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


Shortage of programmers and engineers will push up wages

Economist Mathijs Bouman thinks programmers and otherwise talented folk will push up the average wage. The Netherlands has two million unemployed, many more than the official tally of 600,000, according to a recent report from the Dutch central bank. It’s a labour surplus which will put any thoughts of big pay increases a long way into the future, even if the economy is showing signs of recovery, the bank opined. Really? The bank seems to be awfully sure of itself. Perhaps it was wrong to include all those who said they want to work more hours, even if they worked full time. At the same time half a million people who said they wanted to work fewer hours were ignored. Why? And why would the lack of trained welders or IT experts or otherwise talented folk not lead to a higher average wage? An email from the Intelligence Group If you really want to know about wage pressure it would be advisable to find out how difficult it is for companies to recruit the right staff. You might think: well, what are you waiting for! But it’s not as easy as you think. Reliable data on the lack of skilled workers are hard to come by. We know these people are needed but where? Then labour market researchers Intelligence Group sent me an email. They had some figures that might interest me. What they had was the result of their annual survey in which they asked 16,000 workers if they had been approached by head hunters or other potential employers to apply for a job in the last year and if so, how often. The whole thing was measured against the whole of the working population in the Netherlands in order to come up with a representative result. Based on this survey I conclude that labour market shortages are increasing and for some professions things are looking quite desperate. A headhunter calls Of course not everyone gets regular phone calls from a head hunter. Over 60% of the respondents were not called at all in 2015. But 39% were asked to consider a different job at least once. 21% were asked more than once in a quarter and 8% asked several times a month. 2% were positively badgered, with requests to come aboard at least once a week by a head hunter or employer. In 2014, 36% of Dutch workers were propositioned at least once by someone other than their present employer. In the year before that is was 32%. And in 2012 only 29% were asked to desert their present job. The number of workers who have had temptation put in their way has risen four years in a row. It’s a clear sign of an increasing labour market shortage. LinkedIn off line Those who are being approached on a weekly basis are the most relevant for the upward wage trend. Who are the ones that are being stalked most relentlessly? Exactly: it’s programmers. Smart industry is up and coming and it’s not just ICT companies who are looking for programmers, it’s pretty much everyone else as well. 38% of programmers are approached with a job offer more than once a week. Some have taken their LinkedIn account off line because of it. Engineers and technical staff account for 32%. System developers come in third. In fourth place we find... economists, although I have a suspicion that we are talking econometricians rather than your run-of- the-mill macro-economists. These are the shortages which will be pushing up the average wage, regardless of those employed in other sectors who may or may not want to work an extra couple of hours. This article was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


‘Our way of life’ and those pitch black days

Today I have nothing clever to say about the central European bank, writes economist Mathijs Bouman, in the wake of the Brussels bombs. First there is an 8.30 tweet from @LeMondeLive about a ‘double conflagration’, two explosions in the departure lounge at Zaventum airport in Brussels. Shortly afterwards I see images of people running from a smoking building. It’s obviously going to be one of those black days again, a day of watching tv disconsolately, a day that grows progressively worse with every new death and every new detail about the attacks. Perhaps you’re expecting a little piece about the latest policy analysis of the CPB , or a clever remark about the European Central Bank.  But I haven’t anything to say about that now. I am watching news bulletins with a heavy heart. Nothing clever comes to mind. I’m listening to Belgian prime minister Charles Michel who tells us, first in French and then in Dutch, that ‘what we feared might happen has happened’. I’m listening to German home affairs minister Thomas de Maizière who says this is an attack on our freedom and our mobility. I’m watching prime minister Mark Rutte who talks of ‘premeditated murder’ and ‘a direct attack on our way of life’. It’s one of those pitch black days, when things like this have to be said. Cliché We have heard them many times before. After 9/11, after the murder of Theo van Gogh, after the attacks in London, Madrid, Paris. And now Brussels. ‘This is an attack on our way of life’. It’s a cliché but true all the same. A man straps on an explosives belt. He thinks that this is what his God and his friends want him to do. He puts himself in a busy place, an airport or an underground station, among ordinary people. People on their way to work. People who would have wanted to keep their little cog in society turning. But the man with the explosive belt thinks they should die. As a symbolic gesture, to say that there is something wrong with the way they are living their lives and the freedom they enjoy. God My children are coming back from school in a bit. What do I tell them? How am I going to explain this? If this is an attack on our way of life how should we defend ourselves? The brave answer to this is: to keep on living the way we do. But isn’t that a little too simplistic? This morning before he went to school my youngest said: ‘What I don’t really understand is that there are people who still believe in god’. I don’t understand it either. And lots more besides. This column appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Permanent contracts are good for competitiveness, say professors

