0.5% to 0.2%. Production turned out to be higher for trade, IT services and business services and consumption was higher. That means results for every quarter were better than expected. The Netherlands may have been stuck in a very unpleasant recession but it was not quite as deep as was previously thought. In 2014 GDP was growing again, not by 1% as was predicted earlier but by a sturdy 1.4%, enough to compensate for the recession of the previous two years. Things in the building industry were picking up, consumption went up and international trade was doing well. No downward spiral With this positive adjustment the story of ‘an economy destroyed by cutbacks’ was no longer credible. In 2013 and 2014 in particular the government put on the brakes. Cutbacks and tax hikes from previous cabinets, the present cabinet’s own policies and extra budget accords amounted to billions worth of cutbacks during these two years. Many economists feared the Dutch economy was heading for a downward spiral, with new economic setbacks negating the effects of the cutbacks. Looking at the definitive CBS figures it is now safe to say that those fears were exaggerated, to say the least. The economy rallied in spite of the cutbacks. Granted, it would have rallied sooner without the cutbacks and tax hikes but the economy was anything but destroyed by them. And that is a conclusion that can be entered in the books in good black ink. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Through teenage eyes: Dutch school pupils shine in writing competition

Through teenage eyes: Dutch school pupils shine in writing competition

Every year, the Netherlands-England Society (Genootschap Nederland-Engeland) organises a writing and a public speaking competition for Dutch secondary school pupils who don't speak English as their native language. Here are this year's three GNE writing award winners, who had to write a column of no more than 500 words on one of six different topics. First prize winner: Joris Bergman, Metameer in Stevensbeek (18) Looking Through a Different Window Topic: These are the best of times, these are the worst of times. The end is near. A tsunami of refugees have swamped asylum centres and spilled onto the streets, where they wage a siege on western norms and values. Hordes of fortune seekers overrun borders, terrorise populaces and undermine authority. The end is near. The last calls for tolerance towards asylum seekers have been drowned out in a chorus of populism. Racists vandalise asylum centres, threaten lawmakers and dash any hope of an open debate. The refugee crisis has reached a boiling point, with the media scrambling to cover it all. Their narratives are non-negotiable. We must believe them when they are repeated on television, we must embrace them when we hear them on the radio and we must parrot them when we are on Facebook. Nobody can deny that these are the worst of times. Foggy windows These media narratives are the windows through which we view reality. Yet windows can be foggy, cracked or simply facing in the wrong direction. Rather than broadening our horizons, these media windows shorten them. Complex issues like the refugee crisis don’t fit on a single tabloid page and nuances certainly cannot be compressed into one JPEG image shared on Twitter. So, are these truly the worst of times, or is our window the problem? When looking beyond the media window, we see a world without dramatic headlines. A world in which people aren’t statistics, but stories. The story of the sixteen year old Klaas, a daily volunteer at his local asylum centre. The story of Rafaat, who built the website amazing-holland.nl to thank the Dutch population for their hospitality. The story of a man from Heesch, who, during the protests against an asylum centre for five hundred refugees, held up a sign saying fifty were fine by him. These are but droplets in an ocean of stories, yet it is that ocean that is grossly underrepresented in mainstream media narratives. They lack the sensation of the end of times, yet have the ability to change the world. Dramatic headlines fuel emotions that have no place in such an important debate. They derail and polarise a discussion that must be carefully manoeuvred through a chaotic minefield of protests, crises and political polls. Personal stories on the other hand, remind us of the humanity of those involved and give a face to headlines, numbers and analyses. Most importantly, they give us a different window through which we view the world. Polar opposite The world we view through this window, is the polar opposite of the dramatic media narrative. It is a world in which help is offered to the grateful victims of war. A world in which people disagree about the scale of this operation, but where they are free to do so. Not the world of doom and gloom we view through the media, but a world where people stand up for their rights and the rights of others. It is a world that must be celebrated, not denounced.
In future decades, we will remember these stories of compassion, gratitude and generosity. Seventy years ago, the slaughter of six million Jews took place under the watchful eyes of some of the most evil men to have been born. Yet what we commemorate and celebrate, are the stories of those who stood against these criminals and who helped the vulnerable escape oppression. Likewise, future generations will remember stories like Rafaat’s, rather than pessimistic media headlines.
