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


‘The freelancer is a weed to be exterminated’

The self-employed are a weed that must be exterminated as soon as possible and the Christian Democrats have found a way of doing so, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. Employers and workers are currently involved in a top-level debate about the scourge of our times: the self-employed or zzp’er. This pernicious weed is threatening to stifle everything trade unions and employers’ organisations have built together. The zzp'er is a duplicitous so-and-so who puts on his entrepreneurial hat when it suits him only to morph into an employee when that is more convenient. He won’t pay WW (unemployment) or WIA (long-term disability) premiums but insists on a fat tax break nevertheless. He dodges the terms of the collective labour agreement but feels entitled to the funds set aside for training in his sector. He uses one hand to grab whatever he thinks the tax office should give him while steering his heavily subsidised Mitsubishi Outlander with the other. Zzp’ers are scroungers who are undermining the solidarity which is keeping our country afloat. Hostage-takers As if that weren’t enough, they are also holding the cabinet hostage. To the VVD, the zzp’er presents himself as a tough entrepreneur capable of looking after himself. A few doors down, at the offices of the PvdA, he plays the down-trodden wage slave who has no social rights at all. The confusion caused by this has thrown the cabinet into total policy paralysis. The zzp’er looks on and smiles. But there is hope for the Netherlands yet. Last week the Financieele Dagblad reported that Sybrand Buma has come up with a cunning plan. The CDA leader wants to kill two birds with one stone and tackle both the tax break for zzp’ers and the sick pay scheme for workers. Scrapping the tax break would be good news for workers who would no longer face competition from collective labour agreement dodgers. Scrapping the current sick pay scheme would be good for employers who would see a reduction in labour costs. Then employers’ and unions will meet in a conference room at the premises of the government advisory body SER  (zzp’ers are not invited) and before you can say ‘weed killer’ an agreement will be made. Brilliant It’s brilliant in its simplicity. A simple exchange of interests prevents SER from having to worry too much about the future of the Dutch labour market, social security reforms or a modern labour contract. In 2010, when SER was pondering the pesky matter of zzp’ers in a report, it had already concluded that there was no cause for a fundamental rethink of labour relations, the tax system and the social system. The collective sigh of relief when SER penned that sentence could be heard throughout the polder. Let’s be perfectly clear about this: the rise of the zzp’er is definitely not a sign that labour market institutions need modernisation. Everything can remain as it was. If we simply scrap the tax break for zzp’ers and make them pay for a couple of compulsory insurances, the weeds will die all by themselves and then the polder garden will be neat and tidy once again. Mathijs Bouman is a self-employed journalist, who thinks irony is a great stylistic device. This column appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Dutch EU presidency: will Rutte show some guts?

Dutch EU presidency: will Rutte show some guts?