Permanent contracts are good for competitiveness, say professors

Employers are ignoring the importance of 'tacit knowledge' in their quest for easy ways to get rid of workers, at their and the economy's peril, say five senior economics professors. Much criticism, especially from the ranks of the employers’ organisations, has been levelled against the changes in the new Dutch dismissal law (Wet Werk en Zekerheid): the new rules will make it virtually impossible for small businesses to hire people and instead of fewer flexible contracts there will be more. Employment lawyers will have their work cut out. The most salient feature of their criticism is that is seems to be focused on the question of how to get rid of staff as simply as possible, as if downsizing is the only relevant business strategy. It exemplifies the way employers today regard the people who work for them. No longer an essential production factor contributing to the success of a business, they are increasingly seen as a costly encumbrance and a risk factor. Not only are they failing to do justice to their workers, who are having to cope with job uncertainty, they are also selling themselves short. In the Dutch knowledge economy workers are becoming the central and distinguishing production factor. Tacit knowledge The physical means of production – machines, computers, natural resources – can be bought in the market place by any company, as can codified knowledge, such as software and licences. It is the tacit knowledge that workers have which makes the difference. This knowledge - about the ways people (co)operate within the company, the business culture, the relationship with clients and suppliers – can be a deciding factor in scuppering the competition. Tacit knowledge, however, presupposes a lasting tie with the company in question. Such knowledge takes  time to build and whether or not workers are prepared to put in that time will depend on their future within the company. Why take the trouble to get to grips with the culture of a company when you could be out next year, or even next month? The long-term success of a company is determined to a great extent by the involvement and dedication of its workers. But that presupposes that the company sees its workers as an important production factor in need of a reasonable measure of job security and career opportunities. Only then will companies and workers want to invest in their mutual relationship and build company-specific knowledge. Research shows that companies with a bigger share of staff on permanent contracts perform better when it comes to (technological) innovation. A staff member on a flexible contract who sees an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the production process so the company can do the same job with fewer people is not likely to share his thoughts on the matter. If the person in question is on a permanent contract and in no danger of losing his job he will be much more willing to contribute to quality improvement and innovation, thus making the company more competitive. Trial period It makes sense for companies to want to make sure they have taken on the right person for the job. Often the official two-month trial period is too short for complex positions and in such cases employers prefer to offer temporary contracts. But there is no reason why, after two years, a company would not put a satisfactory worker on a permanent contract. Circumstances can change and there may be commercial reasons why a person may be let go. But the new rules provide for this. Those in doubt have only to ask the staff at V&D and TSN. If the performance of a worker becomes less satifactory with time, the responsibility for this usually lies with both the worker and the employer. Training, more challenging work or adapting the job can improve the situation. The employer only has good grounds for dismissal if this proves to be impossible or if the worker is reluctant to comply. The new rules offer the same possibility provided the employer can produce an adequate dossier. The new dismissal law has its flaws and may have to be adapted but most critics seem to think that it is more important for Dutch commerce to avoid risk and reduce short-term cost than to invest in quality and innovation. A lack of training for flexible workers will, in time, erode their sustainable employability. Employers are ignoring the justifiable need of people for continuity and security. By doing so they are also damaging businesses and the competiveness of the economy. This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant by economics professsors Paul de Beer, Paul Boselie, Ronald Dekker, Ewald Engelen, Andries de Grip , Alfred Kleinknecht, Joan Muysken, Janneke Plantenga, Frank Pot, Joop Schippers and Esther-Mirjam Sent   More >