 Caterpillars always believe the world is about to end, right before waking up as a butterfly. In a way, we are that caterpillar, waking up to realise that these are, indeed, the best of times. Runner-up: Hanna Merenyi, The International School of The Hague (17) 21st Century Snake Oil Topic: Super food - fact or fancy? Do you want to live longer, look younger and dramatically reduce the risk of getting cancer? Of course you do, everyone does, and marketing specialists know this. That’s why they branded a select group of fruits and vegetables that allegedly come with all the health benefits mentioned above and many more, as ‘super foods’. But is there any scientific evidence to back up all these outlandish health claims? or is this just another ingenious marketing stunt to con consumers into buying exotic (and expensive!) vegetables like kale? To answer that question we should first establish what a super food actually is, unhappily for us though, no legal or scientific definition exists for the term. So turning to the general social consensus, a super food is said to be a food that has a high nutrient content – which is an utterly useless definition. Lots of sunshine It’s just like saying that the sun shines a lot in Holland, the statement tells you nothing about the actual amount of sunshine in the country, due to the fact that the expression ‘a lot’ is entirely subjective. In the same vein ‘high nutrient content’ can mean almost anything. Following this definition any foodstuff with a higher nutrient content than frozen pizza can potentially be regarded as a super food. For this reason, EU legislators have banned the term on packaging unless any and all health claims made by producers can be backed up by convincing scientific evidence. What little scientific research has been done in the area of super foods, is very far from convincing. Most of the trials have been conducted in vitro, which means that when companies claim that broccoli can cure breast cancer, what they actually have evidence for, is that a chemical component of broccoli can kill a batch of human cancer cells in a petri dish. The problem with this of course, is that the vegetable in question usually contains only small traces of the cancer killing chemical, meaning that if people want to experience the healing effects of broccoli they need to consume upwards of 100 heads of broccoli or more per day. Furthermore, a cluster of cells is a very poor model for the highly complex human body, making it very unlikely that the effects observed in the petri dish translate to the same effects on the whole body. Scientific evidence? Despite very little – if any – convincing scientific evidence for the existence of super foods, the term is often followed on packaging by complicated scientific jargon such as "high in antioxidants and polyphenols" and "contains extremely beneficial omega-3 fatty acids". Having studied both biology and chemistry to a pre-university level, I can confidently state that I have no idea what any of these terms mean. In fact, I would wager that outside of the small circle of dieticians and nutrition scientists very few people do; my spell checker certainly didn’t recognize half these terms. The complicated words mean that people believe that anything claimed on the box has been scientifically proven, and end up buying the product as a result. Super foods are the latest version of a centuries old phenomenon, through clever marketing (read making ridiculous and unsubstantiated statements) people are conned into buying snake oil (what was historically pond water in a glass bottle) believing it to be a miracle cure-all. Capitalizing on the desperation of the terminally ill and preying on people’s fear of diseases like cancer, is easy, and disgusting. In the latest attempt by unsavory businessmen to flog fraudulent health products on the desperate, the pond water has just been turned into blueberries. Audience prize: Jelmer Roorda, Haarlemmermeer Lyceum in Hoofddorp (17) Immigration, Most Don't Want It Though We Need It. Topic: Is immigration good for a country? In almost every European country nationalist parties have grown and gained power. People are 'fed up' with immigrants 'coming to their country, stealing their jobs or living off benefits' and now, with the recent influx of refugees, the debate is hotter than ever. I, however, believe that these people are looking at the situation in a manner that is not only flawed, but they also fail to see that immigration brings wealth and that it is needed. When we look at immigration from an economic view point we find that, for example, Eastern Europeans come to work here because they are needed here. I work at a supermarket and each evening I see many immigrants dressed in clothes used on building sites. Why? Because many building companies in the Netherlands are in need of workers because Dutch folk aren’t ‘eager’ or aren’t capable of doing the job. Work This was shown in an article about a recent project where unemployed people were given the opportunity to work at a greenhouse. However, most decided against working there because either they found the work too hard or they turned up their noses at the pay. This is exactly the kind of attitude that forces sectors to employ immigrants! They are not stealing, they are providing their services and are the driving force that allow these sectors to stay in business. Additionally, immigrants keep the level of benefits for those unable to work, such as the disabled and elderly, bearable. As I have learned in economics class, each year the number of people who pay the taxes that provide these benefits grows less or even decreases in relation to the number of those receiving the benefits. It is of the most absolute priority to keep these benefits affordable and in order to make this happen we need to reverse this trend; immigrants can help to provide this growth. This is the most important issue that can be solved by immigration. My grandfather has kidney problems and without benefits he would be driven into poverty by his healthcare bills and he is not alone; this applies to hundreds of other elderly people in The Netherlands. Put yourself in their shoes In the case of the recent flow of refugees, place yourself in their shoes! These people come from a man-made disaster of incomparable proportions. They haven't