Will the Dutch presidency of the EU make a difference? D66 leader Alexander Pechtold and D66's parliamentary spokesperson on Europe Kees Verhoeven hope it will. But Rutte, they say, will have to show some guts. Sweden and Denmark are introducing passport controls which means open borders within the Schengen area are closing again. Poland adopted a media law which prevents public broadcasters from criticising the government. And if the EU doesn’t accept the four demands made by British prime minister David Cameron he will throw his weight behind a campaign for a Brexit at home. These are just some of the nationalistic tendencies shown by governments in the face of growing euro scepticism. It’s understandable when problems are not being solved. D66 wants to keep things simple: national governments tackle their own problems and problems which transgress borders must be dealt with on a European level. But government leaders have been reluctant to hand over national responsibilities. Even after the Paris attacks, the member states failed to agree on a compulsory sharing of information by their intelligence and security services. And even if far-reaching decisions are being made, their execution is a mess. Europe agreed to divide 160,000 refugees over the member states. Fewer than a thousand, i.e. less than 1%, have been accommodated so far. Impotence Governments are opting for impotence and it is tearing Europe apart. In order to preserve both the value and the values of a united Europe we must do our utmost to keep it intact. That is the main brief for the Netherlands now that it holds the EU presidency for the next six months. Prime minister Mark Rutte will have his work cut out. Never a fan of ideologies, he leads a divided cabinet with his customary mix of pragmatism and optimism. That may work for the Netherlands but in order to turn the European tide something else is needed: guts. It takes guts to go for a European way of tackling problems that transgress borders. It takes guts to make Europe stronger by handing over national competencies. It takes guts to make a stand against the populism of the polls and explain decisions to the voters in a way that is straightforward and honest. The next six months will show if this country has guts. And as the Netherlands is a small trading nation dependent on cooperation, open borders and a single market, what is good for Europe is good for us. Agreements What should the Netherlands be aiming for in the next months? Firstly, it should insist member states honour the agreements made about migration. In order to make the member states do what they promised - take in their quota of refugees and support Turkey and Lebanon financially – the Netherlands must lead by example. Wilders will blow his top but in this case it’s a matter of oncoming traffic showing us the way to go. Secondly, the Netherlands must initiate the creation of proper European border guard teams. Parliament has rejected three D66 proposals to this effect already. Many member states are uncomfortable handing over border control responsibility. The same is true about sharing intelligence information. This is not surprising in itself, but clinging on to a semblance of sovereignty will do nothing to solve the problems all member states are facing and neither will it mitigate people’s perfectly justified concerns. Energy imports Thirdly, the Netherlands must press for a European Energy Union. Yes, that means countries relinquish their national energy policy for a common energy grid. This will result in savings of €40bn and wider choice for European consumers. The European Union imports €400bn worth of energy which makes it the biggest energy importer in the world. Let’s harness that buying power and make ourselves less dependent on Russia and Saudi Arabia. Fourthly, the Netherlands should step in when member states fail to honour their commitments of treaties. The financial crisis has made it very clear how painful it is to be called to order. Just ask the Greeks. But the core values of the European Union, such as freedom of the press and equal treatment, justify such an unprecedented step. The Netherlands must support the European Commission to monitor Poland and its baffling media law. And prime minister Rutte will have to explain to his friend and colleague Cameron that Britain is going too far in its intention to exclude migrants from various social benefits. Finally, all this presupposes a radical reform of the present budget system. A European budget written in stone for seven years is not going to have any margin for change when change is needed. Will the Netherlands have the guts to build bridges in Europe and bring about solutions? Or will it falter in the face of the rising neo-nationalism and put Europe in reverse? It is up to prime minister Rutte. Alexander Pechtold is the leader of the Liberal Democratic party D66. Kees Verhoeven is an MP and the party's spokesman on Europe. This column was first published in the NRC.  More >


Three ways Dutch European summits are different

Three ways Dutch European summits are different

As hosts of the EU Presidency for the first half of 2016, the Dutch have already welcomed European leaders with skimpy blocks of cheese. And if the Dutch management style is anything like the catering, the EU may be in for another rude surprise. Greg Shapiro outlines three reasons why Dutch summit meetings are different. 1) How can you tell who’s in charge of a Dutch meeting? A – The one who’s most dominant. B - The one with the most expensive suit. C – The one who arrives by bike. ANSWER: C Most countries are rather hierarchical: the boss says it; you do it. Not the Dutch. Like their topography, Dutch management culture is flat as a pannekoek. Remember when the Dutch were occupied by the Germans, the French, the Spanish? No? Well the Dutch do. Ever since they revolted against the Spanish Catholics in the 1500’s, the Dutch don’t like taking orders from anyone. This still applies in many Dutch restaurants. 2) Which quote best sums up Dutch meetings? A – ’Since the Dutch are non-hierarchical, everyone gets to debate everything.’ B – ‘For most cultures, a decision is the end of the discussion. For the Dutch it’s just the beginning.’ C - ‘I know what we agreed at the meeting, but I had some new thoughts about the meeting, so I think we should have another meeting about the meeting.’ ANSWER: ALL OF THE ABOVE. European meetings sometimes end with ‘let’s agree to disagree.’ Dutch meetings are more like ‘let’s DISAGREE, to agree.’ There’s a phrase to describe Dutch meetings: Iedereen moet z’n plasje erover doen. Or: ‘everyone gets a chance to piss on your idea.’ It’s one thing for Brussels to have Manneke Pis; it’s another to act it out at every meeting. 3) Which phrase best describes the relationship of Dutch meetings to Brussels meetings? A – Dutch meetings are short; Brussels meetings are long. B – Dutch meetings are from Mars; Brussels meetings are from Venus. C – Dutch meetings are gezellig; Brussels meetings are blasé. ANSWER: B All summit meetings are a bit like sex. You have to seduce your negotiating partner. In that sense, Brussels meetings are more women-friendly: ‘How was your journey? How are you feeling? Would you like some warm food? Perhaps some wine? A conference room? Non! No one’s thinking about that right now. Have a chocolat. What’s the rush? Tell me, what’s on your mind? “Business,” you say? Oui, oui! Let me take you to my conference room…’ On the other hand, Dutch meetings are like foreplay for men: 'Here’s some coffee. Let’s get to business! Business! Business! (cheese sandwich) Business! Ahh… That was good business. Want a cigarette? The smoking area is outside. Doei!' For more insights on how Dutch Summits are different, watch Greg Shapiro’s United States of Europe. Greg Shapiro is the author of 'How to Be Orange’ and the upcoming ‘How to Be Dutch: the Quiz.’  More >


