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


How much more in your pocket? Down with purchasing power predictions!

How much more in your pocket? Down with purchasing power predictions!

There they are again: the spending power predictions. Don't you believe them, says economist Mathijs Bouman. Crack open the beer, we’re having a party. Next year spending power is up by 1.5%. For a while it looked as if the meter would get stuck at 1.3% but in an ultimate pre-budget day effort the government cranked it up by means of a number of measures. What these measures are we do not know – I’m guessing it will be something to do with a slight increase of the tax break for the elderly and some extra allowances for people on minimum incomes – but we do know they mean an extra 0.2 % to spend. This is important for people on benefits and pensioners in particular, because the gap between these groups and those in work is in danger of getting larger. The economic upturn means a healthy rise for the latter, and the government undoubtedly had to tug the national duvet quite rigorously to smooth the creases of injustice. But it worked: according to the calculations of the CPB everyone will be tucked in warm and snug. Almost everyone will be better off and both pensioners and people on benefits will share in the bounty generated by a reviving economy. Moaning economists So is everybody happy? No. A handful of economists are pointing and waving frantically but cannot prevent an oblivious government from walking into the trap that is the spending power projection. Instead of a proper fiscal and economic policy to consolidate prosperity it is once again about niggly little percentage points for some group or other. The cake is divided fairly but no one is worried about the size of the cake. The result of the Dutch fixation on these projections is sub-optimal policy which is turning the population into a permanently surly mob. What we should do is agree is to do without a single purchasing power projection for an entire cabinet period. My prediction is that policy will improve and people will be less dissatisfied. Artificial story Spending power projections do not tell the real story. They tell of an artificial The Netherlands with 10,000 virtual Dutch people who all live in the CPB’s central computer. The predictions about the economy and the policies hammered out by the politicians are applied to these imaginary people. So if the CPB says ‘purchasing power will go down’ it is talking about the purchasing power of these non-existent digital households. It gets worse: it is actually only talking about one of these households. The CPB is reporting the ‘median’ purchasing power, i.e. the percentage of the middle households if you put all 10,000 virtual household in a line from low to high. MPs will spend a whole day debating the merits of the budget based on this single, virtual household. I could think of more useful ways of spending that time. Of course, the CPB is open about the limitations of its calculations but in politics such nuances are ignored completely. Real spending power There will be no mention during the debates of the difference between the statistical purchasing power calculated by the CPB and the dynamic purchasing power which is what people are experiencing in real life. The CPB takes it as given that workers will stay in work and that the unemployed stay unemployed. Only changes in wages, prices, benefits, and government policy are thrown into the calculation mix. It is estimated that next year some 125,000 people will find a job. But the accompanying rise in income is nowhere to be found in the static purchasing power projections of the CPB. Neither are promotions (and the rise in wage that implies) which increase as the economy improves. The national statistics office CBS includes these data in their historical purchasing power figures. Their chart shows that the real (‘dynamic’) purchasing power almost always pans out better than the static predictions of the CPB. Looking back at the static CPB figures we are led to believe that we are always getting less. Way to keep the population happy. Making purchasing power projections is silly. They don’t tell the truth, are unreliable and are keeping people ignorant and angry. Let’s pack it in. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Staffing agency exploitation is the other side of the benefit fraud scandal

