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


We’re in the money: how will political parties spend €27bn?

We’re in the money: how will political parties spend €27bn?

According to the CPB, it looks like the political parties can actually afford to go on a spending spree, writes Mathijs Bouman. The macro-economic think tank traditionally analyses party manifestos in the run up to the general election. Every time the CPB analyses election programmes, politicians grumble. But this year their grumble has turned into a wail. Ahead of the national elections in 2017, CDA, Labour and D66 have publicly vented their unwillingness to participate in this uniquely Dutch tradition. SP, GroenLinks and SGP are still thinking about it. I have to admit I have always been in two minds about the method used by the CPB. In order to prevent parties from being rewarded for squandering money, the CPB looks at the long-term effects of the election programmes. It makes sense as an idea but what actually happens is that, come campaigning time, politicians start pounding each other with figures about job growth in 2040. That, inevitably, leads to nonsensical discussions. Be precise On the other hand, the CPB analysis is a great way of infusing some discipline into the writers of the election programmes. Political parties who promise to lower taxes, increase spending while claiming the budget deficit will fall, will feel the cold steel of the CPB dissecting knife. What is more, they need to be precise. ‘We will reduce health care costs’ is not going to cut it with the CPB. By how much? How? When and who will benefit? The CPB wants to know. If you really want to know what political parties are up to, a CPB analysis will tell you more than an election programme. That is why I would be sorry if the programmes for 2017 weren’t subjected to the CPB treatment. Fortunately chances are that the parties will change their minds and participate after all. Firstly, because they don’t want their opponents to accuse them of cowardice and secondly, because this time around an analysis could actually work in their favour. There is money in the kitty in the coming years, lots of it. Something for everyone At least that is what the CPB’s latest economic forecast tells us. This can be seen as a baseline measurement for the elections: how would the economy fare if policies remain the same? These data matter to election programme writers because it shows how much room there is for extra spending and tax relief. It turns out there is quite a bit of room. After years of cutbacks and tax increases the budget is looking very healthy. It’s so healthy in fact that the Netherlands will meet all European budget rules in 2021. The budget deficit will become a budget surplus and public debt will go down to under 60% of GDP. Other requirements, for instance regarding the structural deficit and increases in public spending, are within the boundaries as well. That gives left-wing parties an opportunity to come up with plans to tackle income inequality while right-wing parties can tout tax relief. There’s something for everyone. How to spend €27bn So how much can the parties bet on their various hobby horses? It’s not easy to say. It all depends which budget rules you want to continue to meet. I will try anyway. Officially, the structural deficit in 2021 cannot exceed 0.5% of GDP. According to the CPB we will be looking at a 0.1% surplus. The resulting margin is 0.6 % or some €5bn for new policies. That is something but it gets better. Taking into account the maximum allowed collective spending increase of 0.9% a year, the government can spend as much as an extra €24bn in 2021. The deficit will go up but will stay under the 3% limit. To reach that limit spending can go up to €27bn. That would worry Brussels a little but not enough to dole out a fine. The sweet shop is open for business. The billions are there for the spending. What politician is going to resist? The analysts at the CPB are rolling up their sleeves as we speak. This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad   More >


