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


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 >


Health warning: the government’s smoking policy kills

Smoking kills but vote-hungry politicians are failing to act, write psychology professor emeritus Frits van Dam and lung specialist Wanda de Kanter. May 31 is another World No Tobacco Day, the United Nations’ cri de coeur against smoking. Almost a quarter of people over 15 in the Netherlands smoke. Half their number, over 20,000 people, will die of smoking-related illnesses. Public health director-general Angelique Berg agrees that smoking should be actively discouraged but her plan – scary pictures on packaging and information campaigns in schools – is mere window dressing. It won’t stop young people from taking up smoking nor will it help young smokers to kick the habit. She has failed to mention the most effective strategy for combating tobacco use: a tax hike. In countries which do use fiscal measures to tackle smoking, such as Australia and Sweden, the number of smokers is significantly lower than in the Netherlands. Sales Another obvious measure would be to limit the sale of tobacco to licensed outlets but this has met with vociferous protests from the supermarket and petrol station lobby. Angelique Berg is keeping quiet about this too. On January 28 2016 a plenary session in the Dutch parliament about the tobacco law was attended only by the tobacco spokesmen for seven parties in an otherwise empty chamber. Most politicians show no sense of urgency at all about the subject in spite of the fact that we are being faced with a national health crisis. Every year ten times as many people die of smoking-related illnesses as perished in the flood of 1953, and smoking deaths outnumber traffic deaths by 35. Thirteen motions and amendments were proposed during the debate. The VVD and PVV rejected all anti-tobacco motions and Labour, for the most part, concurred. Their philosophy is a simple one: people have a choice. It’s up to them to decide to smoke or not to smoke. There was no mention of the fact that once people are addicted they no longer have that choice. The VVD’s Eric van den Burg, an alderman in Amsterdam, does understand. In a debate at the Balie on May 8 he said that his party and its tobacco spokesperson in particular ‘are mistaken in that they think everyone is capable of making the right choice’. Free to choose? Addicts are not free to choose; it’s what makes them addicts. Van den Burg thinks the price of a packet of cigarettes should go up by €10. But it won’t happen, he says, because ‘the lobby and powerful tobacco industry are preventing this from happening’. And, he added, ‘a tax hike would cost the VVD two to three seats and naturally that is something the party would want to avoid’. The same goes for Labour. Even Labour’s tobacco spokesperson, family doctor Marith Volp, is not promoting a tax rise. It’s easy to understand why. It would be the smokers among the Labour electorate – people on low incomes – who would be hardest hit. Labour stands to lose more than the VVD in this respect. There can only be one conclusion: smoking is an addiction perpetuated by a coalition motivated by electoral gain. Society is paying the price: deadly diseases, premature deaths, productivity loss and huge health care costs. There is still some time to go until the next elections but who should we vote for if we want to protect society, and children in particular, from the dangers of tobacco? Simply vote for the party which at the very least includes a commitment to increase tax on tobacco and limit its sale to designated outlets in its manifesto. This article appeared earlier in the NRC  More >


Unions and employers see soft landing on a downy pension pillow

Unions and employers see soft landing on a downy pension pillow

Trust the employers and unions to come up with a complicated and opaque new pension plan, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. The Sociaal Economische Raad (a senior government advisory body made up of unions, employers and lay members) is laying out a soft pillow filled with the downiest of goose down sown up in a sturdy cotton pillow case. It’s  there to cushion the fall for every unfortunate generation whose luck on the stock exchange has run out. Who fills this miraculous pillow? All the generations whose luck held. Excess investment earnings from one generation go to generations whose shares tumbled. Lucky generations compensate unlucky generations. There’s solidarity among the age cohorts: we have a mutual investment return insurance policy. Buffer The buffer for luck and bad luck is an important part of the SER’s recent pension report in which it outlines a new pension system in which workers create their own investment pot. Even considering such an individually tailored pension is a revolutionary step for the union and employer talking shop. Abolishing the collective pension pots containing all the premiums in exchange for a vague and hardly secure promise of a nominal amount of money upon retirement was something the unions never even wanted to consider. Every adjustment of the system was dismissed as an attack on solidarity. But now the polder is coming round to the idea that the present system no longer serves. Years of discussion about actuarial interest rates, funding ratios and indexation have shown that the rot has set in and that the ‘best pension system in the world’ is crumbling. So the system has to change. Collective pots become individual pots, underpinned by that huge pillow. Collective The pillow is not an individual pillow but a collective pillow. Filled with a downy solidarity tax on the investment returns of those individual pots that are ‘too high’. The buffer for luck and bad luck is nothing but a shadow pension fund that collects premiums on the investment returns of pension funds. It’s a new collective fund filled with money whose exact ownership is unclear and which will be divvied up based on investment returns expected in a far-away future. And what will constitute ‘normal’, 'above average’ and ‘too little’ return on investment? Do I hear someone say ‘actuarial interest’?  The fight between the generations over the money in the pillow will break out before the opening bell of the stock exchange. In the end every age group will consider themselves as the unlucky generation surrounded by generations with all the luck in the world. Individual pension pots subject to a solidarity tax to fund a collective investment buffer based on arbitrary investment return expectations – those who thought the new system would be simpler and more transparent have reckoned without the SER. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