Robots are not going to steal jobs, they keep economists in work

Robots are not going to steal jobs, they keep economists in work

Economists aren't as gormless about robotisation as they used to be, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. Robots are not going to steal jobs, they are providing one for economists. After seven years of doom and gloom many economists are gagging for a subject which is not apocalyptic. Recession and unemployment do not put a spring in our step but robots do. It’s a lovely subject and there’s something for everyone: growth, productivity, distribution of income and the relationship between labour and capital. Economists, take your pick. That is why conferences on robots, which used to be all about the technology, are now frequently attended by economists. I went to one in Veldhoven last summer. On stage economists chatted happily about the pros and cons of robotics. The techno geeks in the audience looked crestfallen. What were they on about? One of them couldn’t restrain himself and called out in a German accent: ‘You don’t have a clue what a robot is!’ to the audible delight of the rest of the audience. Perhaps he was right. Economists don’t know much about technology. That is why they tend to underestimate the problems surrounding the development and implementation of robots and overestimate the rate at which the technology is progressing. But economists learn fast. Last month, two comprehensive studies into the economics of robot in the Netherlands were published. The scientific council for government policy WRR published ‘Robot de baas’ (Mastering the robot or The robot as master). There’s also ‘De match tussen man and machine’ published by the Dutch economists' association KvS, which includes a contribution by yours truly. Apart from the fact that both publications have ambiguous titles they also share a number of conclusions. The robots are coming and no one is going to stop them. But we won’t all lose our jobs. The developments will, however, impact on labour but not so quickly that society won’t have a chance to prepare for what will be a significant change. And if we’re smart about it robots will increase prosperity. There is reason for optimism but we can’t lean back and relax. There’s work to do. Education needs to be brought up to speed, with a clear focus on creativity and social skills. That is where man has the edge on the machine. I’m not going to give you a resumé of the reports. You can read them yourself. I recommend you pay close attention to a contribution by ING economist Marieke Bloem in the KvS book. She states that we should stop talking about ‘robots’. The technological changes will encompass much more than the mechanical men who come to steal our jobs. New technology won’t just change production it will change the products themselves, the needs of consumers and the markets where products and services are sold. See? Economists come in useful after all. This article was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


How much are we prepared to pay for drugs that fight cancer?

How much are we prepared to pay for drugs that fight cancer?

Trendwatcher Farid Tabarki wants politicians to decide what norms should govern the availability of life-extending cancer drugs. For sentient beings, people can be very illogical at times. I myself am a good example. For some months now I have been monitoring a stain on my ceiling. It’s growing, although no drops have fallen as yet. But calling in someone to repair what is undoubtedly a leak is still a step too far. Dilemma The treatment for cancer, the fear of modern, aging man ( a third of us will get it in some form), is subject to a similar dilemma. In a way both could be considered first world problems: the fact that you have a roof over your head forces you to get to grips with it leaking, while the fact that you will probably reach a fairly advanced age forces you to take into account that you might get cancer. This in itself is good news, and it gets better. According to René Bernards of the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital, individually adapted medication will be key in turning cancer into a chronic disease instead of a deadly one within 20 years. It will be expensive. But how deep is society prepared to dig to make it happen? The committee which recommends changes to the basic health insurance policy raised the alarm the other week. It said Pertuzumab, a drug used for the treatment of breast cancer, is too expensive. Women may gain an extra 16 months of life but the costs are too high. The determining factor is price per quality-adjusted life year (QALY), or the time gained measured against quality of life. Affordable Pertuzumab comes in at €150,000 per QALY, which is three times the norm in Great Britain. In the Netherlands there is no hard and fast cap on cost per QALY but a recent Dutch report speaks volumes: the Dutch see €50,000 per QALY as affordable. While that would be too much to pay to get my roof fixed,  I feel my health is worth the price. It’s time that political parties came up with a norm because that is something I would hate to leave to insurers or doctors, who, I’m sure, would rather not play arbiter themselves. Fortunately Dr Bernards is not sitting on his hands. He recently told television chat show De Wereld Draait Door he is going to manufacture cancer fighting drugs himself. I hope that means prices can come down! This article was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Change in the Netherlands is s-l-o-w

Change in the Netherlands is s-l-o-w

Shifts in official policy in the Netherlands take a long time but when a decision is finally made, it is not going to change, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. Change in the Netherlands is slow and sluggish. The process usually starts with a warning from experts that a certain situation could become untenable. It’s a phase that can last years. Then, slowly, the realisation takes hold that something should be done. The SER publishes a report and then the unions and employers lumber into action. They become deadlocked in ever-lasting negotiations. Every once in a while someone gets upset, organises a demonstration and leaves the negotiating table in a huff. But he will always return to the other barons and together they hammer out half a deal after which the politicians take over. The politicians wait for the elections so they can turn the accord into a policy during the cabinet formation. Cue some major concessions to iron out the differences and they’re on their way. After a couple of angry motions by MPs and some grumblings from the Senate, at long last we have a policy change. Compromise It’s an agonisingly slow process but it does have one advantage: the decision is set in stone. Everyone has put his oar in so a decision is irrevocable. It may be slow but it’s steady. Take the pension age hike. At the beginning of the nineties economists pointed at the aging population and said we needed to work longer. Everyone chewed on this for the next 20 years but in the end even the social conservatives of the SP and the PVV agreed to the hike. The PVV succumbed in 2010 when it supported the VVD-CDA cabinet and the SP in 2012 when a CPB report showed it too wanted to increase the pension age to 67. Two consecutive cabinets have now decided to increase the pension age. Both chambers have agreed to it. The consensus model has done it again – albeit even more slowly than usual. So forget the FNV’s call for a new early retirement plan. Ignore the false arguments which claim this will mean jobs for young people. Don’t pay attention to the polls that say the Dutch want to work fewer years. And don’t listen to the SP and PVV politicians who pretend to be in favour of lowering the pension age again. We are going to work longer. That’s a fact. It’s a decision, set in stone. No one is going to turn back the clock, not the FNV, not the SP and certainly not the PVV, no matter what they say. Everyone knows that a higher pension age is logical, reasonable and necessary. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad   More >