come to Europe in the hopes of jobs and more wealth. They have come to Europe to escape the horrific situations in which they were forced to live in! Often having lost their house, they have no means to feed their family or their children. They are hungry and starved. Believe me they would not have come here if they did not absolutely need to. They’re leaving other family behind, often to die. They would not travel to Europe unless it is absolutely necessary, and anyone who thinks the opposite should have his head examined because he might be crazy. There are people dying in that war because of forces they can’t control. We, as a western country with all our wealth, have to live up to the human rights we ourselves cherish and if we are unable to, then we forgo all rights of calling ourselves a social and civilized country and I myself would be too ashamed to call myself an European or even a Dutchman. In the end these people bring diversity and sometimes diversity is hard to adapt to but it is what makes a great society. They bring opportunities, so we have to share our wealth and care for these people, that’s what makes a nation social and civilized. DutchNews.nl is one of the sponsors of the GNE Awards writing competition. For more information, contact http://gneawards.nl/  More >


It’s time for a new social contract, says a former Dutch union boss

It’s time for a new social contract, says a former Dutch union boss

The gap between the employed and the unemployed is growing and this division will cause serious problems for society. It's time for a new social contract, writes former CNV union boss Doekle Terpstra. The unemployment rate is down but not in a way that might be called significant. The CBS calculated that in April some 2,000 people found work. The total unemployment figure now stands at 6.4%, or 572,000. The economy is recovering but unemployment is still at double the number compared to the eve of the crisis in 2008. Recent research has shown that government employment measures are only minimally effective. The national audit office reports that €266m has been spent on creating employment for people over 50 but that the effects have been unclear. All in all hundreds of millions of euros have been spent on similar types of job creation and stimulation. The general expectation was that the economic recovery would solve the problem. That doesn’t appear to be the case. On the contrary, it is becoming more entrenched. Those with a good education will find their place in an ever more demanding labour market. There is a big shortage of skilled workers, like technicians. But for the hundreds of thousands of people with a greater distance to the labour market prospects are grim. The dream of an inclusive society (the ‘participation society’) is more elusive than ever. The gap between those who have a permanent contract or a small business and those who can’t manage to achieve either is growing and this will have a divisive effect on society. Politicians are not worried The approach to solving unemployment is stuck in a rut and needs to be revised. Politicians don’t seem worried enough to put the inclusive society on the agenda. But they should be. It’s time for a new social contract, a new balance between economic and social interests. To continue to put our faith in the current approach and the institutions that go with it is not an option. It would be natural to call upon the social partners – unions and employers – to work together and draw up a future-proof social agenda. A new social contract could bolster their credibility but it takes courage to leave the trodden path. I have my doubts about the innovative power of the consensus economy and the discussion will have to take place elsewhere. The partners in this discussion will have to be prestigious economists, entrepreneurs, workers and a commission of wise men. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and prepare a social contract for a new cabinet. Such a contract could include the following elements: Make individual regions – public administrators, employers, unions – responsible for the creation of their own inclusive labour market. Central government will transfer funds to the regions. Develop and facilitate the concept of a home service industry. A shift from care provision to service industry would create employment for people at the lower qualified end of the job market. Encourage self-employment but combat excesses in low paid work and limit the social security  risks. That means fixed contracts become less fixed and flexible work less flexible. Facilitate the exchange of staff between sectors on a regional level. Create a regional labour agreement. Embrace new technology. Create the necessary regional training. Promote life-long learning opportunities so people can adapt their skills to the demands of the labour market. Recognise the power of informal learning. A company has a role to play in society and therefore it has a duty to be inclusive. That means they must offer employment to people who have an impairment and ethnic minorities. Put the basic income on the agenda, or some form of negative income tax so that those who are structurally and long-term unable to participate still  have a viable financial basis. Doekle Terpstra was chairman of the CNV trade union federation from 1999 to 2005. This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Racism, says Sylvana Simons, is like being touched up