How moderate right-wingers have become ‘extremist’ europhiles

How moderate right-wingers have become ‘extremist’ europhiles

Economist Mathijs Bouman charts the journey from being a moderate right-winger to an extremist europhile. You think that free trade is a good starting point for economic diplomacy, preferably via multilateral free trade agreements, or if that can’t be done via bilateral agreements. You think close cooperation with the US is a no-brainer. Naturally, some hard nuts will have to be cracked at the negotiating table but then a mutually advantageous free trade accord should be in the bag. You thought everybody would see the advantages of such an agreement but while your back was turned for five minutes public opinion had shifted dramatically. Free trade is in the interest of multinationals, people say, and they are only interested in poisoning us with chlorine chickens  and hormone beef Freedom and prosperity After a quarter of a century you are cancelling your Milieudefensie membership. Once an organisation for nature lovers you gladly supported, it now has an anti-globalist agenda which opposes free entrepreneurship and free trade. You’re branded an extremist because you think European cooperation will promote freedom, security and prosperity. You are still not convinced that a Europe with national currencies and fluctuating exchange rates will function better than a monetary union. You fear the Russian bear more than the Brussels snail. Your sort is called a europhile these days (yes, this is now a term of abuse). And market forces, well everybody knows what a complete and utter failure they are. Never mind that we put our superfluous stuff on auction site Marktplaats at the weekend and bid for the cheapest wellness-arrangement on vakantieveilingen.nl while vilifying the price mechanism as an instrument to fill the pockets of the big earners the rest of the week. Trap Semi civil servant Antoinette Hertsenberg is given airtime by semi state broadcaster AvroTros to condemn market forces in the health system. Even childhood hero and writer Jan Terlouw has fallen into the trap. In a reaction to consumer programme Radar, he twitters : ‘Does anyone still have a good word to say about market forces in health care?’ In the early seventies Terlouw in his book How to become King convincingly explained how the monopoly of corrupt doctors brought ruin to the people in a city in the kingdom of Katoren. He has changed his tune since then. I prefer the Terlouw of 1971. Those who positioned themselves slightly to the right of the centre on the political spectrum, and paired a considered distrust of state interference to a belief in international cooperation, are now seen as neoliberal slaves to capitalism, or Europhile extremists. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