Staffing agency exploitation is the other side of the benefit fraud scandal

Last week, the Dutch media was full of a new scandal, which they dubbed 'the Polish fraud'. But the expose only covered part of the story, and the real scandal is going unmentioned, says Malgorzata Bos-Karczewska, editor of Polonia.nl. Social affairs minister Wouter Koolmees wants to come down hard on Polish fraudsters, who are claiming unemployment benefit while living back home in Poland.  He is, of course, totally justified in doing so, but in essence it is not enough. Why? Because the way temporary employment agencies operate is pushing Polish workers into unemployment and forcing society to foot the bill. Instead of focusing on the symptoms, the minister would do better to eliminate the root cause of this particular ill. The Netherlands is sloppy when it comes to its treatment of other EU country workers. The Poles, so beloved of employers for their capacity for hard work, are ending up on unemployment benefits by the thousands each year at the expense of the taxpayer. Cheap labour Poles come to the Netherlands to work. If there is no work, go home, they are told. There is work of course, but not for people who want to build a career. The demand is for flexible, cheap labour. And if that means taking advantage of unemployment benefits at the same time, so be it. According to figures from the CBS's Migrant Monitor, some 14,110 Poles living in the Netherlands received unemployment benefits in 2015, a big increase compared to the 5,670 Polish claimants registered in 2012. How many are tied up in the new scandal is unknown, but the Dutch media spoke of 'thousands'. Around 80% of Polish migrant workers are taken on by temporary employment agencies. And thanks to flexible contracts, it is very easy to ditch them when the work runs out, or if a worker becomes too lippy (complaints about bad and expensive housing, wages and deductions). If you wonder why employment agencies are complaining about the lack of Polish workers: now you know. The benefit route So here's where it gets complicated. Some 70% of Polish workers are in phase A, the first phase of the staffing agencies’ (ABU) collective labour agreement for temporary workers. Phase A lasts 78 weeks and during this time workers have minimal protection. Poles usually work on short-term contracts (ranging from a single week to a couple of months) or on a temporary contract which ends automatically once the client stops hiring or if the worker falls ill. Temporary employment agencies have a motive to sack people after six months because they don't have to pay any pension premiums. In the meantime, each EU worker builds up the right to three months of unemployment benefits, providing 26 of the last 36 weeks were spent in work. Many employers want to prevent workers entering the more expensive phase B because it means a minimum pay-out of 90% of wages if there is no work to be done. A temporary worker who has worked for two years or longer also has a right to financial compensation if the work runs out. Dismissal law But the pay and conditions deal has the solution to their problem. If the time between contracts is exceeds six months (three months for seasonal jobs) the worker starts from scratch, back at phase A. The trick is to force Polish workers to go on the dole for an extended ‘holiday’ of six (or three) months. Once the six months are up the Poles can come back to work, where they will begin from scratch with a six month contract which puts them back in phase A. And so the cycle continues: end of contract, benefits, ‘holiday’. Polish workers remain stuck in phase A, do not build up rights and are relegated to the benefit system at the expense of the taxpayer. Such is the business model of temps agencies. Cost of living A cynic would say that unemployment benefits offer some compensation to Poles who are being exploited by opportunistic agencies. After all, the cost of living is cheaper and many Poles choose to spend their enforced ‘holiday’ in Poland. And of course, many may have nowhere to live anyway when the work is done because their housing is part of the job. This is, of course, no justification for breaking the law. But it does highlight the double standards. The other day I met a Pole who was fired from one day to the next. The work, in horticulture, wasn’t too bad, he said, but he couldn’t say the same thing for the temps agency. Self-regulation He asked me why the Dutch government seems to be so reluctant to get tough on these agencies. I told him that unfortunately he was at their mercy. They don't need an official licence to operate and the government inspectors are overwhelmed with cases. Of the 20,000 temporary employment agencies operating in the Netherlands, only a quarter has an SNA certificate. The rest are not interested in self-regulation. All this could change if the government and public opinion realise that temps agency practices are deliberately putting Poles on the dole. There is more stake here in financial terms than simply catching fraudsters. It is time to clean up the temporary employment agency sector. Malgorzata Bos-Karczewska is an economist, journalist and the editor of Polonia.nl the website for Polish nationals in the Netherlands. This article is also published in the Volkskrant (Dutch) and on Polonia.nl (Polish).  More >


Enough of out-of-court settlements, put bankers in the dock

Enough of out-of-court settlements, put bankers in the dock

Banks that settle scandals out of court continue in their wicked ways. Instead, they should be hauled before a judge so justice is seen to be done, says economist Mathijs Bouman. But Mr Hamers, how do you explain the fact that your own computer system was programmed deliberately to limit alarm signals over possible money laundering practices to three times a day? The public prosecutor gazes at the ING boss Ralph Hamers for a long time before adding: ‘And how could it be that your bank – in spite of repeated warnings by supervisors – simply refused to set aside extra money to comply with the legal obligation to prevent money laundering? Answer me that, Mr Hamers, if you can.’ Coming soon to a court near you? No, unfortunately. ING ‘forgot’ to properly monitor account holders’ money laundering practices but will not be held accountable in court. The public prosecution office decided to settle for an amount totalling €775m. It’s the toughest settlement ever and it will hurt. But I would rather have had a court case in which guilt and retribution could have been discussed for all to witness. Risk Wilfred Nagel, the ING’s chief risk officer between 2011 and 2017, would have been in the dock as well. We know Nagel as a man who can be vehement in his defence of the banking sector in the public debate. That is very brave of him and makes him popular with journalists as many bankers are less than communicative. He is, then, the very man to explain to the judge – and the rest of the country – how a systemically important bank such as ING could have strayed so far from the straight and narrow. Perhaps the public prosecutor could have reminded him of the first paragraph of the Compliance Risk Management Charter so prominently displayed on the IBG website: ‘ING is committed to the preservation of its reputation and integrity through compliance with applicable laws, regulations and ethical standards in each of the markets in which it operates.’ Please explain the gaping abyss between theory and practice, Mr Nagel. Guilty I am not out for anyone’s blood, that is not what it’s about.  But a public court case would result in clear norms visible to the whole of society. The bank must plead guilty, account for its actions and take responsibility. Settlements are too much like a tax on crime: just pay the government its due and carry on banking. In the wake of the credit crisis (when banks promised to clean up their act) one scandal followed another, from Libor and currency manipulation to interest swaps and from money laundering to sanctions evasion. Many cases were settled out of court. But clearly settlements are not enough of a deterrent. So can we have a proper reckoning next time, in court, so the government can show the public that breaking the law can never be a matter of business-as-usual. This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