Television presenter Sylvana Simons caused a media storm when she announced she was getting involved in politics. She talks to Senay Boztas about why people would rather see her dance than hear about the dark side of colonial history, and why she believes the Netherlands is suffering a crisis of racism. ‘Somebody touches you as a woman. You say, “oh, I don’t like that”, and the guy says, “I was just trying to be nice”. People deal with racism in the Netherlands in the same way. Because they say they mean well, you’re not supposed to be offended.’ The 45-year-old television presenter has launched her own offensive now, against xenophobia in the Netherlands. She first announced that she will stand for the new ‘tolerance’ party Denk in the general election next year. Then she went to a police station in The Hague to report the worst of 40,000 instances of racist insults that followed. Simons lives in Amsterdam and was born in ‘one part of Holland’ known as Suriname before moving as a baby to ‘another part of Holland’ known as Hoorn. When some people tell her – as they do – to go back home, she points out that she was born in a former Dutch colony, and this is home. Colonial past The problem, she says, is that the Netherlands has not come to terms with its colonial past, conveniently forgetting the nasty bits, and expecting non-Western immigrants to assimilate by leaving other cultures behind. ‘In Holland, integration has become assimilation,’ she says over the telephone to DutchNews.nl. ‘It’s a utopian sense of ever reaching true integration. For me, I could never wash off my colour, so it doesn’t matter how Dutch I become, I will always be a black woman.' Simons believes the Netherlands is experiencing a crisis of xenophobia, intolerance and denial – the kind of thing that led to race riots in America and 1980s Britain. ‘I think it has become very politically correct to be politically incorrect,’ she says, matter-of-factly. ‘Over the past 15 years, racism has been more and more accepted, and inequality along ethnic and racial lines. It’s becoming dangerous. ‘We have seen the rise of some political parties that have made it their number one issue to polarise to gain power. In particular, of course, the PVV.’ Free speech Geert Wilders, party leader, will stand trial in October, for alleged hate speech in a 2014 rally where right-wing PVV supporters called for ‘fewer, fewer, fewer’ Moroccan people in the Netherlands: and Simons believes the accompanying free speech debate is the most important result. ‘There’s nothing wrong with speaking your mind,’ she begins, in classic Dutch fashion. ‘There is something wrong with being racist and a xenophobe, dehumanising and criminalising people and putting fear into people based on ethnicity and race.’ This isn’t a popular message, adds the TV presenter who began her career as a VJ at TMF music channel, was runner-up on the Dutch Strictly Come Dancing and now works across various channels. She says, with increasing passion. ‘In my case, there was nothing wrong with me until I started speaking up about certain social issues. Everybody was like: “She can dance, she can present, she’s an entertainer, we don’t have a problem with that. But please do not interfere, even though you are paying taxes. Let us run the country. You just be happy that we allow you to be here and just be an entertainer.”’ Racist incidents Simons believes the first step is to measure the problem, which is why she has reported the worst of 40,000 online and offline racist incidents to the police, and is encouraging other Dutch people to do the same. ‘I hope more and more people will report what happens to them because one of the things people hear when they do speak up is the numbers don’t reflect that, and this is just you being super-sensitive,’ she says. ‘I’m encouraging people so we can get the numbers and I’m trying to find out what happens once you go to the police. Where do we draw the line of freedom of speech, the right to insult?’ Zwarte Piet, the controversial blacked-up helper to Sinterklaas, symbolises the problem for her – not least, a widespread amnesia about the Netherlands’ leading role in the slave trade. ‘You have to understand that when you make the comparison, for instance, to the United States, there is a conscious awareness of what slavery was and why [blacking-up] is not appropriate. ‘We never went through that process of emancipation in the Netherlands. The Dutch seem to believe that slavery is something that happened on the other side of the world, but we were great slave traders. We’ve accepted a cultural archive that simply doesn’t deal with this.’ Symbol This is something she said she grew up with in Hoorn, home of the V.O.C trading company that flourished in the Dutch 17th century Golden Age. ‘Zwarte Piet has become a symbol, not just to the ones who are against it. A symbol of colonialism and racism, but on the other side a symbol of “this is ours” in a time where people are scared for their livelihood. We are all looking for something to hold on to.’ Although Simons talks about ‘the Dutch’ who don’t want to think about this, then takes offence at being thought of as anything other than Dutch herself, she says there’s no contradiction. ‘I’m talking about us, really, I am. I really understand the sentiments that go along with Zwarte Piet and the whole Sinterklaas thing. I’m not trying to say them versus us. I’m trying to come to a point where we can make Zwarte Piet a symbol that’s acceptable, welcoming and loving to all children, all people in this country.’ Prime minister She has no truck with the lack of political leadership on the subject either. ‘Our prime minister [Mark Rutte] made it very clear that he personally doesn’t have a problem with Zwarte Piet. He spoke to his friends in the Dutch Antilles and they are so happy they don’t have to put anything on their face because they are black. They are lucky because he’s always spending days washing this shit off. I was appalled by that comment.’ It’s also time, she says in perfect English, to get rid of words like ‘allochtoon’, describing people with one parent born elsewhere, but often used pejoratively. ‘My parents were born in the Netherlands. My children were born in Amsterdam. How many more generations before we really can be Dutch? It seems there’s a ceiling to your Dutchness, and we need to fix that. The word allochtoon means you’re different, you can’t really have an opinion about important social issues, you can’t really be included.’ She’s not calling for riots, although social media might get bloody. And she bats away criticism of Denk as being overly sympathetic to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan as ‘dehumanising, criminalising, based on absolutely nothing’. Instead she wants people in the Netherlands to have a good think about themselves. ‘The Dutch are very proud of the Golden Age, the era in which they conquered the world, killing people, raping people, enslaving people and doing a lot of bad. The Dutch have this lack of responsibility and no self-reflection about being able to be hurtful. They have this sense of “we’re good people”.’ And, her implication is, good people don’t harass anyone else, even if they’re just trying to be nice.  More >