The TTIP is bad for agriculture and environment

Representatives of the farming unions, livestock farmers’ associations and environmental groups don’t often agree, but all think the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership should be stopped. The European Union (EU) and the United States (US) are in negotiations about a free trade agreement (TTIP). This is happening behind closed doors, and the precise contents of the agreement have not been made public. But farmers and livestock farmers know enough for the alarm bells to go off: the TTIP will flood the European market with American agricultural products produced to a lower standard. This will adversely affect the incomes of farmers, the safety of our food, workers’ rights, the quality of the environment and animal welfare. The same goes for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) the Canadian variant of the TTIP. These agreements leave no room for production standard requirements, apart from a brief mention of food safety. The EU and the US have fundamentally different rules for allowing products and materials onto the market. The EU favours a precautionary approach: no, unless proven to be safe. The Americans turn this around: yes, unless. They will only ban a product or material if it is proven to be unsafe. Unfair competition American agriculture and livestock farming have no legal standards regarding animal welfare, and standards for pollution, food safety and working conditions are much less stringent then in Europe. This means production costs are much lower. Because the EU and the US want to come to a mutual recognition of each other’s standards the abolition of import duty will open the door to unfair competition from American products. Tariff-free import quota for American products will likewise lead to unfair competition and lower prices. The European market will become unbalanced and this will seriously affect the continuity of the primary agricultural sector in Europe. Unfair competition will force farmers to scale up and family businesses will be closed. Job losses in the supply chain and the processing industry will be inevitable. The working conditions and workers’ wages in the entire agricultural sector will come under even more pressure. No guarantees The fact that the European Commission and the Dutch government maintain that standards won’t be lowered in no way constitutes a guarantee for farmers and consumers. Already the EU is postponing and relaxing laws governing food safety. With TTIP and CETA raising standards would become practically impossible. Standards can only be raised if the farmer pays for the added costs and the EU market is protected against products that comply with lower standards. But with free trade agreements that is impossible. American as well as European research shows that European agriculture and livestock farming will suffer once the TTIP comes into effect: there will be more imports, lower production and lower prices. We find the enthusiasm of our politicians for these agreements incomprehensible. We demand an end to the TTIP negotiations. We demand that CETA not be ratified by the EU and the Netherlands. Should the negotiations continue then agriculture, livestock farming and food should be excluded. Ingrid Jansen - chairman Nederlandse Vakbond Varkenshouders (pig farmers) Eric Douma - chairman LTO Varkenshouderij (pig farmers) Hennie de Haan - chairman Nederlandse Vakbond Pluimveehouders (poultry farmers) Sieta van Keimpema - chairman Dutch Dairymen Board Irene van der Sar - board member Nederlandse Melkveehouders Vakbond (dairy farmers' association) Keimpe van der Heide - board member Nederlandse Akkerbouw Vakbond (arable farmers' association) Piet van IJzendoorn - chairman Vereniging voor Biologisch-Dynamische Landbouw en Voeding (organic food producers' association) Jacomijn Pluimers - campaign leader Duurzaam Voedsel Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth) Wim Baltussen - FNV sector Agrarisch Groen (trade union) Guus Geurts - board member Platform Aarde Boer Consument (consumer platform) This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Ebru Umar’s wretched columns are a small price to pay for press freedom