‘Dutch people with different backgrounds are no longer timid newcomers’

‘Dutch people with different backgrounds are no longer timid newcomers’

The Netherlands is a pretty stable, well-integrated and prosperous country. So why do the white Dutch talk about the failed multi-cultural society? asks journalist and writer Hassnae Bouazza. The media and politicians have been banging on about it for over twenty years: the multicultural society has failed and we are living a multicultural nightmare. I have never understood the failed-multicultural-society mantra. You might as well say the sun has failed. The multicultural society is a fact and that’s it. Like any other society it has its share of friction, groups that get along or not. Put people together and this is what you get, regardless of background. We live in a pretty stable and very prosperous country and the only way you could cry failure is if society doesn’t live up to a preconceived ideal. If your idea of success is a society in which everybody thinks alike, loves the same things and laughs and cries at the same things it’s not society that has failed but your sense of reality that needs a check-up. While all this was going on and everyone with a non-native background was constantly being held responsible for this so-called failure, another drama unfolded, one that is becoming increasingly visible. It’s the tragedy of the native Dutch. Cohabitation Take actor Gerard Cox who complained to newspaper the Volkskrant that he doesn’t recognise his Rotterdam anymore because of all the non-white people milling around there. You would think that after 50 years of cohabitation with large groups of non-natives the ‘white native’ would be used to the presence of other cultures. Generations of Dutch people have grown up alongside communities with different cultural roots but, one way or another, the resentment towards them remained. And it’s becoming ever more visible. Foreign minister Stef Blok doesn’t mince words: according to him ‘man’ is genetically programmed to reject ‘the other’. You would hope that people who make such sweeping statements would be speaking for themselves alone. But Blok and Cox are no longer exceptions, they are the norm. Undiluted opinions You have only to look at the opinion pages and sites to see the sort of thing people are venting and that goes double for those who feel themselves safe on Twitter and Facebook. And they may not represent the real world but Twitter and Facebook do offer a window on the undiluted opinions that we see reflected in the election results. Here’s a small sample: this type of native Dutch person, sometimes lovingly called ‘the concerned citizen’ is adamant the borders should be closed to anyone but him. He wants to be able to live anywhere in the world without any obstacles put in their way, including pesky long queues at the border. How the latter can be achieved with those borders firmly closed is anyone’s guess. This same group of Dutch people is opposed to diversity, even if they themselves live abroad. The native Dutch person is in favour of freedom of speech. It’s a sacred right, as we have been told ad infinitum over the last decades. Some even argue for a right to offend, but here is where we run into a slight problem. That unlimited freedom of speech is limited, to the native Dutch. As soon as an imam wants to exercise the right, the law is changed especially for him so he can be prosecuted. Any non-white person who has a problem with that is told to piss off. Timid newcomers This concerned citizen also likes to tell women 'to get some dick' when they have a dissenting opinion. He threatens women whose opinion he doesn’t like with rape while at the same time criticising Islam because of the alleged misogyny of the religion. But this ‘dick caller’ will never call Islam a religion because his political leader says it’s an ideology and what he says goes. Concerned citizens love to put their noses in other people’s business. Women shouldn’t be allowed to wear a burkini but topless is a no-no too. Halal ritual slaughter should be banned but not factory farming. They don’t like Muslims but go on all-inclusive holidays to Turkey and Egypt. The native Dutch citizen expects his non-native countryman to participate but not too much and to tow the line and not get all cocky and criticise Zwarte Piet, or think of a career in politics. This is the native tragedy in a nutshell: ‘foreign’ is only accepted if you can chew on it or profit from it. All the native Dutch person is interested in is what he can get out of the multicultural society: good food, cheap labour, affordable pedicures. Then it’s back to the white bubble where white is might. Western discontent All this is part of a greater white western discontent. It explains the brutal rise of the extreme right in Europe and the USA. The white man, used to being top dog, is feeling threatened by ‘picaninnies’ and feminists, see extremists like Jordan Peterson and Steve Bannon. Bannon is even planning a European tour to lend a helping white hand. But you see, Dutch people with different cultural backgrounds are no longer the timid newcomers of 50 years ago. They have roots here and the Netherlands is their country. When once they had to content themselves with substandard jobs their integration (which they were so emphatically told to achieve) is now completed and they are fully paid up members of this society, despite the obstacles and racism they experience every day. And that is what makes the tragedy complete: the inability of white Dutch citizens to keep up in a changing world in which they are confronted with emancipated and successful people of colour who have made their way on their own merits and who will no longer be told that their identity is problematic. This column was first published on the lifestyle website Aicha Qandisha.  More >