There is more to international education than a school uniform

International schools may make Robin Pascoe a little nostalgic about school uniforms, but she wishes ordinary Dutch schools would do more to embrace their expat pupils. As a product of the British school system, I wore a shirt, tie and blazer to school every day for goodness knows how many years. The only change came when there was a girls’ revolution and we were finally allowed to wear trousers. But apart from that, it was do I have a clean shirt, is it ironed and will my new skirt from Chelsea Girl get past the prefects? When I finally left school, the first thing I did was set fire to my tie outside the gates. I can remember the sheer delight to this day. So it is with some surprise that I find myself looking at groups of international school pupils in their uniforms with more than a hint of nostalgia. There is something sweet and old-fashioned about them, from the tinies in their matching sweatshirts to the serious seniors standing around on street corners with a sneaky cigarette. International schools were never an option in our household. Uniform issues aside, they were just too darn expensive – and they remain so for most, unless you are on some mega salary or your employer is footing the bill. Earlier this year, the Dutch government said it was setting up an investigation into the international school market in the Netherlands because it had received reports that the shortage of places risked damaging the country’s reputation as a great place to do business. International While there is a well-documented shortage of places at some international schools, a survey in Amsterdam last year showed that what most parents really want is help in getting their children into a Dutch school. International schools provide a great and a privileged education for the children of real expats – those who may find themselves moving to Singapore or Geneva in a few years – but they simply are not an option for the majority of internationals in the Netherlands. It will be interesting to see what the investigation comes up with. A focus on international schools alone would again indicate that the government is fixated on some outmoded concept of the ‘expat’, with massive allowances and relocation packages. We shall see. In the meantime, where does the ordinary international stand in all this? They have to make do with the Dutch system – and no harm in that. Dutch schools are good, standards are high and, well, there is no school uniform to worry about. The government has also been making some efforts to encourage more schools to set up bilingual streams and to begin with English lessons at primary school – although they seem to be backtracking on that a little. New language But all that is being done from the perspective of the Dutch child. From the perspective of the international household - according to the Amsterdam survey at least – what is needed is more of an effort to integrate foreign-born children into the ordinary Dutch system. We don’t all want to be elsewhere and most of us want our kids to become part of the local culture – however nostalgic we may be for maroon sweatshirts and grey skirts. If you come from abroad, Dutch schools do involve culture shock. My offspring went to school a long time ago, so things may well have changed since then. After-school clubs seem to have solved the problem of what to do on a Wednesday or Friday afternoon when there was no school to keep James and Anna occupied but you had to be at work. But parents are still expected to show up to teach kids to read, check their heads for nits (even queen Máxima was a nit mother), have an endless supply of cardboard and paint to make things, to take part in school trips, make cakes for sports days, provide something delicious (and nutritionally sound) for every child on your own’s birthday: the list was, and still is, endless. Failures Of course, as soon as you’ve got used to it, it all stops when your offspring head off to secondary school, in their uniform of slouchy jeans and tatty trainers. Then new troubles begin – particularly if they are bilingual in Dutch and English. I’ve yet to come across a bilingual child at a Dutch secondary school who did not fail at least one English exam because they didn’t get the translations right or came home swearing because they had been told to write a review of some book they read when they were eight. I’m not suggesting that the Dutch educational system needs to be overhauled to fit the needs of the expat child. But the government should wake up to the fact that tens of thousands of expat children go to their local Dutch school and that is what their parents want them to do. More understanding and management of the specific needs and expectations of both children and their parents, particularly if both parents are foreign, would be a great step forward. Robin Pascoe is the editor of DutchNews.nl. A longer version of this column was first published in the Xpat Journal.  More >