The Ukraine referendum is cynical, manipulative and one we should boycott

The Ukraine referendum is cynical, manipulative and one we should boycott

The Ukraine referendum is cynical, manipulative and all about fake democracy - so not something we should be voting in, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. Tomorrow (April 6) the Dutch will be able to vote in a referendum on the EU's treaty of association with Ukraine. The vote is only open to Dutch nationals and the result of the referendum is only advisory – and it won’t have any official weight unless 30% of the electorate turn out. The Netherlands has, after all, already said it backs the treaty. So what is tomorrow’s vote really all about? The referendum on Ukraine is not about the treaty. It is about testing Dutch public opinion on the EU in general.  The campaign for a referendum was driven by anti-EU campaigners who have admitted they want to put pressure on the relationship between the Netherlands and the EU and deliberately looked for an issue they could use. Don’t care ‘We really don’t care about Ukraine, you need to understand that,’ Arjan van Dixhoorn, professor of history at Utrecht University College Roosevelt and chairman of the Burgercomite EU, told the NRC newspaper last week. ‘We waited two years for the referendum law to come into force,’ said committee member Pepijn van Houwelingen who works for the government’s social policy unit SCP. ‘We checked what laws and international treaties could meet the referendum requirements… Then we realised the Ukraine treaty, which had been an issue for years, was a potential referendum subject.’ Taxpayers’ money And all this time we have been thinking it’s about Ukraine. That this was the reason Ukrainian students and dozens of others have been over here campaigning. That this is why thousands of words have been written and millions of euros of taxpayers’ money have been spent. No. The reality is that a bunch of smart arses with government-funded jobs thought it a good idea to force a referendum on something which has already been decided. No doubt these same people will shortly rev up a campaign for votes for a real Nexit referendum. It is nasty and manipulative – a prank pulled by arrogant, clever people who refused to appear on the NRC’s photograph and said they did not want their jobs made public because they are acting in a private capacity. No, I don’t think they should get into trouble at work because of their actions, but I do think they should have the guts to show their faces to the world. Toilet paper As someone who has paid taxes in the Netherlands for 30 years but has no vote, I am outraged that my money is being so cynically used: that the referendum committee approved some idiot’s application to spend nearly €50,000 printing toilet paper with anti-Ukrainian statements. That private companies were given similar amounts to hand out biscuits to members of the public. This referendum is about fake democracy and, by voting in it, we are perpetuating the myth that there is some kind of check over the excesses of government and giving credence to the deliberate manipulation of millions of people. We should not be playing into the hands of the people who made this referendum a reality, even if over 400,000 people signed a petition to make sure it was held. If we want to debate a Nexit, let us do it openly and honestly, not by the back door and by wasting taxpayers’ money. This referendum is part of a cynical game. We should not give it the 30% turnout its supporters need.  More >


The lost years: the state has failed to combat terrorism

The lost years: the state has failed to combat terrorism

The state has failed to come up with a convincing counterstory to terrorism, says professor of jurisprudence Paul Cliteur. Perhaps one of the most remarkable facts to emerge from the confusion surrounding the attacks in Brussels is that very few people regard this as a failure on the part of the state. But that’s exactly what it is, isn’t it? Why else do we have states? A state is an organisation which purports to protect its citizens from each other and from attacks by other states. This primary function of the state is called the ‘monopoly on violence’. The state disarms its citizens, puts in place a system of law enforcement and a judicial system and arbitrates in conflicts. But since 9/11 and the many attacks that came in its wake it is starting to look as if the state is incapable, unwilling or not intending to take on this role. Politicians talk about terrorist attacks as if they are a natural phenomenon, something you can show your sadness about in a march or by burning a few candles, but never as administrative failures on their part. If president Hollande can mobilise 70,000 police officers on January 6, why were there only two guarding the premises of Charlie Hebdo on February 4? And why, after almost 30 years, is Salman Rushdie still having to move from place to place like a hunted animal? It seems as if the state thinks the attacks will stop by themselves if you don’t dig too deeply into their root causes. And the cause is a way of thinking. What the Kouachi brothers, Coulibaly and Abdelslam have in common is a set of ideals. Call it ‘religion’, an ‘ideology’ or a combination of the two. Whatever we call it, it’s clearly not going away by not paying attention to it. You could put it like this: the state has not developed a ‘cultural counterterrorism’ offensive to any great extent. On the contrary, politicians think (are convinced even) that it would do no good and even be counterproductive (‘attitudes would become even more entrenched’). And so the market is deluged with propaganda celebrating armed struggle in far-flung countries without any convincing counterstory from the state; one that features democracy, the state of law, human rights, and life in a world where it’s normal to read books with images of every god and prophet this world has ever known. Of course attackers have to be tracked down, prosecuted and sentenced. And of course geopolitical factors come into play. But terrorism is also a way of thinking, a mindset that has to be analysed by looking at its religious-ideological basis. That hasn’t happened in the last 15 years. That is why these years are lost years in terms of combating terrorism. Perhaps Brussels will be the wake-up call and things will change. ‘Oh holy Socrates, pray for us,’ Erasmus said, and pray we should for that change to come about. This is a short version of the annual Socrates lecture organised by the Dutch Humanist Association        More >