How many people in uniform does it take to rescue a dead duck?

How many people in uniform does it take to rescue a dead duck?

How many people in uniform does it take to kill a duckling? In the case of the duckling born on top of a five-floor block in Amsterdam west, the answer is 13 – which was certainly unlucky for the bird itself. It all began when a neighbour alerted the animal ambulance people to the presence of a female mallard and one tiny duckling, which were stuck on the parapet, 20 metres up above a street in the 19th century zone. The duck had obviously given birth to her hatchlings somewhere on the roof but had now found herself on a narrow edge with no access to food or water for her brood. The animal ambulance people went up to the top floor flats armed with nets in an effort to catch the hapless family…. who of course did not want to be caught. Cage There was much too-ing and froo-ing and waving of arms and eventually the duckling  was caught – a tiny little thing which peeped plaintively as it was put into a cage and set on a table in the street. Mother duck was by this time frantic, flapping back and forth across the street looking for baby. Well, I say baby, but apparently there were two – and one duckling which had been spotted earlier in the afternoon, had completely vanished. Where ever could it be? We, the neighbours, the animal ambulance people scoured the plants in our geveltuintjes and looked under cars. There was a faint peeping sound. It appeared to come from our drain pipe. Peep The animal ambulance people got out a stethoscope and started listening at the pipe. They decided duckling had fallen in and was stuck in the bend at the top. We politely explained we were not that keen on having our drain pipe – which is fairly old and fragile – taken off to search for a day-old duckling – which of course immediately branded us as hideous animal killers. The animal ambulance people went into a huddle, refused to tell us what they were planning and called the fire brigade who turned up with not one, but two fire engines and nine firemen. Now, I should stay at this point I have always had a soft spot for firemen and in my days as a cub reporter would always volunteer to go out to fires so I could get to meet them. I’m afraid the squat little balding man with a big ego and a short fuse who refused to shake hands rather put me off. He told us that we could not stop him dismantling our drain pipe and - pompously - that the fire brigade is there for 'man and animal'. When we explained the drain pipe is old and could crack, he started waving around a very large and heavy wrench in a most menacing way. Police At that moment, two police officers arrived to order the crowds who had gathered in some numbers and were all filming the fire engine ladder which was by now up at the roof. The two firemen in the cage were pulling and shaking the drain pipe. We watched as they pulled off the top bit with the bend and found nothing. Gradually they came lower. Each piece of pipe was thoroughly inspected. Each was empty. Eventually they got down the wisteria, which winds its way around the pipe and, though still in bloom, was just over its best. As they started trying to peel it off, I lost my cool completely and shouted at the top of my voice; ‘My beautiful plant and all for a fucking duckling’. They did stop there… not because of my shouts but because the bottom piece of pipe  was dug into the ground. To get that out, they would have had to break open the street, and perhaps that was going just a tad too far for a duckling? They did open the drain for a check and put in a camera. Then, after more huddled conversation, they gave up. Orphan They attempted to put back the drain pipe but not very well and we are now in the middle of emergency repair and insurance claim chaos. The one duckling that was saved was taken off to the asylum as an unwilling orphan, leaving its panicky mother behind. And what happened to the other mystery duckling? Seems pretty obvious to us. If it was stuck in the pipe – and no-one knows for sure – when they started shaking the top, it probably dislodged and fell 20 metres to the ground, breaking its neck. In all the exercise took several hours, a hell of a lot of manpower, a lot of iphone storage space and god knows what the final bill will be… and all for a tiny duckling that will probably get eaten by water rats anyway. The irony being that those firemen accusing us of hating animals all probably went off home and tucked into a nice factory-farmed piece of pork or had a broodje kroket in the canteen. Hypocrisy at its finest.  More >


If salary shaming doesn’t work what will curb executive pay?

If salary shaming doesn’t work what will curb executive pay?