Employers are becoming increasingly powerful in the Netherlands

Employers are becoming increasingly powerful in the Netherlands

In a climate in which governments are increasingly dependent on businesses to provide jobs, employers are becoming ever more powerful, write economists Rick van der Ploeg and Willem Vermeend. A recent study published by the Dutch central bank (DNB) has put the spotlights on the great shortage of paid employment in this country. Apart from around 600,000 unemployed, some five million people who are not currently active on the labour market would like to be, while 500,000 workers are looking to increase their hours. Respective cabinets have put in place various measures to create extra jobs, in particular in the wake of the economic crisis. Job schemes, fiscal and other subsidies for employers, and training programmes are some examples. Not only in this country but in other countries too, the effect of these measures has been largely disappointing. Future This does not bode very well for the future, which, for the industrial countries of the west, will be characterised by job-poor economic growth and a rapidly changing labour market due to digitalisation, automation and internationalisation. Hundreds of thousands of mainly middle management jobs will be ‘automated away’ in the coming years. This is why social affairs minister Asscher thinks all working people should be required by law to participate in training programmes. This new scheme, introduced last week, is aimed at increasing people’s ability to make the transition to growing business sectors. It’s a fine proposal in itself but it won’t solve the great shortage of work and jobs. And then there’s the fierce international competition for jobs to reckon with. Start-ups Local authorities are down-sizing everywhere and governments have to look to businesses and start-ups to provide jobs. Jobs are lost there too, but at the same time new companies are generating new jobs. According to British research, extra jobs are created largely by so-called scale-ups (fast-growing, innovative start-ups). As governments are having to turn to businesses to find jobs, we see that even left-wing parties are supporting measures which will create a business-friendly climate. Countries are doing their best to encourage employers by offering tax deals, quick licences, cheap premises, lower premiums on wages, training programmes, scope for flex work and, first and foremost, less red tape. Competition The international competition for employers and jobs is fierce and it’s growing. Attempts by Brussels to contain this race to the bottom within the EU have not been successful, on the contrary. Many countries, tired of EU intervention, are stepping up their efforts. They are focusing on national employment figures, and, as is happening with the refugee crisis, they are plotting their own course. In the UK this development has led to a referendum on a possible Brexit on June 23. Jobs are playing a central part. Supporters think a Brexit will revive the economy and generate jobs while opponents predict massive job losses. Brexit supporters dismiss this as scaremongering but as the referendum date is drawing near an increasing number of entrepreneurs are saying they will be taking their businesses elsewhere. If the UK exits the EU, companies will be faced with a number of trade restrictions and a considerable hike in export costs. That means they can no longer compete with other European businesses and for many that means a swift relocation to another EU member country. Financial sector In the age of the internet in which more and more work is done digitally, such a move can be achieved quickly. Meanwhile the other EU countries are doing their utmost to tempt these entrepreneurs. France and Germany have already opened their doors to London’s financial sector which will collapse with the loss of the EU membership. British politicians and voters who support a Brexit are furious with the entrepreneurs who have announced their departure. They might as well save their breath. Entrepreneurs have to compete worldwide and will always settle in countries with the most advantageous business climate. The reaction of British business has been short and to the point: ‘we will respect the outcome of the referendum but we will be the ones to decide where to take our businesses.’ And that is the attitude of businesses everywhere, including the Netherlands. Politicians and voters may resent the powerful position of businesses but that is the way it is now. A recent example is Rutte 2’s failed attempt to promote fixed contracts via legal measures: entrepreneurs are making their own calculations and are replacing ‘fixed’ with ‘flex’. Business climate Recent research shows that a large majority of small and medium-sized businesses will be using flex workers to fill posts. Fixed contracts are too expensive and rigid. Employers are also wary of the risk of long drawn out payments in case of illness. Their decisions are based on the interest of their businesses and they rightly point out that the climate for small businesses in most other European countries is considerably better. Employers’ costs are much lower and there is less red tape to deal with. By adapting our rules and taxes to the business-friendly climate in those countries, employment in the Netherlands could increase significantly. Fixed contracts, the preferred option for many workers, can be promoted by reducing employers’ costs and incorporating more flexibility in the contract. The daily reality shows that politicians and voters depend on companies for jobs, whether they like it or not. And their power will only increase. This article was published earlier in the Telegraaf   More >