As a 'shock columnist' who likes hurling playground insults, Ebru Umar is no fearless martyr to the free word in the mould of Vaclav Havel, writes Gordon Darroch. Ebru Umar might be a fool but we still have to fight for her. The Dutch Metro columnist’s holiday in the Turkish resort of Kusadasi has been indefinitely extended while police decide whether to charge her with insulting the country’s president on Twitter. She appears to be bearing it bravely: she's tweeted a picture of the sunset from her balcony. This in itself makes her a rarity among freedom of speech campaigners in Turkey, such as Erol Zavar, since for most of them sunlight is a rare privilege. Zavar, the editor of the leftwing magazine Odak, was given a life sentence in 2000 for ‘changing the constitutional order by force’ and is currently fighting a losing battle with cancer in a high-security jail in Ankara. Umar, meanwhile, is sipping tea in the sunshine and posting selfies from the hair salon. Umar is the type of shock columnist who attracts praise because ze neemt geen blad voor de mond – a Dutch expression that loosely means she speaks her mind. Sadly, it seems she has little discernible mind to speak of. She was arrested for a couple of critical tweets about Erdogan, and recently she signed off a pre-emptive strike against Erdogan’s supporters in the Dutch Turkish community with the words: ‘I have only one thing to say to you: go fuck yourself’. Martyr This is not somebody in any danger of being mistaken for a fearless martyr to the free word in the mould of Vaclav Havel. When another Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink, was expelled from Turkey after spending 25 years reporting on the Kurdish civil war, Umar responded in a radio broadcast: ‘What business do you have there? Go away! If you’re a journalist in Turkey you know there’s a chance of vanishing behind bars’. But let us be charitable and call Umar a late recruit to the cause of press freedom. More vexing is the pinned tweet at the top of her timeline: ‘Dear tweeps, I’ve been Ebru Umar for almost 46 years now. Trust me: I will remain Ebru Umar for the rest of my life.’ Forty-six years on earth distilled into the hollow cry: ‘Look at me! Point the camera at me! I’m the story! Not them! Me! Me! Me!’ But no matter: freedom of speech is not just the freedom of beetle-browed intellectuals to debate the influence of Gramsci over a frothy macchiato. It is also the freedom of simple souls to say witless things on Twitter about their ancestral homeland’s government. Human rights The Dutch government says it is working hard behind the scenes to secure Umar’s release, and so it should. She has had phone calls from the prime minister and foreign minister, she says, and been treated courteously by the police. None of this, however, should detract from the wider issue of Erdogan’s abhorrent attitude to human rights, which has been tolerated for too long. Europe, with the Netherlands as chairman, must wise up and realise that it holds the trump card here. Erdogan has promoted himself as the fixer who can solve Europe’s refugee crisis in return for visa-free travel for his citizens, accelerated membership of the European Union and a €6 billion funding package. Now the Turkish president hopes to use that deal as a lever to seize the initiative on freedom of expression and lower the threshold for EU accession. The likes of Umar and Jan Böhnermann are decoys in a deeper campaign against modernity. But for all his empty threats to dump busloads of refugees at the Greek border, Erdogan can ill afford to miss out on that €6 billion bonanza. It should be impressed on him that EU membership is out of the question unless Turkey drastically improves its record on human rights. Censorship The country ranks 151st out of 180 countries on the latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, the internet is routinely censored, trials of journalists are held behind closed doors and the president’s bodyguards recently assaulted Turkish journalists who tried to ask critical questions during a tour of the United States. Umar deserves to be defended to the hilt not because of her wretched columns, but because of what she represents. It was distressing to see an MP from the misleadingly named Denk (Think) party in the Dutch parliament argue on Nieuwsuur that the Netherlands had no business intervening because Umar had failed to comply with Turkish censorship standards. Focus The benefit to society of letting conscientious writers check the power of presumptive dictators far outweighs the irritation caused by attention-seeking columnists. If the west can’t stand up for its own simpletons, what message are we sending to the likes of Idris Yılmaz and Vildan Atmaca, two reporters from pro-Kurdish news agencies who are currently in detention facing trial for posting anti-Erdogan cartoons on Facebook? Yet if Umar simply reverts to hurling playground insults at Erdogan and his followers when she returns to the Netherlands, it will be a pretty miserable return on the efforts made on her behalf. Perhaps she can use her international fame to focus on the excesses of Erdogan’s regime and the harassment, intimidation and abuse of process that are part of everyday life for journalists in Turkey who don’t have a direct line to the Dutch prime minister. It will mean venturing beyond the hair salon and the Aegean balcony, but you never know; 46 isn’t too late to start. Gordon Darroch is a freelance journalist who also writes for DutchNews.nl. This column first appeared on his blog WordsforPress.   More >


Is a university campus prayer room any different to providing a bar?

Is a university campus prayer room any different to providing a bar?

Universities provide bars, yoga classes and gyms on their campuses, so why not places where students of every religion can go to pray? asks Molly Quell. Last week, Delta, the Delft University of Technology magazine, reported that the university was investigating how to provide silent rooms on campus. The same week, the AD reported that students in The Hague had requested a prayer room. Judging from the reaction in the media, you could have mistakenly thought Muslim students at these schools had demanded the forced conversions of the princesses. The AD had something to say. Omroep West reported on it. PowNed had a story. Geen Stijl voiced their thoughts. Even the JOVD (the youth wing of the VVD) had something to say. The JOVD column reads, in part: 'A university should be a secular place where the gathering of scientific knowledge is the main aim and, therefore, there is no place for religious expression.' Pubs So I fully expect to see the JOVD calling for the closure of TU Delft’s nine faculty pubs and protesting outside the pottery class offered by the Culture Centre. It’s not the first time this conflict has arisen. In 2012, Nos reported that students at The Hague's hbo college had requested prayer rooms. At the time, it was pointed out that universities in Leiden, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Maastricht all offered prayer or meditation rooms for their students. These universities certainly have no problems accepting tuition money from international students, but when asked to fulfil those students needs, suddenly campus is only for academics. Student life The reality is universities play a much larger role in the lives of their students and staff than merely a place to study and work, something that is clearly visible in the amenities offered by modern institutions: bars, cafes, sports facilities, concerts, festivals, yoga classes, debates and movie showings. It seems to me that if the university can indulge my need for an afternoon beer, they can accommodate a group of students who would like a quiet space to pray. And if you want to argue that the university is no place for religion, then you'd better also be arguing in favour of classes on Whit Monday. Otherwise someone might mistake you for a bigot. Molly Quell is the international editor of Delta and a journalist based in Delft. The opinions expressed here are entirely her own. You can find her on Twitter at @mollyquell.   More >