If salary shaming does not limit excessive executive pay, a link with workers’ pay will, write social psychologist Naomi Ellemers (Universiteit Utrecht) and organisational sociologist Rafael Wittek ­(Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) Executive pay levels at large companies frequently prove controversial. ING, Van Lanschot and Unilever have all come in for criticism recently for what is perceived to be the excessive remuneration of their CEOs. Perspectives on the subject vary. Politicians, concerned with public accountability, rely on the embarrassing effect of transparency. If top executives are shown to have much bigger pay packets than the workers, surely they will think again? Supervisory board members refer to the size and complexity of executive tasks. After years of modest pay increases it is high time salaries reflected CEOs’ time and trouble, they say. Economists in their turn point to the market: how are Dutch companies going to hold on to their top executives if not by paying them top whack? So who is right? One way of finding out what is really at the bottom of the huge increases in executive pay is to look at how pay levels have developed over the years and what drove the hikes. An analysis of data on top executive pay between 1940 and 2005 rules out market forces as a driver. It shows that periods of big pay rises do not coincide with any big lack of able executives. Neither can they be explained by a lack of supervisory tools to reel in excess growth. The opposite seems to be the case: as supervisory powers increased, so did top salaries. Executive pay rose much more than could be justified by the rate of inflation and increased cost of living. It is also far too big a leap to suppose that the success of a company depends on the efforts of a single person. Workers Studies have found that a number of external factors such as macro-economic developments are important determinants as well. However, big pay differences can have a detrimental effect on performance, for instance because workers feel they are being treated unjustly. The most likely explanation for ever fatter pay packets is the desire of top executives to distinguish themselves from their colleagues and the need of supervisory boards to express their faith in CEOs. Those are the social drivers behind the excessive executive pay packet. And these social drivers will only become stronger if top salaries are made public. So how to put the brakes on excessive pay? A simple measure would be to link top executive pay to wage developments within the company. No ‘accumulation’ but an annual percentage, in line with the rest of the staff. If staff wages don’t go up, neither does the CEO’s. This ties in top executive pay with company performance – a result to do with executive choices rather than shareholder value. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Column: Stef Blok backtracks but the damage has been done

Column: Stef Blok backtracks but the damage has been done

What will be the ramifications of foreign minister Stef Blok's comments on the multicultural society, asks Arend Jan Boekestijn, a former VVD MP and lecturer in international relations at Utrecht University A safe pair of hands, that is the image Stef Blok projected in the wake of the ludicrous and ego-inspired dacha affair which scuppered his predecessor Halbe Zijlstra’s career at the foreign office. A smaller ego was required and when Edith Schippers refused, Blok, after being wooed for some time, agreed to step into the breach. Devoid of any foreign office experience but capable of blending in at various ministries, he seemed a safe choice. Tricky Diplomacy can be a tricky business. In the absence of a world government nation states are sometimes hard put to defend their interests. In a world dominated by contradictions it takes tact and reason to get results. Blok’s controversial comments came when he attended a private meeting for people home from a stint of working for international organisations. But no meeting should be used as a launching pad for theories with no empirical evidence to support them. Blok doesn’t seem to think so. In 2010 Angela Merkel said the multicultural society failed because integration should not only be encouraged but enforced. Blok’s comments went much further. He doesn’t believe in assimilation. According to him there are no peaceful multicultural societies where the original population survives intact. At the meeting, where the audience were still under the impression that diplomacy thrives on tact and reason, jaws dropped. Blok’s comments are neither tactical nor reasonable. No one will deny that tensions exist in multicultural societies but examples of peaceful coexistence abound. Many European countries have issues to do with ethnicity but are largely peaceful. The same holds true for countries in Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania. For a Dutch citizen with a foreign background who is trying his utmost to find a job, Blok’s comments could be construed as not very encouraging at all. The work of our diplomats in peaceful multicultural countries won’t be made easier by them either. Had these comments come from Emmanuel Macron or Theresa May MPs they would have been called to account by their national parliaments forthwith. In this country written questions were submitted by the PvdA. Homogenous society Blok’s comments have other, potentially worrying implications. If there is no such thing as a peaceful multicultural society some might think it a good idea to promote a homogenous society. Regulation of the influx of immigrants makes sense but what to do with citizens with a foreign background? Blok seems to be embracing the integration pessimism ventilated by the PVV and Forum voor Democratie while ignoring the 2016 annual immigration report by CBS which sees much to be optimistic about. Besides, the alternative of a homogenous society comes with its own set of problems. In Japan, for instance, the realisation is dawning that the lack of cultural diversity may not be such a good thing after all. The salary man phenomena, where people dedicate their entire  lives to a single company at the expense of their individuality, may have turned Japan into an industrial giant but at the price of much-needed creativity and innovation. International businesses don’t opt for international teams to develop new ideas and products for nothing. The power of diversity is a given in the world of business. Apple, Google and Intel were all founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants and businesses know it. Failed state Blok went further still. He called Suriname a failed state and as if that wasn’t enough he blames this on the ethnic diversity of the country. There is much that can be said of Suriname and not all of it good but its government is successful in providing the population with the basic needs, hardly the hallmark of a failed state. Politics is indeed divided along ethnic lines but the tensions between groups seldom erupt into violence. Then Blok turned his attention to eastern Europe. These regions are unlikely to take in refugees, he claimed. He is probably right, but this cabinet’s policy is nevertheless aimed at this being the case. Blok not only broke up the integrity of the cabinet policy but also undermined the EU’s bargaining power when it comes to negotiations with eastern Europe. The job description of a foreign minster does not include undermining diplomacy and the ambitions of minorities. Fortunately the minister backtracked on his comments. But the damage, both here and abroad, has been done. This column was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Leave the European Union? Here are three lessons for Nexiteers