Dutch should go for real transparency in corporate ownership

Dutch should go for real transparency in corporate ownership

A register of corporate ownership that is accessible to all would help combat crime. But the Dutch proposal – a registry behind a paywall and limited data access – does not go far enough, write Arjan Al-Fassed and Anne Scheltema Beduin. In the Netherlands it’s still possible to create legal companies without revealing the identity of the actual owner, Criminals abuse such constructions for purposes of corruption, fraud, money laundering, organised crime and cartels. A public registry, the so-called UBO registry, aims to change all that. But it can only happen if the registry is accessible to all. A UBO registry is a central registry which contains the names of the ultimate beneficiaries and other legal corporate entities. A ‘UBO’ or Ultimate Beneficial Owner, is the person who is pulling the strings, openly or behind the scenes. Openness about the identity of the UBO strengthens confidence, increases accountability and gives the market, stakeholders, investors, businesses and consumers a proper insight into who exactly they are dealing with. Corruption, money laundering and the financing of terrorism are international problems and that is why, before June 26 2017, all EU countries have to have a registry in place. Recently, finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem presented an outline of the Dutch version of the UBO registry. Although Dijsselbloem is an advocate of a registry, his version is far from offering real transparency. Not only does the government want to erect a paywall, it also wants to know who wants the information: every visitor needs to log in. Moreover, the general public’s access to the registry is limited to a minimal data set. Shadowy constructions The data from a UBO registry are only properly useful if access is unlimited and equal for all. Obscuring information about companies, foundations, associations and organisations is part of the problem. The minister’s obstructions are also flying in the face of what the registry is meant to achieve; i.e. putting a stop to the creation of shadowy constructions used for illegal purposes. In order to do that, the complete data set needs to be accessible. In Myanmar, for instance, a criminal chain made up of military elites, drug barons and money laundering organisations related to the jade industry was discovered. This was only possible because the complete data set was publicly accessible, machine readable and programmatically compatible. Public watch dogs, among them Global Witness, were thus able to reveal the hidden ties between the jade industry and the most important players. A pay-per-view system is problematic because it impedes the use of the complete data. If you have a list of administrators who have been convicted for money laundering and you want to combine it with the Dutch UBO registry to check if any of the people appearing on the list is on the board if a Dutch company, the costs of your research will mount considerably. The finance minister is silent on the subject of open data in its UBO registry proposal. He is hiding behind the privacy argument, which is a questionable one since it is at odds with transparency. The minister does admit that a strict access limitation would be difficult to achieve and monitor and would be expensive – both for the administrators and the users of the registry – and not in line with the purposes of the Directive. Chamber of Commerce It’s not surprising that the Chamber of Commerce is eager to run the new UBO registry. It has been monopolising the administration of the trade registry for years and wants a disproportionate amount of money for access to the information in its domain. For this alone, the Chamber of Commerce should not be considered for the job. There is more. Unlike in other countries, the Dutch trade registry is not accessible as open data. What is more, the Chamber of Commerce is arguing that re-use of data from the public trade registry by third parties should be disallowed. Britain, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and even Romania have a freely accessible trade registry open to all. Britain and Denmark are planning to make the UBO registry accessible as open data as well. Public registries and paywalls are not compatible. Asking payment for data acts as an unnecessary hurdle for the (re) use of these data. Moreover, the Chamber of Commerce has been unable to provide a clear insight into the costs and benefits of the administration of the trade registry and even the Dutch national audit office has judged that the two are unevenly balanced. In the end, a truly open public registry is better for the market, for the public and our safety. Arjan El-Assad is director of the Open State Foundation. Anne Scheltema Beduin is director of Transparency International Nederland This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Holocaust denial, pick-up artists and Salafism: the Dutch between a rock and a hard place