Dutch elite forfeits moral leadership (but hangs on to its second homes)

Dutch elite forfeits moral leadership (but hangs on to its second homes)

The Dutch elite has lost its moral leadership, writes political scientist Meindert Fennema. In an interview with writer and historian Geert Mak in Belgian newspaper De Standaard, the interviewer refers to the fact that in 1956 Geert’s father took in Hungarian refugees. Geert says he has fond memories of those refugees. The interviewer then asks him if he would do the same for Syrian refugees. ‘Well,' Geert says, ‘my father did have quite a big house.’ And hesitantly he adds, ‘if needs must, I would.’ I think the biggest difference between Geert Mak and his father is not the size of their homes. Geert’s father was a clergyman in a different era. That is where the crucial difference lies. Suicides in asylum seeker centres Until the seventies refugees were housed by private individuals, with the Church or the Red Family as intermediaries. In the nineties, solidarity became a matter for the government. When I called the vicar of Bloemendaal the other day, I asked him if his church was doing anything for the refugees. He was very candid and said: ‘No, but it’s a jolly good idea. It hadn’t occurred to me.’ These days refugees are no longer the responsibility of the church but of the COA, a professional organisation whose director earned, until recently, a salary well over the ‘Balkenende norm’ (a cap on salaries in the public sector, DN). Two weeks ago I went to see Majtaba Jalali at the asylum seeker centre in Alphen aan den Rijn, which houses 1,100 young men in a former prison, all perfectly organised. The only difference with the prison next door is that the prison doors in the prison used to house the refugees aren’t locked and that the number of suicides is appallingly high. Someone tried to kill himself only last Saturday. Ambulances are a regular feature. A status holder in my garden The mark of a professional organisation is that it likes to monopolise its services. That’s true for the COA but also for refugee organisation Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland. When I rang Vluchtelingenwerk Bloemendaal to ask them if I could house a status holder (someone with a temporary residence permit, DN) in the house in my garden, they said: ‘We would advise against it. These people are often very traumatised. It will be problematic.’ In the end my wife and I managed to find an asylum seeker but it was a long road that took us via the ‘een gastgezin voor een vluchteling’  (a foster family for a refugee, DN) site to the ChristenUnie. The ChristenUnie still offers practical solidarity and moral leadership. But it’s parish is diminishing. Our tolerance may have increased over the last 60 years but we have outsourced our solidarity to the government. And the government in its turn is offloading the refugees on the people living in Groningen or Drenthe, the Veluwe, Brabant, Limburg, Steenbergen and Alphen aan den Rijn. Any protests from these people are labelled an annoying form of xenophobia. Historian and commentator Maarten van Rossem, who lives in a posh house in Utrecht and has never seen a refugee in the flesh in his life, called the protesters idiots and fascists. Second homes for refugees Five months ago I called on all second home owners (some 500,000) to make their second homes available to house asylum seekers. 100,000 second homes could see 200,000 to 400,000 extra refugees housed without costs. I received one spontaneous reaction. It was from someone from a famous Labour party family. She emailed to say: ‘I wouldn’t wish it on any refugee to live in the remote French countryside. You can’t get anywhere without a car, people there are very xenophobic, services are few and far between and the house is very difficult to heat in winter.’ My answer to her was: ‘I didn’t mean your third home but your second home, here in Noord-Holland.’ I haven’t heard from her since. The Dutch elite has lost its moral leadership. The people are left without counsel and turn away from reason. This article is based on a speech given by Meindert Fennema at the Stadsschouwburg debate Wat er op het spel staat! (What is at stake!) in Amsterdam on March 21  More >


Shortage of programmers and engineers will push up wages

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

‘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 >