Housing students and start-ups: home is where the bath is

The Netherlands wants to encourage start-ups, keep its international students and be a magnet for global talent. But we seem to be incapable of coming up with a solution to the shortage of housing for people on lower incomes, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. One of the landmarks of being a parent is the day the last of your fledglings has flown. I’m not talking about the practically obligatory travelling in South America or Asia, but the bags and boxes in the hall which say your baby is off to college or university and, basically, won’t be coming back. It’s the time when you can finally pack up of those old mugs and plates you’ve been keeping for the kids, dig out the wrong coloured towels and start thinking about what you will do, one day, with their old room. No bath We got used to the new routine pretty quickly and look forward to our children’s visits, which consist of spending long periods in the bath – no bath at the student house – and eating take-aways in front of the telly. Student houses, in Holland at least, seem to be very strict about sit-down dinners at 7pm. Life rumbles on like this for a few years – more old bits of furniture head for Delft or Leiden – and then that awful day comes. Their degree course is coming to an end and they mention moving back in. Do not be flattered that they miss your cooking and your collection of bathroom lotions and potions. It’s just that, in the Netherlands, they don’t really have a choice. There is, in Amsterdam at least, no alternative. Scarcely a day goes by without housing and house prices being in the news in one way or another. And rental property for students, ex-students and all those youngsters working for start-ups – the ones the government is so keen to encourage – is non-existent, unless they are earning the sort of salary their parents are making. Low earners Dutch housing policy has for decades been skewed in favour of low earners and has created a generation of older tenants who have nice salaries but never moved from their cheap flat because no one ever asked them to. Today, 600,000 people are living in rent-controlled property that technically they earn too much to live in. The government has been trying to tackle this by allowing landlords to whack up the rents for people earning more than the rent-controlled threshold of €34,000 in the hope they will move out. But, so far, it has not worked. And why would you move when you’d be swapping your cosy little apartment that costs you no more than €710 a month for a cosy little apartment costing at least €1,000? The non-rent-controlled sector is, of course, an option. But what ex-student can afford to pay €1,000 a month for a tiny flat with one bedroom? Housing agencies and institutional investors frown on groups of youngsters so they can’t even share with a friend to pay the bills. Nor can they buy a place, unless they have rich parents who can help, because they have no savings and don’t meet official income requirements. So the students and the ex-students and the youngsters starting out on their career ladder are stuck. Some housing corporations and investors are waking up to the problem. Rochdale, for example, has devised a contract allowing a group of friends to share without meeting high salary expectations. Other initiatives like The Student Hotel offer a stop-gap for international students on generous grants and young professionals on short-term contracts, but are out of the financial reach of most Dutch students and people on minimum incomes. Single person units The government has launched an initiative to transform existing buildings, mainly surplus offices, into what it calls ‘residential units’. And Amsterdam is busy encouraging housing corporations and developers to build mini-homes for singles. One project just launched involves building hundreds of single person units of around 20 square metres in the west of the city. But rather than focus on building ever-smaller homes for single people, why not build homes with four or five bedrooms instead. They can be lived in by a group of friends, by students, by families and, when the population demographics change, by a group of elderly people with live-in carers. After all, in most countries, flat sharing when you are a student or starting out in your professional life is the norm. Anything, surely, is better than coming home to mum. A longer version of this column first appeared in the Xpat Journal  More >


You can’t come into the Netherlands via the Wildersdijk

You can’t come into the Netherlands via the Wildersdijk

Closing the borders to stop refugees coming to the Netherlands might be slightly more complicated than Geert Wilders thinks, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. Just in case nobody heard him, Geert Wilders said it again in parliament last month: the Dutch need to close their borders. Wilders has been saying this for some time and last month the PVV even started a flyer campaign to bring home the point. Bits of paper headed ‘Close the borders’ were handed out to the good people of Purmerend and Almere. The flyer sports a Dutch flag blowing in the wind, a typically Dutch windmill in a typically Dutch landscape and Geert Wilders leaning on a red-and-white barrier. We only see his upper half but we can be fairly sure he is wearing clogs and possibly a pair of typical Urker fisherman’s trousers. 'Mini Schengen' But not only the PVV dreams of closing the borders. The cabinet is thinking about a ‘mini Schengen’, comprised of Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany. A nifty solution because the Netherlands would continue to be free of outside borders. Let the Belgians and the Germans order the barriers and train the border guards, the cabinet thinks. That, too, is typically Dutch. At least Wilders is prepared to face the consequences of his actions. In an interview with the Algemeen Dagblad last month, the PVV leader when asked about the practical implication of these closed borders said: ‘Even if there are hundreds of border crossings, they can all be manned, by soldiers or military police.’ Rough estimate Hundreds of border crossings, Wilders says. That is a rough estimate indeed. It is to be hoped that any proposal to close ‘the borders’ is preceded by an analysis of exactly how much border we actually have. To close half of the border crossings would make little sense. It would create a lot of bother for ordinary citizens while the baddies can still sneak in undetected. Closing borders costs money. There are direct costs such as barriers and border police but also indirect costs for citizens and companies when people and goods are prevented from moving freely from country to country. How many border crossings does the Netherlands have then? I asked the customs office which resides under the finance ministry. It couldn’t tell me and I was directed to the transport ministry which didn’t know either. I was told to ask the infrastructure ministry but it hasn’t come back to me yet. DIY border crossing counting I decided to count them myself. I used Google maps to make a detailed search for border crossing roads and minor roads, Google Earth in case of doubt and Google Street View to see what the border crossing looked like from up close. I’m sure I missed quite a few shortcuts and smuggling routes. And I may have included some that locals would tell me are no longer passable. But I still think my count is not too far off the mark. Recognisable borders People who want to enter the Netherlands have a choice of 354 roads, of which 11 are motorways. A fair number are main roads. But most are country paths, village roads or glorified tracks. The border with Belgium is hardly recognisable as such. All roads traverse it as if it weren’t there at all – which is, in fact, the case. A few lone white markers remind the traveller that there was once a border. The German border is much clearer: roads come to an end at both sides of the border. That is why the eastern side of the country has fewer border crossings than the southern side. The province of Limburg is the undisputed champion: I counted no fewer than 145 roads entering the country via this province. The Wildersdijk There’s the A4 or the A7 for instance. But you can also choose to come in via the Joys of Nature campsite near Offenbeel. Or the Koeweg near Boertange, although it’s no more than a track on the German side. You can also make your way through the maize fields, then cross the Retranchementstraat into Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. That is the westernmost border crossing. But whatever you do, don’t take the Wildersdijk (I’m not making it up) near Rekken in Gelderland. That path stops at the border. A typically Dutch farmer has closed off the Wildersdijk with a typically Dutch gate. This article was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Ready for action: campaigning for the rights of Dutch nationals abroad