Holocaust denial, pick-up artists and Salafism: the Dutch between a rock and a hard place

What do a British holocaust denying historian, an ultra-fundamentalist Islamic sect, and an American pickup artist have in common? The answer: all three have faced resistance in the Netherlands for their rhetoric. And efforts to restrict all three have been shot down due to freedom of speech laws, writes Graham Dockery. Salafism, a puritan and anti-modernist interpretation of Sunni Islam, is the religion of choice of the Islamic State, the Saudi regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda. The religion is commonly divided into three groups of followers: the apolitical, who keep their religion to themselves but bow before any Salafist leader to avoid creating fitna, or chaos; the political activists, whose ranks swelled following the Arab spring; and the jihadists. Naturally it’s the last group that has people in the west worried. Those who see armed Jihad as the best route to establish a worldwide caliphate based on medieval religious purity are a minority, but a dangerous one. It has been estimated that Salafi jihadists account for less than 1% of the world’s Muslim population. However, that means that there are 10 million of these jihadists in the world. Salafism is widely considered the fastest growing movement in modern Islam, and the proliferation of Salafist mosques has caused concern in Europe, particularly in Germany, where security services have been keen to highlight the links between Salafism and terrorism. Security threat? In the Netherlands, the situation is much the same. The security service AIVD stated in a report that while Salafist preachers have mostly operated within the boundaries of Dutch law, they have frequently promoted intolerance and ‘undemocratic activities’. These ‘undemocratic activities’ range from attacking supporters of the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ campaign on social media, to encouraging young followers to use violence against the state and against people of different beliefs. ‘These are not isolated incidents, but reflections of more widely held sentiments,’ the report said. No ban in the Netherlands It is against this background that the Dutch parliament passed a motion calling on the cabinet to look into banning Salafist organisations in the Netherlands. At the time this motion was heavily criticised by Jozias Van Aartsen, mayor of The Hague. Van Aartsen preferred co-operation with his city’s Salafists, who worship at several mosques in the city, stating that ‘we do not judge people on their thoughts or ideas.’ This is the same Van Aartsen who saw ‘nothing wrong’ with protestors in The Hague waving ISIS flags and chanting ‘death to Jews’. Dutch law clearly states: ‘He who in public, either verbally or in writing or image, incites hatred or discrimination against people or incites acts of violence towards people or property of people because of their race, their religion or beliefs…shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding one year or a fine of the third category.’ Despite this, there were no arrests made or punishments handed out. And despite the AIVD’s report stating that Salafist preachers frequently break this hate speech law, minister for social affairs Lodewijk Asscher announced on Friday that the Dutch government will not ban Salafist organisations, saying such a ban would conflict with the individual right to freedom of religion in the Netherlands. Asscher did, however, recognise that Salafism provides a ‘breeding ground for radicalisation’, but claimed that current laws already provide enough options for tackling the problem. Holocaust Denial The same hate speech law mentioned above effectively makes Holocaust denial and public support of Nazism illegal in the Netherlands. But before controversial Holocaust-denying historian David Irving even opened his mouth in the Netherlands, he found his hotel reservation in The Hague cancelled last week, due to pressure from the city council. The same mayor Van Aartsen who saw nothing wrong with ‘death to Jews’ chants, this time told anti-Semitism watchdog group CIDI that he would intervene to ban Irving from The Hague. Irving has been banned before from giving lectures in Amsterdam, but the council of The Hague could not legally ban Irving from coming to the city. Instead they could only encourage hotels and halls in the city not to give him a platform from which to speak. Irony Irving’s proposed lecture, entitled ‘Hitler, Himmler and the Homosexuals’, was due to be a private affair, where members could only bring ‘friends you can vouch for’. Irving may have more friends at his next speech. A side effect of the government and media hand-wringing over Irving’s speech was a sudden spike of interest in Irving and his writing. Comment fields in news articles were full of curious parties. ‘Never heard of him before, but now interested to know what he has to say,’ read one such comment on DutchNews.nl. According to Google trends, search interest in David Irving in the Netherlands is at an all-time high. In just one week, Dutch people searched for ‘David Irving’ over 100 times more than at any point over the last decade. Feeding on notoriety Another group occupying the grey area between free speech and criminal speech in the Netherlands are the pick-up artists (PUAs). Pick-up artists – dating coaches for socially awkward men – shot to prominence in the early 2000s after the publication of The Game by American journalist-turned-pick-up artist Neil Strauss. Now part of the $10 billion self help industry, pick-up artists make a living selling books, videos and seminars aimed at helping the poor and frustrated ‘average guy’ achieve his true potential. By manipulating attractive women into bed. Relatively innocent sounding fun, but some of these PUAs’ methods have caused controversy. Following a petition, PUA Julien Blanc was banned from entering Britain in late 2014. He was accused of misogyny and promoting sexual assault. The accusations were based on videos that showed Blanc forcing himself on women in Japan, and based on the ‘treat them like trash’ method he preached in his seminars. Blanc’s extreme methods are a symptom of self-styled pick-up ‘gurus’ flooding the market in recent years. To stand out, the PUAs must constantly outdo each other. The ‘Most hated man in the world’ wasn’t planning on coming to Amsterdam himself around that time. Instead, PUA Todd Valentine was to give a lecture in the city. Valentine also works with Blanc’s company, Real Social Dynamics. A moral appeal A petition signed by almost 25,000 people called on the justice minister to refuse entry to the Netherlands to anyone associated with Real Social Dynamics, and called on the mayor of Amsterdam to pressure hotels and meeting facilities into refusing Valentine. Of course, free speech law meant that local and national government couldn’t issue an outright ban. However, much like the Irving situation in The Hague, they instead issued a ‘moral appeal’ to hotels and conference centres. The ‘moral appeal’ seems to be the weapon of choice of the Labour party (PvdA), which Amsterdam’s mayor Eberhard van der Laan and The Hague’s mayor Jozias van Aartsen both belong to. And it worked. Amid the controversy, Real Social Dynamics cancelled their event, deciding to wait until the ‘storm of criticism’ died down. Free speech Freedom of speech faces many challenges, and every time a group of ‘undesirables’ preaches an unpopular message, people are quick to call for them to be silenced. Stuck between an inability to actually do this, and a desire to please the public, the government here frequently has to opt for half measures and walk the middle ground. It’s a difficult double-bind situation, and one that ensures these problems won’t go away any time soon. And in a way, it’s typical of modern Dutch ‘tolerance’. On the outside the Netherlands is a society that respects and values free speech. But there are many within who see this as a hindrance, and who for many different reasons would rather that things weren’t so complicated. Graham Dockery is a master's journalism student at Groningen University  More >