Leave the European Union? Here are three lessons for Nexiteers

    People in the Netherlands who support the idea of a Nexit need a few lessons in reality, writes macro-economist Mathijs Bouman. They really do exist, the Dutch politicians who look at the UK and think: now why can’t we do that. Political chaos, ministers stepping down in droves, parties split down the middle, companies preparing to leave, the economy on hold and a derailed social debate. Exactly what the Netherlands needs. ‘We want a NEXIT referendum, just like the UK,’ writes a new political party which has already collected some 13 seats in the polls. ‘It’s time to put an end to monetary union, close the borders and leave the EU.’ Another party (or should I say ‘movement’) which has been in parliament a little longer and has become the second most popular party in the country is even more succinct: ‘Make the Netherlands independent again. Leave the EU’. Lessons That, at least, is what they wrote in their one page election programme last year. A supporting tweet from the party leader read ‘THE NETHERLANDS MUST BE OURS AGAIN’- in capitals in case you are hard of hearing. It is to be hoped that both the party and the movement are studying the present situation in the UK so we can profit from their findings once we get our very own Nexit. Here’s a few lessons they could already learn. Efficient Lesson 1: the EU is an efficient negotiating machine. It is holding on to its principles with an iron discipline. Rights of EU citizens are not simply bargained away at the whim of a departing member state. There will be no ‘cakeism’ when it comes to the free movement of goods, services and people. How’s that for a totally undemocratic, money wasting, dictatorial organisation made up of greedy incompetents from southern countries with a minority complex. Nobody can explain how the EU is coming out of these negotiations looking efficient, predictable and true to its principles. Lesson 2: Don’t take the helm yourself. Let the politicians who prefer to remain in the EU do the dirty work. This we learn from the failed attempts by David Davis and Boris Johnson to take the wheel. It’s much easier to get things done by putting out a one-liner or two. Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage was clever enough to leave the political stage immediately after the referendum so he could roar his comments from the side line with clean hands. Take a page out of Farage’s book! Referendum Lesson 3: This is the most important lesson of all: make sure you lose the Nexit referendum, preferably by a large margin. Because what you have been promising the public is patently untrue. A complete break with the EU with its improvised deals undermining every rule and principle of the union at a huge economic and social cost is not even possible in theory. All you have to do is look at the UK to see how it’s panning out in practice. This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