Long read: Why we should give free money to everyone

We tend to think that simply giving people money makes them lazy. Yet a wealth of scientific research shows the contrary: free money helps lift people out of poverty. The time has come for a radical reform of the welfare state, writes Dutch author Rutger Bregman. London, May 2009—An experiment is underway. Its subjects: 13 homeless men. They are veterans of the street. Some have been sleeping on the cold pavement of the Square Mile, Europe’s financial centre, for going on 40 years. Between the police expenses, court costs and social services, these 13 troublemakers have racked up a bill estimated at £400,000 or more. Per year. The strain on city services and local charities is too great for things to go on this way. So Broadway, a London-based aid organisation, makes a radical decision. From now on, the City’s 13 consummate drifters will be getting VIP treatment. It’s adiós to the daily helpings of food stamps, soup kitchens and shelters. They’re getting a drastic and instantaneous bailout. From now on, these rough sleepers will receive free money. To be exact, they’re getting £3,000 in spending money, and they don’t have to do a thing in return. How they spend it is up to them. They can opt to make use of an adviser if they’d like—or not. There are no strings attached, no questions to trip them up. The only thing they’re asked is: What do you think you need? Gardening glasses 'I didn’t have enormous expectations,' one of the experiment’s social workers later recalled. But the drifters’ desires proved eminently modest. A telephone, a dictionary, a hearing aid—each had his own ideas about what he needed. In fact, most were downright thrifty. After one year, each had spent an average of just £800. Take Simon, who had been strung out on heroin for 20 years. The money turned his life around. Simon got clean and started taking gardening classes. 'For some reason, for the first time in my life, everything just clicked,' he said later. 'I’m starting to look after myself, wash and shave. Now I’m thinking of going back home. I’ve got two kids.' A year and a half after the experiment began, seven of the 13 rough sleepers had a roof over their heads. Two more were about to move into their own apartments. All 13 had taken critical steps toward solvency and personal growth. They were enrolled in classes, learning to cook, going through rehab, visiting their families and making plans for the future. 'It empowers people,' one of the social workers involved in the project said about the personalised budget. 'It gives choices. I think it can make a difference.' After decades of fruitless pushing, pulling, pampering, penalising, prosecuting and protecting, nine notorious vagrants had finally been brought in from the streets. The cost? Some £50,000 a year, including the social workers’ wages. In other words, not only did the project help nine people, it also cut costs considerably. Even the Economist had to conclude that the 'most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them'. Hard data Poor people can’t handle money. This seems to be the prevailing sentiment, almost a truism. After all, if they knew how to manage money, how could they be poor in the first place? We assume they must spend it on fast food and soda instead of on fresh fruit and books. So to 'help', we’ve rigged up a myriad of ingenious assistance programmes, with reams of paperwork, registration systems and an army of inspectors, all revolving around the biblical principle that 'those unwilling to work will not get to eat' (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Touted as a shift 'from welfare to workfare', the underlying message is clear: free money makes people lazy. Except that according to the evidence, it doesn’t. Already, research has correlated unconditional cash disbursements with reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy and truancy, and with improved school performance, economic growth and gender equality. 'The big reason poor people are poor is because they don’t have enough money,' noted economist Charles Kenny in Bloomberg Businessweek, 'and it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem.' In their book Just Give Money to the Poor (2010), scholars at the University of Manchester furnish countless examples of cases where cash handouts with few or no strings attached have worked. In Namibia, figures for malnutrition took a nosedive (from 42% to 10%), as did those for truancy (from 40% to virtually 0%) and crime (by 42%). In Malawi, school attendance among girls and women surged 40%, regardless of whether the cash came with or without conditions. Time and again, the ones to profit most are children. They suffer less hunger and disease, grow taller, perform better at school and are less likely to be forced into child labour. From Brazil to India, from Mexico to South Africa, cash transfer programmes have become all the rage across the Global South. By 2010, they were already reaching more than 110 million families in 45 countries. The great thing about money is that people can use it to buy things they need, instead of things that self-appointed experts think they need. And, as it happens, there is one category of product on which poor people do not spend their free money, and that’s alcohol and tobacco. In fact, a major study by the World Bank demonstrated that in 95% of all researched cases in Africa, Latin America and Asia, alcohol and tobacco consumption either remained the same or declined. But it gets even stranger. In Liberia, an experiment was conducted to see what would happen if you gave $200 to the shiftiest of the poor. Alcoholics, addicts and petty criminals were rounded up from the slums. Three years later, what had they spent the money on? Food, clothing, medicine and small businesses. 'If these men didn’t throw away free money,' one of the researchers wondered, 'who would?' Utopia Free money. It’s a notion already proposed by some of history’s leading thinkers. Thomas More dreamed about it in his book Utopia in 1516. Countless economists and philosophers—Nobel Prize winners among them—would follow. Its proponents have spanned the spectrum from left to right, all the way to the founders of neoliberal thought, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. And Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) promises that, one day, it will come. A universal basic guaranteed income. And not merely for a few years, or in developing countries alone, or only for the poor, but just what it says on the box: free money for everyone. Not as a favour, but as a right. Call it the 'capitalist road to communism'. A monthly allowance, enough to live on, without having to lift a finger. The only condition, as such, is that you 'have a pulse'. No inspectors looking over your shoulder to see if you’ve spent it wisely; nobody questioning if it’s really deserved. No more special benefit and assistance programmes; at most an additional allowance for seniors, the unemployed and those unable to work. Basic income: it’s an idea whose time has come. Mincome, Canada In a warehouse attic in Winnipeg, Canada, nearly 2,000 boxes lie gathering dust. The boxes are filled with data—graphs, tables, reports, interviews—about one of the most fascinating social experiments in post-war history. Evelyn Forget, a professor at the University of Manitoba, first heard about the records in 2004. For five long years she tried to convince Canada’s national archives to allow her access to the warehouse. Finally, in 2009, she succeeded. Stepping into the attic for the first time, Forget could hardly believe her eyes. It was a treasure trove of information on the real-world implementation of Thomas More’s dream from five centuries earlier. In March 1973, the provincial government of Manitoba earmarked a sum of $83 million in modern U.S. dollars for the project. They chose Dauphin, a small town of 13,000 northwest of Winnipeg, as the location of the experiment. Everybody in Dauphin was guaranteed a basic income, ensuring that no one fell below the poverty line. In practise, this meant 30% of the town’s inhabitants—1,000 families in all—got a check in the mail each month. A family of four received what would now be around $19,000 a year, no questions asked. For four years, all went well, but then elections threw a spanner in the works. A conservative government was voted into power. The new Canadian cabinet saw little point to the expensive experiment, for which the national government was footing three-quarters of the bill. When it became clear the new administration wouldn’t even fund an analysis of the experiment’s results, the researchers decided to pack their files away in some 2,000 boxes. When Professor Forget first heard about Mincome, no one knew what, if anything, the experiment had actually demonstrated. For three years, she rigorously subjected the data to all manner of statistical analysis. No matter what she tried, the results were the same every time. Mincome had been a resounding success. From experiment to law 'Politically, there was a concern that if you began a guaranteed annual income, people would stop working and start having large families,' said Forget. What really happened was precisely the opposite. Young adults postponed getting married, and birthrates dropped. Their school performance improved substantially. The 'Mincome cohort' studied harder and faster. In the end, total work hours only notched down 1% for men, 3% for married women and 5% for unmarried women. Men who were family breadwinners hardly worked less at all, while new mothers used the cash assistance to take several months’ maternity leave, and students to stay at school longer. Forget’s most remarkable finding, though, was that hospitalisations decreased by as much as 8.5%. Considering the size of public spending on health care in the developed world, the financial implications were huge. Several years into the experiment, domestic violence was also down, as were mental health complaints. Mincome had made the whole town healthier. Forget could even trace the impacts of receiving a basic income through to the next generation, both in earnings and in health. Dauphin—the town with no poverty—was one of five guaranteed income experiments in North America. The other four were all conducted in the United States. Few people today are aware that the United States was just a hair’s breadth from realising a social safety net at least as extensive as those in most western European countries. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his 'War on Poverty' in 1964, Democrats and Republicans alike rallied behind fundamental welfare reforms. First, however, some trial runs were needed. Tens of millions of dollars were budgeted to provide a basic income for more than 8,500 Americans in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina, Indiana, Seattle and Denver in what were also the first-ever large-scale social experiments to distinguish experimental and control groups. The researchers wanted answers to three questions: (1) Would people work significantly less if they received a guaranteed income? (2) Would the programme be too expensive? (3) Would it prove politically unfeasible? The answers were no, no and yes. Declines in working hours were limited across the board. '[The] declines in hours of paid work were undoubtedly compensated in part by other useful activities, such as search for better jobs or work in the home,' noted the Seattle experiment’s concluding report. For example, one mother who had dropped out of high school worked less in order to earn a degree in psychology and get a job as a researcher. Another woman took acting classes; her husband began composing music. 'We’re now self-sufficient, income-earning artists,' she told the researchers. Among the young included in the experiment, almost all the hours not spent on paid work went into more education. Among the New Jersey subjects, the rate of high school graduations rose 30%. And thus, in August 1968, President Nixon presented a bill providing for a modest basic income, calling it 'the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history'. A White House poll found 90% of all newspapers enthusiastically receptive to the plan. The National Council of Churches was in favour, and so were the labour unions and even the corporate sector (see Brian Steensland’s book The Failed Welfare Resolution, page 69). At the White House, a telegram arrived declaring: 'Two upper middle class Republicans who will pay for the programme say bravo.' Pundits were even going around quoting Victor Hugo—'Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.' It seemed that the time for a basic income had well and truly arrived. 'Welfare Plan Passes House [...] a Battle Won in Crusade for Reform,' was the headline of the New York Times on April 16, 1970. With 243 votes for and 155 against, President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP) was approved by an overwhelming majority. Most pundits expected the plan to pass the Senate, too, with a membership even more progressive than that of the House of Representatives. But in the Senate Finance Committee, doubts were raised. 'This bill represents the most extensive, expensive and expansive welfare legislation ever handled,' one Republican senator said. Most vehemently opposed, however, were the Democrats. They felt the FAP didn’t go far enough and pushed for an even higher basic income. After months of being batted back and forth between the Senate and the White House, the bill was finally canned. In the following year, Nixon presented a slightly tweaked proposal to Congress. Once again, the bill was accepted by the House, now as part of a larger package of reforms. In his 1971 State of the Union address, Nixon considered his plan to 'place a floor under the income of every family with children in America' the most important item of legislation on his agenda (see Steensland, page 157). But once again, the bill foundered in the Senate. Not until 1978 was the plan for a basic income shelved once and for all, however, following a fatal discovery upon publication of the final results of the Seattle experiment. One finding in particular grabbed everybody’s attention. The number of divorces had jumped more than 50%. Interest in this statistic quickly overshadowed all the other outcomes, such as better school performance and improvements in health. A basic income, evidently, gave women too much independence. Ten years later, a re-analysis of the data revealed that a statistical error had been made. In reality, there had been no change in the divorce rate at all. 'It Can Be Done! Conquering Poverty in America by 1976,' Nobel Prize winner James Tobin confidently wrote in 1967. At that time, almost 80% of Americans supported a guaranteed basic income. Years later, Ronald Reagan would famously sneer: 'In the ’60s we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.' Yet some ideas just won’t die. Recent years have seen basic income make a comeback on political agendas. Switzerland is already looking forward to a referendum. Large-scale experiments have been announced in Finland and Canada, and plans are in the works in nearly 20 cities in the Netherlands. Even in Silicon Valley, basic income is the talk of the town. Maybe now the time has come that we can finally be rid of that pointless distinction between two types of poor—and to the major misconception that we almost managed to dispel some 40 years ago: the fallacy that a life without poverty is a privilege you have to work for, rather than a right we all deserve. Remember: the great milestones of civilization always have the whiff of utopia about them at first. But almost as soon as a utopia becomes a reality, it often comes to be seen as utterly commonplace. Utopias always start out small, with experiments that ever so slowly change the world. It happened just a few years ago on the streets of London, when 13 street sleepers got £3,000, no questions asked. As one of the aid workers said, 'It’s quite hard to just change overnight the way you’ve always approached this problem. These pilots give us the opportunity to talk differently, think differently, describe the problem differently...' And that’s how all progress begins. Rutger Bregman (1988) is the author of Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek, available in English and published by The Correspondent. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @rcbregman. Translated from Dutch by Elizabeth Manton.  More >