Brexit: the Dutch will lose much-needed ally

Brexit: the Dutch will lose much-needed ally

The British may be troublesome moaners but it’s better to have them aboard in Europe, writes Peter van Ham, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael institute of international relations. ‘Let the Brits have their Brexit, for goodness sake! At least we won’t have to listen to their endless moaning anymore.’ It’s a sentiment that’s becoming increasingly common, and for good reason. Britain has always been the odd one out, with its own ideas about what the EU should look like and where it should be heading. But if the British should decide to hand in their EU membership on June 23, the Netherlands will lose an important ally and this country will become wholly dependent on the joint decisions made by Germany and France. A Brexit would upset the precarious balance of power within the EU and that will put pressure on the EU democracy. The three biggest EU member states – Germany, France and Britain – are in charge: any important initiative or project is suggested by this triumvirate and is then adopted as official EU policy with a majority of votes. The only reason why the rest of the EU goes a long with this is that the Big Three are seldom in agreement. One of the three will always block decisions on any given important economic and political issue and that gives the other member states an opportunity for taking sides and influencing EU decisions through tactful coalitions. EU membership for Turkey? Germany and Britain are (usually) in favour; France against. A strong political Union? Germany and France are in favour; Great Britain against. France and Britain are former colonial powers with a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and have a completely different world view compared to Germany, a nation still struggling with post-war guilt. Political traditions It is not only about conflicting interests, then, but about different political traditions. Germany opts for the Rhineland model (which resembles our polder model); France remains centralist and leans towards protectionism while Britain is staunchly neo-liberal. This balance constitutes the informal Trias Politica in the EU and that makes it more important than the official division of power between the European Commission, the council and parliament. The structural lack of agreement between the Big Three is often seen as the EU’s main stumbling block: decisions take a great deal of time and the resulting compromises are inevitably neither fish nor fowl. It’s a familiar and justifiable beef but it doesn’t take into account the fact that without the conflicts between the Big Three other member states would hardly get a look-in when it comes to influencing the EU decision-making process. If Berlin, Paris and London agreed on everything between them that would be it: the rest of the EU would be looking at a fait accompli. The French-German dominance of the Eurozone has been playing havoc with the balance between the Big Three in the last few years. Crucial decisions about the future of the EU have been predetermined by Germany and France, often on the pre-text that this is in the interest of the euro, thereby side-lining Britain. In the past months EU leaders have tried to allocate a clearly defined role to Britain in the German-French dominated Eurozone. The fact that they failed has now led to the British in-or-out referendum in June. A British opt-out will deliver a heavy blow to the EU democracy, which is already teetering on the brink. Without Britain the EU will lose an important advocate for interests and values which are crucial to the Netherlands as well, such a free trade and transatlantic cooperation. Dangerous The idea that a Brexit will rid the EU of a moaning troublemaker is naïve and dangerously short-sighted. Perhaps the EU will be able to speed up policy making on some issues. Smaller member states can support either Germany or France but that’s as far as it goes. For member states with different interests and traditions (which includes the Netherlands) a possible absence of Britain would mean a painful curtailment of diplomatic possibilities and, in the end, a blow to our democracy. The popular sentiment that ‘Brussels’ decides and that smaller member states are losing their say in the EU will further encourage euro scepticism. Without Britain the democratic balance will be lost and this may put the very existence of the EU in doubt. Not that the average British voter will care two hoots about that. But a Brexit does pose a dilemma for the Netherlands. The alternative for a EU dominated by Germany and France would be a Federal States of Europe in which smaller countries would play a clearly defined role based on a division of powers between the EU, the member states and the regions. You can be for or against such a system but it is at least one on which the Dutch population should be able to pronounce an opinion. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


What happened to empathy and solidarity when it comes to refugees?

What happened to empathy and solidarity when it comes to refugees?

Europe is not doing its share for the refugees. And by not taking control of the flight routes, it is also giving people smugglers free reign, writes GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver. At the beginning of this year I became a father again. I enjoyed the couple of weeks’ leave granted to new fathers and during that time politics was put firmly on the back burner. When I went back to work I wondered if the job was really worth missing so much of home life for. The feeling didn’t last very long. I realised that the refugee debate had taken on a different, much harsher tone. What happened to empathy? To solidarity? Even politicians ideologically close to GroenLinks are saying we should stem the tide of refugees. We have a euro commissioner who is juggling figures, a finance minister speculating about the sustainability of the welfare state and a prime minister who is saying that the number has to come down to zero. Things were very different six months ago. Remember this? Blue trousers, red top, dark hair, there he was, lying on his tummy, washed up on the beach. I don’t even have to tell you his name. Grief We all felt the grief of the parents and tried to imagine the despair of how it would be if it were us sitting in a boat with our children. This empathy and solidarity was felt across the board, independent of political preference or background. Government leaders agreed: this cannot be allowed to happen in Europe. Six months on, we no longer talk about him, or the despair of people on the run from barrel bombs and barbarian Jihadis. We talk about our own problems. We’re talking about ‘fewer, fewer, fewer’ refugees. It’s all we’re hearing at the moment. I want to change that. It’s wrong and it’s not what the Netherlands is about. And it’s not realistic. The war in Syria is becoming ever more complex. Lebanon is increasingly unstable. Civil war looms in eastern Turkey, while thousands upon thousands of Syrians are heading for the Turkish border to escape Russian bombs and the violence of Assad. Chaos To say there will be fewer refugees is to tell a lie and will only increase the chaos. Obstructing flight routes only helps the people smugglers who increase their prices, while the refugees take ever greater risks to secure a place in a rickety boat. Ask yourself: how great must the needs of these people be if they are willing to take such risks? Let’s be honest here. The refugee camps in the region are a woeful excuse for not doing what we ought to do. Europe, with half a billion people, is accommodating a million refugees. Lebanon, which only has four million inhabitants, is doing the same. The pressure on the region is horrendous. For five years now people have been living in these camps with nothing to look forward to. The first thing we have to do is to invest, in improving living conditions, in making sure the adults get work permits and the children get to school. And let’s see things as they are. We must count on the same number of refugees coming to Europe next year. It is no use building walls as long as people are desperate. Ruthless people smugglers will help them find the smallest of holes. Legal route We have to work on a legal route. We will make it easier, not harder, for refugees to come to Europe. People smugglers can only be combated if we, to put it bluntly, move into their territory and take over the merchandise. We can do that if we work together. International aid organisations have been saying this for years. The United Nations’ refugee organisation UNCHR has a relocation programme for the camps in Jordan and Lebanon. We must ask the UNHCR to identify, register and select people in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The UNHCR has already requested 460,000 relocation places. Let’s give them those places. At the moment, the EU is only offering 11,000 a year at a time when a million people are being forced into choosing the dangerous sea route. We have to redress the balance. Then people won’t have to get into boats, or be turned back. All this costs money. What is needed are big investments, and cooperation with countries like the US, Canada, Australia and countries in the region such as the Gulf states. That is the only way to gain control over who comes here and how they come here. We can filter out the young men who hope to come here from other North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. The people we need to be helping are refugees, most from Syria and a small number from Iraq and Eritrea. Integration It is impossible to promise the number of refugees will be brought down as long as there is a civil war in Syria. What we can do is improve the way aid is organised. There will be tension, including in this country. There will be individuals who misbehave, both refugees and Dutch citizens. They have to be caught and punished. It will be difficult for the refugees to integrate. They have to learn the language, find jobs and abide by the rules of our society. It will be expensive. It will be difficult. It may be hell in their home countries but we can’t promise these people it will be heaven here. But I see thousands of people offering their services for free to help them. A majority of people are worried but we can do this. That silent majority needs to find its voice. And if things are difficult all we need to think of is that little boy in the blue trousers and the red top on the beach. That is our motivation. This article appeared earlier in the NRC  More >


How Dutch meetings are different part 3: the catering

Cheese, mustard, coffee and cake: Greg Shapiro warns European diplomats not to expect too much when it comes to the catering during the Dutch presidency of the EU. If you haven’t already seen the billboards and banners, the Netherlands is playing host to the EU Presidency for the first half of 2016. You may NOT have seen the billboards and banners, and that’s because the Dutch government has announced it’s best not to be seen spending too much money on the whole affair. Witness the logo recycled from the last time they hosted in 2004. And when it comes to showing off Dutch cuisine, let’s hope we do better than more reheated leftovers like the logo. On the international stage, cuisine can play a pivotal role. Compare the climate summits in 2009 and 2015. In Copenhagen 2009, the Danish environmental minister had a simple strategy: lock the delegates in a room and don’t let them out until they reach a deal. There was no deal. By contrast, in 2015 the French stopped the whole summit to make sure everyone had enough to eat and drink. Even as the final negotiations were nearing completion, the French hosts called a break for a full lunch, coffee, croissants and chocolate. The resulting climate agreement was the most successful ever. Voila. Coffee and cake Just a few weeks later, the Dutch welcomed EU officials to a ceremony in Amsterdam featuring what looked like filter coffee and mini-muffins. There was also an evening ceremony, reportedly with cheese blocks and mustard. And hopefully they also served the classic mini-croquettes, which the Dutch insist on calling ‘bitter balls.’ The term ‘bitter’ refers not to the flavour, but to the way foreign dignitaries feel when presented with deep fried gravy. The warm exterior will mask the scalding-hot inside, so that you can hardly take a bite without burning your tongue within the first 30 seconds. After that, the Dutch hosts can serve any number of follow-ups from liverwurst to pickled onions and describe them as delicious. The guests just have to take their word for it. Lunch Then, of course, there’s Dutch lunch, which is a lot like Brussels lunch - except there’s no warm food, there’s no alcohol, and there’s no dessert. Many an international business deal has gone wrong because of those Dutch Calvinistic roots, reminding us not to take any joy in anything. And now that EU delegates are here demanding more budget for the refugee crisis, thank goodness there’s Dutch catering - which is the equivalent of turning out one’s pockets to show they’re empty. Let’s hope the 2016 Dutch EU Presidency will still be a success, with lots of international agreements and accords. And to that end, let’s all raise a tall glass of buttermilk. For more insights on how Dutch Summits are different, watch Greg Shapiro’s United States of Europe. Greg Shapiro is the author of 'How to Be Orange’ and the upcoming ‘How to Be Dutch: the Quiz.’  More >