The changes to the 30% ruling are foolish

The changes to the 30% ruling are foolish

Dutch tax minister Menno Snel should resign because of the incompetence he has shown with his plans to cut the 30% ruling for current cases, says expat Jay Henning. Anyone familiar with tax will know that retrospective changes to tax law are taboo, as it creates a climate of uncertainty which puts off investment and long term planning.  But that does not seem to apply to the 30% ruling, which the Dutch government is cutting from eight to five years, with no transition period. So what has been the reaction to the plan? It has been massive and unanimous – the government can make the change but absolutely should not apply it retrospectively.   PwC, tax advisors, legal firms, trade unions, the American and German chambers of commerce, they all offered opinions on this with the same message. Major technology companies such as booking.com and TomTom explained how this would be traumatic and disruptive for their staff, and make it difficult for these world class companies to compete internationally. Universities explained how it would make it impossible for them to fill their roster of professors.  Even the trade unions that would like the ruling to be completely abolished, insist on transition measures for those who have the ruling in place. But it is not just employers and unions that have come out vigorously – recipients themselves have joined forces in a grassroots group referred to as the United Expats of the Netherlands. They have led the way through news interviews, industry engagement, an organised rally, and a petition with over 30,000 signatures submitted to parliament. Their efforts are impressive, both in size and scope, and have given voice to this issue. Incompetence I have been flabbergasted at the sheer incompetence of the process, driven by tax minister Menno Snel.  This is a man with limited political experience, who worked for a water board before he was brought in to wreak havoc in the Dutch economy. The original proposal was bad, but the way that he has dealt with the feedback from society has been far worse. Everyone makes mistakes, the right way to deal with the response would have been to acknowledge the matters that were raised, thank everyone for the input, and then amend the proposal to be less damaging. The inverse has happened here. Instead of responding to the valid points that were raised, Snel has been pig-headed and stuck to his meaningless script. When major technology companies which are an important part of the economic growth of the Netherlands band together and the CEOs directly tell you that this threatens the continuity of their businesses, this is important information. You have to consider it, you cannot just ignore it because you want your dumb idea to become law. This is best illustrated through example. Below I have paraphrased from Dutch some of the statements in Snel's responses to various interested parties, and my reaction to this. 'There was no transition measure in the coalition agreement' – This is meaningless. The coalition agreement was reached between parties behind closed doors, before the response from society was received.  You cannot ignore the information being presented to you on the need for a transition measure, solely because a bunch of ignorant politicians had not planned on having it. 'I am aware it would have consequences for expats staying more than five years' – It is chilling to understand his complete lack of compassion for destroying the lives of thousands of expat families who came to the Netherlands in good faith.  These are productive members of society who contribute to the well-being of the whole population, yet Snel decides to treat them like this. 'We have given people 6 months’ notice to update affairs'- People bought houses on 30 year mortgages. How exactly does six months help them here? It is not like people can make a small trim to the household budget.  They have lost on average 25% of their net pay.  Who has that kind of buffer?  Very few people. 'People should take into account possible tax changes when making long term decisions' – How I interpret this comment, is that he is saying that people not should place any reliance on commitments from the Dutch government as they cannot be trusted. Surely there are people in the Dutch government who do not want to earn this insidious reputation? This goes against everything that people have come to expect from the logical and pragmatic Dutch government. These responses beggar belief. In a sane and intelligent world, he would be forced to resign.   Dutch schools As an employee, I am devastated.  I brought my family here from another country, and made my kids learn Dutch in Dutch schools. Every one of our decisions was based on an eight year plan. It is incredibly expensive moving here with a family when you pay for it yourself, especially when your home country has a weaker currency. I wiped out my life savings as many of us do, to make the investment.  The first few years costs you everything you have, the next few years the costs stabilize, and many people plan to save in the last three years of the eight years to prepare for when the ruling falls away.  This is done in an orderly manner. If the ruling falls away prematurely, one is left unprepared.  I will simply not be able to afford to continue to live here. The whole move here, the last five years, will all have been a dreadful mistake.  All this because I was lied to by a respectable country such as the Netherlands. Nonsensical Let us be clear, this has nothing to do with sound economic management.  It just does not make sense to apply it retroactively. If they applied the change for new rulings as of January 2019, there would have been no resistance from business or society. Yet they insist on applying it to existing rulings. This change is to address a xenophobic element in the new coalition government.  Again, I do not think that this is a fair portrayal of Dutch society. The political leaders are not aligned with the Dutch people in this action. Expats have a shared experience of being welcomed by their Dutch colleagues. In fact, the Netherlands has a reputation for being one of the easiest countries for an international worker to settle in, once you can handle the direct approach in the workplace - a trait that I admire and was part of what drew me here. How can a government knowingly take an action that reduces trust in them, and hurts the ability of their economy to be competitive?  One would really not expect this level of stupidity and self-harm in Dutch politics. International pressure There is still time to change it, but I think this is the time for international pressure to be put on those who are pushing for this adjustment. What worries me is that I have not seen a single intelligent response to any of the points raised. Snel just reads from the same script that does not answer any of the questions. If the changes go through as they are suggesting, I think I would leave the country, out of principle. If a state has so little respect for the commitments that they made to me, and on the basis of which I changed the life of my whole family, then I want nothing to do with them. If the government insists on ignoring the warnings from business, professionals, trade unions and the expats themselves, then they have earned any negative repercussions that this may bring about. Jay Henning is a father, a husband and a finance executive.   More >