Ready for action: campaigning for the rights of Dutch nationals abroad

Most EU countries today accept dual nationality as a practical consequence of globalisation and increasingly mobile people. The Dutch government, however, continues to fiercely resist this 21st century norm, writes campaigner Eelco Keij. The Dutch reluctance to embrace dual nationality is partly because of electoral fear (Geert Wilders' PVV is doing extremely well in the polls), partly because of a lack of understanding of the practical consequences for Dutch citizens abroad, and partly because of the lack of a strong lobbying organisation based in the Netherlands. The refusal to accept dual nationality, however, is not the only disadvantage faced by the Dutch who live abroad. Voting, pension regulations, Dutch education, the digital ID to communicate with the government, access to consulates and embassies: there are many ways the Dutch government does a fine job of making its own citizens feel second-hand and ignored. Structure There is another side to the coin. With between 700,000 and 1.2 million Dutch citizens living abroad - think 4% to 7% of the total Dutch population - one would expect some kind of existing structure to bridge these groups, at home and abroad. At least the government should be thinking about this. Why? Because the Dutch people abroad constitute strong economic added value to the Dutch treasury, every year. There is a clear correlation between the geographical location of (many of) the Dutch abroad on the one hand, and the international resources coming in from those countries on the other. Moreover, Dutch citizens abroad are usually skillful people with a story to tell - they are often adventurous, intelligent and/or fell in love with somebody somewhere else, and decided to leave the homeland. Their offspring often speak different languages and have travelled extensively from a young age. In other words, they would be an interesting asset for the Dutch economy. Added value In Europe, several countries have recognised the added value of their citizens who live abroad and have started forming different kinds of structures to keep them on board and to make use of their connections and skills. Some countries, such as France and Portugal, even went as far as to introduce seats in parliament specifically for their citizens abroad. How different this all is compared to the Netherlands, where even a normal 21st century standard such as dual nationality is seen as a potential threat. Indeed, neither previous Dutch governments nor the current one intend to change one bit - they make that very clear, whenever asked. The Dutch abroad need to take things into their own hands: they need to create an organisation that represents their interests, while being able to lobby MPs, cabinet members and policy makers alike. And that is exactly what we have done with the announcement of a new single issue organisation to work on behalf of Dutch expats. We opted for Zurich to reflect the success of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) which was founded way back in 1916 and now represents 750 Swiss organisations in other countries. Main tasks The main tasks of the new interest organisation Nederlanders Buiten Nederland will be to: 1 Provide relevant information to both emigrating and emigrated Dutch citizens, connecting them to the right agencies; e.g. on nationality law, pensions, accessibility of embassies and consulates, Dutch education abroad and voting rights - possibly with its own magazine. 2 Become a powerful lobby force toward legislators/parliament on behalf of Dutch citizens abroad (appointing somebody who is physically present in The Hague). 3 Construct and maintain a database of Dutch citizens abroad, so that they can be reached promptly and efficiently whenever needed. 4 Set up and maintain an internet forum where Dutch citizens abroad can share their experiences and ask questions. 5 Operate as a bridge between Dutch citizens abroad on the one hand and government and industry on the other. 6 Encompass an organising function for (the children of) Dutch citizens abroad; e.g. summer camps and exchange projects. 7 Set up a physical office where Dutch citizens abroad can go whenever they are visiting the Netherlands. It is only by joining forces and emphasising the benefits Dutch citizens abroad bring to the Netherlands that we can fight for treatment that is fair and equal, and accords with today's globalised world. Eelco Keij is a former parliamentary candidate for D66 and lived in New York for almost 10 years. He is the author of Fortunate Connections, a political manifesto on the economic added value of the Dutch abroad.   More >


Commissie Stiekem – much ado about nothing

Home affairs minister Ronald Plasterk is not being honest about his dealings with parliament's security committee over the NSA leaks, writes Nicola Chadwick Many would say politicians are notorious for lying. Being married to one, I wouldn’t like to go that far. However, they do have a habit of omitting, framing, burying and twisting the truth. In Dutch politics, it is a mortal sin to misinform or lie to parliament. So when Edward Snowden revealed that 1.8 million pieces of data on Dutch telephone calls were passed on to the US, home affairs minister Ronald Plasterk asked the two Dutch intelligence agencies, the AIVD and its military counterpart the MIVD, whether they had been the source of the data. On hearing ‘negative’, Plasterk appeared on the evening news in October 2013 to express his horror that the privacy of Dutch citizens was being violated by US agencies. Only to hear a couple of months later that it was, in fact, a third institution, a combined AIVD and MIVD committee known as the CIVD, which had collected and passed on the information. This is the moment an upstanding politician should come clean and admit he had been poorly informed himself. If he had done that he would have faced severe criticism: shouldn’t a minister know what is going on within his own ministry? And besides, he had already spoken on the issue in the Lower House, and therefore inadvertently he’d misinformed parliament. Face-saving scheme So what does Plasterk do? He goes to parliament's security committee, nicknamed the Commissie Stiekem (secret committee). The Commissie Stiekem was set up to enable state and security secrets to be revealed to parliamentary party leaders without making them public in parliament. It was never meant as a face-saving scheme for politicians who had failed to get to the bottom of the matter. Once something has been revealed in the secret committee it is a criminal offence to tell anyone outside the committee. Of course, as these things do, the facts came to the surface and a debate was eventually held in parliament in February 2014, during which the opposition supported a motion of no confidence against Plasterk. The matter would then have gone away, had it not been for a report in the NRC newspaper that in fact the parliamentary leaders had already been informed that the Netherlands’ own agencies had passed on the data. The fact that the NRC knew this meant someone had leaked. Whodunit Now the race is on in the media to find out who. Labour party leader Diederik Samsom seems the most likely candidate, but what about Christian Union MP Arie Slob – wasn’t it a bit strange that he left parliament so suddenly? However, the sneakiest role is played by VVD leader Halbe Zijlstra, who declined to give Plasterk permission to reveal he had actually informed the parliamentary leaders. When it turned out someone had leaked, it was Zijlstra who secretly filed a complaint with the public prosecution department, knowing full well it would be much ado about nothing and may well cost someone his or her, no probably his, political career. If Plasterk thought this matter was so important he had to go live on the NOS news to speak out against the US blatantly violating our privacy, why did he not find it equally important to inform citizens of the Dutch kingdom that it was actually its own security agencies that had collected the information on behalf of the US secret service NSA? And wasn’t it paramount to rectify the matter for the sake of restoring relations with our allies, the US, after it had been wrongly blamed for collecting the data without the knowledge of the Dutch authorities? Mission impossible According to newspaper reports, it took the public prosecutor one and a half years to find out that 'one or more members of the CIVD have come into the picture with regard to the possible leaking of information'. Now a group of MPs has to investigate the matter in just three months. What’s more the names of the suspects will remain unknown to the committee investigating the case. Wait a minute. Isn’t that a mission impossible? Oh, but they are only investigating whether or not the case should be prosecuted – not who should be prosecuted. More a who-cares than a whodunit. In the light of the attacks in Paris, this matter seems even more trivial than it already was. Not a single Dutch citizen cares about who leaked, but they should care when a politician misuses a political instrument to cover up his own failings. Not to mention the severity of this kind of data being passed on by our own security agency. Plasterk survived Plechtold’s motion and promised honesty next time he is in the wrong. However, this may have become a matter of principle: if it is up to Zijlstra someone’s head should roll and it could be his coalition counterpart. Nicola Chadwick is a freelance translator/journalist/editor who regularly blogs on Dutch current affairs and politics. This column was first published on her blog Amsternic.  More >