Vrij Links must remain faithful to their free-thinking, secular roots

Vrij Links must remain faithful to their free-thinking, secular roots

Spinoza sowed the seeds of a free Europe in which secular thought could flourish so we should stop thinking that non-western immigrants need protecting from free debate, say writer Asis Aynan, actor Femke Lakerveld, film maker Eddy Terstall and former Labour MP Keklik Yücel.. Group thinking is dividing this country. Nationalist right-wing opinion is feeding on romantic nationalism and all the regressive left has to show for itself are equally divisive tales of identity politics. The group is elbowing out the concepts of nationhood as well as individuality. The progressive left, traditionally based on universal values and the elevation of the masses, has been left to languish on the side lines. We, a number of progressive Dutch people from different backgrounds, refuse to give up on the left-wing ideas that have stimulated freedom and modern thought in the Netherlands and the entire Western world. Polarisation We are worried about increasing polarisation and segregation and are longing for a society in which independent citizens elevate themselves and society as a whole. That is why we advocate Vrij Links (The Free Left), a movement firmly rooted in the time-honoured principles of liberalism and secularism. Left wing and progressive liberal movements owe their existence to their championship of individual self-determination. This long adventure dates from the Enlightenment and found its expression during the French Revolution. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the proletariat organised into unions whose power peaked between 1950s and 1980s. As far as we are concerned that adventure has not come to an end. The great philosopher Spinoza sowed the seeds of a free Europe in the fertile Dutch soil and democracy and secular thought flourished. From the shadows of the present ethnic-religious conflicts, we want to launch an appeal to modern progressives and remind people of the origin of our freedom. In line with the radicals of the Enlightenment, we think that it is vital we defend the freedom of the individual. What we want is a free and unhampered debate, a neutral state, secular education for all children and a renewed appreciation for individual freedom. Free debate An open society thrives on freedom of expression. For centuries the Netherlands has been a country in which worldviews could be challenged and this has led to a unique and free society. What is interpreted as an insult by some, may be a fresh point of view or analysis for others. Vrij Links distances itself from the suggestion that non-western Dutch people should be protected from a free debate because they are not ready for such expressions of modernity. We think this way of thinking – called the racism of lower expectations by the British – negates the individuality of Dutch people with a non-western background. An open society is characterised by a peaceful battle of ideas, in which the best idea ultimately wins. To exclude, for instance, religious practices or ideas from the debate only helps the theocratic patriarchy and limits individual emancipation. Political correctness leads to insipid and meaningless art; an academic climate without discussion leads to intellectually defenceless laureates and cultural impoverishment. No idea, religious or profane, is above criticism in a free world. Ideas have no rights. Citizens have rights. In an open society the truth and moral value of ideas are continually evaluated by free citizens. A neutral state and secular education The concessions that were made in bygone centuries to religious groups were easily absorbed by Dutch society. Big demographic changes, especially in the big cities, have meant this is no longer the case. A conservative religious worldview is competing with progressive values, especially in the areas of freedom of conscience and the autonomy of the individual. Vrij Links opposes a separate mention of freedom of religion in the constitution because it leads to the preferential treatment of those who consider themselves to belong to one of the major religions. The freedoms believers claim for themselves – freedom of opinion, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and the freedom to demonstrate – are already firmly anchored in law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pressure on secularism means pressure on personal freedoms and when this is the case homophobia, gender inequality and religious pressures flourish. This will inevitably lead to a loss of equal opportunities and talent. That is why we want a solidly secular education system. Secularism is often equated, consciously or subconsciously, with atheism but all it means is a neutral societal playing field for all ideas and opinions. Vrij Links strives to abolish faith-based education during regular school hours. Doubt and investigation are the driving forces behind individual development. Students have to learn to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about all religions and philosophies. Individual freedom Vrij Links stands for equality for all regardless of gender, colour, sexual orientation and creed. This uncompromising principle of anti-discrimination is the jewel in the crown of a liberal movement which fits in with the Dutch tradition of pitting individuality against the collective and advocating individual emancipation Part of the current ‘left-wing’ movement is trying to profit from the popularity of identity-based thinking. This trend, which came over from the United States, defines people according to religion, background, gender, sexual orientation and race. Vrij Links believes that the world is made up of seven billion people with seven billion identities and rejects group thinking both on the left and the right. Every human being is free to follow his or her chosen path. Perhaps the ability to choose a partner of your liking and to be in charge of your body and sexuality constitute the most intimate and fundamental human rights of all. Freedom as we know it was devised and fought for by the generations that preceded us. Freedom of expression or conscience are not a ‘Western’ concept or relative but valuable in themselves. These soft human values are vulnerable but at the same time they represent humankind’s  greatest achievement. Great autonomous thinkers sowed the seeds for modernity and democracy. As progressive citizens we have no choice but to continue on the road which was ‘Enlightened’ by Spinoza and his fellow travellers. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >