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


Wynia’s Week: Klaas Dijkhoff’s yellow vest is losing its lustre

Wynia’s Week: Klaas Dijkhoff’s yellow vest is losing its lustre

VVD stalwart Klaas Dijkhoff told the Telegraaf newspaper this weekend that he could not support the cabinet's climate agreement which was sealed at the end of last year. Despite the apparent split, Columnist Syp Wynia does not believe the coalition is in trouble. Klaas Dijkhoff, who leads the VVD in parliament, opened election year 2019 by launching a broadside on climate change ‘moaners’, including coalition partner D66’s Rob Jetten. Dijkhoff told the Telegraaf he did not feel bound by the climate agreement the cabinet entered into with a number of companies and organisations. Dijkhoff now thinks the ‘common man’ has had too little say in the matter and that there is no need for the Netherlands ‘to become a beacon of light for the rest of the world’. The VVD’s second in command, in so many words, is threatening to topple Mark Rutte's third cabinet. ‘If it’s a choice between the cabinet and the interests of ordinary citizens, I will always be on the side of the citizens,’ he says. But how seriously should we take Klaas Dijkhoff’s attack on D66? Is the VVD really going to ditch the climate accord or re-negotiate it? It doesn’t seem very likely. The VVD has always been a wholehearted supporter of climate policy as drawn up in the climate accord. Paris The climate agreement was the result of a number of round-table talks led by former VVD leader Ed Nijpels and under supervision of VVD minister Eric Wiebes, but is really no more and no less than the implementation of the government accord of 2017. The outline of the present climate agreement can be found in that document, the product of seven months of negotiating by VVD prime minister Mark Rutte. If the climate agreement is unrealistic and prohibitively expensive, then that is because the cabinet has committed itself to climate goals that are impossible and often ridiculous. It set itself the ‘most ambitious goal of the Paris agreement’ i.e. halving (49%) 1990 levels of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and reducing them by as much as 95% by 2050. The European Union, the most ambitious emissions slasher in the world, is setting its sights on no more than 40% by 2030. But Rutte III is aiming for a European goal of no less than 55%. Ban on gas Dijkhoff is directing his ire at the climate agreement and the price citizens will have to pay to implement it. The Netherlands should not aspire to be a ‘beacon of light’, he says, but despite his protestations he is not prepared to drop the 49% (or 55%, or 95%) - far from it. Dijkhoff’s parliamentary party came out in full support for switching off the gas mains in older homes and a ban on gas for new homes last year -a move which doesn’t help the climate but will result in a bill of €200bn for private home owners alone. Far from wanting to stop the ban, Dijkhoff wants to subsidise home owners to make the change - as if that won’t have to be paid from (higher) taxes. That is the reason Dijkhoff is very reticent when it comes to explaining to the Telegraaf what changes he would like to make to the present climate agreement. He fails to mention any measures he would like to see scrapped, which is doing his credibility no favours. Small wonder then that he was immediately accused of ‘election rhetoric’: the costs for climate policy, already unpopular, are particularly unpopular with VVD voters. On the agenda are provincial elections on March 20 (followed by senate elections) and European elections on May 23. The electorate has a tendency to show its dissatisfaction with cabinet policy in these relatively less important elections.    Testing public opinion Dijkhoff’s credibility is not helped by his reputation as a launcher of ideas in the public domain as a way of testing the waters. Most of these fizzle out in time and are never talked of again. Unhelpful too is the VVD’s – and Dijkhoff’s – apparent enthusiasm for the proposed climate policy until now. And the man in the street has not figured prominently on the VVD agenda in recent years. In December prime minister Mark Rutte traveled in person to the umpteenth UN climate conference in Katowice in Poland. He demanded more climate change busting measures, not fewer. The European goal should be upped from 40% to 55%, he said. And no, the whole yellow vest thing was not going to happen in the Netherlands. Rutte told public broadcaster NOS: ‘This is another example of how the Dutch do things: we are very ambitious but we also talk to a lot of people so society as a whole can embark on the journey.’ In view of this Dijkhoff’s yellow vest loses its visibility somewhat. He is creating an artificial little election row with coalition partner D66 (while shutting up Thierry Baudet and Geert Wilders) – that is what it boils down to. €3,500 more And so to the VVD and the man in the street, and to the latter’s financial burden in particular. The VVD has not shown itself overly concerned with the citizens in the wake of the 2017 elections. It concentrated its efforts on business, especially big business. It promoted the ban on gas, which is forcing home owners to spend more. Easing the financial burden for citizens has not been the party’s first concern for some time. Despite a raft of election promises the collective tax burden has increased year on year. At the time of Rutte’s first cabinet that burden was 35.5% of GDP. This will go up to 39.2% in 2019, according to macro-economic policy unit CPB. That is a rise of 3.7 percentage points in nine years. GDP in 2019 is going to be around the €770bn mark and 3.7% of €770bn is €28.5bn. That means people are paying €28.5bn more in taxes and premiums compared to 2010. Divided among around eight million households in the Netherlands and the final bill for 2019 will be over €3,500 per household more than in 2010. A threat to himself And that doesn’t even include the lion share of the climate costs. At the time of his first climate budget debate, minister Wiebes talked of tens of billions of euros a year. Later, he smoothed the waters by saying it was a mere half a percentage point of GDP a year. But even that represents a third of total projected economic growth. That half a percentage point a year until 2050 would represent a reduction in prosperity the size of two economic crises. In other words, relieving the tax burden for citizens is not something citizens will have to look to in the VVD. Threats, such as the one made by Klaas Dijkhoff about the climate agreement, should be taken with a big lump of salt. Dijkhoff himself signed the government accord, the climate agreement (and was ‘proud’ to do so, he said) and he also signed the gas ban. So what he is really doing is threatening himself. That just about sums it up. This column was first published in Wynia's Week. Syp Wynia is a journalist and columnist who writes primarily on politics and economics, as well as Europe, migration and the government's finances.  More >


The Netherlands not too small to make big climate effort: D66

The Netherlands not too small to make big climate effort: D66

With just 11 years to halve CO2 emissions, the draft climate agreement presented on the threshold of 2019 came not a day too soon. But defeatism is rearing its ugly head, says D66 parliamentary party leader Rob Jetten. The recent agreement bore all the hallmarks of Dutch ‘poldering’. There is no country in the world that includes so many parties and interests in the quest for a broad consensus. Hundreds of experts, social organisations, unions, and energy companies gathered around the negotiating table. Left wing leaders Diederik Samsom and Kees Vendrik worked cheek by jowl with former VVD leader Ed Nijpels on hundreds of measures to combat climate change. The last week of the year saw another typically Dutch phenomenon. Before the financial implications of the agreement could even be determined, opposition parties and opinion makers from left to right went into full attack mode. Their criticisms were partly aimed at the role of industry but then a new argument came to the fore: for the Netherlands to tackle climate change would be an exercise in futility. Bigger polluters The reasoning is simple. The Netherlands is responsible for 0.5% of global CO2 emissions. Forum voor Democratie leader Thierry Baudet pointed out that China, with over 10 billion tons of CO2 and almost 30% of global emissions, is a far bigger polluter. The editor of the Telegraaf wrote that the Dutch impact on climate does not justify the severity of the ‘sacrifices being asked’. Trouw columnist Sylvain Ephimenco even talked of ‘Green Khmers’, an unfunny reference to the Khmer Rouge regime which killed two million Cambodians in the 1970s. These comments are reminiscent of the climate scepticism of some years ago, when self-appointed climate experts said there was insufficient evidence for climate change and therefore we should do nothing. That is now being replaced by climate defeatism, a surrender before the battle is fought. Yes, it is very strange to sit on a sunny beach in October. Yes, extreme weather is a threat to life. But what can a small country like the Netherlands do? Let’s just strike the colours and forget international agreements. Global economy It is undoubtedly true that the Netherlands with 0.2 % of the world population is not the biggest CO2 producer. Yet, we do come 18th in the global economy rankings and our emissions per head of the population are three times the global average. If the Netherlands won’t bother with the Paris agreement then why would countries with smaller economies even try? Remarkably, it is the conservatives who are most affected by climate defeatism. But let’s have a look at another guarantee of our security. The Dutch contribution to NATO is less than 1%. What use is that? If the conservatives are turning against the efforts to improve the climate, they would have to oppose defence investments as well. Lead by example The Netherlands wants to lead by example internationally. Al Gore praised the Dutch climate agreement and MPs from all over Europe are looking on in awe at the draft agreement and are exploring ways to adopt the ‘Dutch model’. Climate opportunities are irresistible: cleaner air in our inner cities, a decent income for farmers, food produced with respect for nature, lower energy bills, comfortable housing, safety for the people of Groningen, thousand of jobs in climate improvement related sectors. And the biggest innovations we have seen in our lifetime. Thanks to the climate agreement we are one for the first countries to apply ‘Paris’. We will be looking at the financial implications critically and see to it that the burden is divided fairly. Industry will have to get involved. What we mustn’t do is to let professional pessimists infect us with their defeatism. Big oaks from little acorns grow. Translation by DutchNews.nl. This article first appeared in Dutch in the Volkskrant  More >


Nijntje is Miffy, not Fluffy and she’s also a statue in Des Moines

Nijntje is Miffy, not Fluffy and she’s also a statue in Des Moines

What do you do if you have been sent to live in the Netherlands as a trailing husband for six months, while your wife works in a high powered job? Visiting columnist Joe Weeg has been exploring his neighbourhood. Part 2: Miffy Henriette Priester is helping me learn Dutch during my stay in the Netherlands. Not such a big deal, one would think. I figured that with the right motivation and a little time I could learn just about any language. French in a weekend? C’est moi, mon cher. German before noon? Hah! Before you can say Ich bin ein Berliner. Learn Dutch over a couple of months? Please. I go Dutch all the time. Henriette is the wife of a husband/wife team that runs the gym, Absolutely Fit, in The Hague. She is a mother to many of us in the gym, she has her own adult children, and now has three grandchildren. Henriette knows how to teach. She began my informal Dutch lessons by only speaking Dutch to me. 'Hoe gaat het?' Henriette says very slowly with a lot of hand gestures. Cleverly, and after much thought, I respond: 'What?' — which I say way too loudly because I’m an American. Sure, I have had my struggles. Last week, when I was in the checkout line at Albert Heijn, the Dutch Hy Vee, there were about 30 Dutch folks behind me, harried and rushing to get home for dinner. A check-out clerk about three cash registers over began yelling at me. At least I thought she was yelling at me because she and everyone else waiting in line were looking directly at me while she was talking. I couldn’t understand a word. So, I defaulted to smiling. Very broadly. Several people immediately backed away. But one kind Dutch woman leaned over and said in English: 'She is wondering if you would like to go over to her line and check out.' Hah! I hurried over to her line and began to unload my groceries. The check-out woman nodded at me and said something more in Dutch. Nope, zero understanding. She tried again. Not helpful. Mercifully, she indicated where my debit card should go. I put my tram card in the slot. Oops. Okay, here’s the debit card. She then ended with a final flurry of words. Is she speaking Swahili? Thirty tired shoppers watched this transaction with fascination. As did I, because I was apparently having an out-of-body experience somewhere in Australia. Finally, red-faced and embarrassed, I quickly packed up my groceries and raced for the exit. 'Meneer, meneer,' the cashier said loudly, and pointed to my toilet paper left at the cash register. Everyone looked at the toilet paper and then at me. Whose toilet paper is that? I wondered aloud. Not one of my best moments. I grabbed my toilet paper and fled the store. As you can see, Dutch lessons were going quite well when Henriette introduced me to books that have been used for over sixty years to teach Dutch kids to read — Dick Bruna’s Nijntje which I promptly translated incorrectly as Fluffy. Fluffy goes to the sea. Fluffy flies. Fluffy goes on a walk.These books are not only great for Dutch lessons, but are made out of such heavy paper that you can gnaw on the edges if you’re still teething or, as I discovered, if you are slightly anxious. 'I used the Nijntje books for my children and the children of my children,' Henriette says. Really? If children learn Dutch from these books, why can’t I? So Henriette sent me home with half a dozen Nijntje books. And I tried to read them. Mmm . . . harder than they look. I turn the page. Yup, there’s Nijntje doing something. Is that Nijntje on a boat or is she bathing? Okay, I think Nijntje is going on a walk. With a large cheese? Lord help me, for a rabbit without a nose Nijntje seems to have quite the vocabulary. And it only gets worse. I pick up book after book after book. A total disaster. I can’t translate one word. I hate Nijntje. And then I read about the new art sculpture back home in Des Moines, Iowa. The Miffy Fountain. A wonderful sculpture by Tom Sachs that is located in Des Moines Western Gateway Park. The Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundations wrote about the Miffy Fountain with understandable pride: 'Miffy is a character recognized globally as a symbol of childhood. . . The American artist Tom Sachs uses the image of the little bunny to comment on the commercialization of every human experience, no matter how innocent or traumatic, to sell these products.' The little bunny? Oh my lord, Miffy is Nijntje, which I incorrectly translated as Fluffy. Tom Sachs made a sculpture from Dick Bruna’s Nijntje. My worst nightmare — Nijntje has come to Des Moines. I can never return home! So I asked my son, Emmett, to scout out the new Miffy Fountain for me in Des Moines. 'Dad, I can’t see a thing. She’s coated in plastic. I think for the winter.' Hah, I knew it. Miffy is trying to go undercover. Why? Well that’s a no-brainer. She can’t speak English. She’s Dutch. I’d like to see how she fares at Hy Vee. Don’t worry, folks, I have a solution for all of us. And it’s not learning a new language. Too hard. Instead, we just need Dutch letters. No, not letters in Dutch, but 'Dutch letters' — made of chocolate. The next time you walk past the Miffy Fountain, or, for that matter, walk past me, offer us a Dutch letter. Why? Duh. Chocolate is the world’s language. Natuurlijk.  More >


‘The threat to Dutch in higher education is no idle chitchat’

‘The threat to Dutch in higher education is no idle chitchat’

In the garden of higher education, Dutch is being weeded out. It’s alarming that the education minister seems oblivious to the demise of Dutch in higher education, say Annette de Groot, Erik Jurgens, Jean Pierre Rawie and Ad Verbrugge. The language policy of education minister Ingrid van Engelshoven is like a garden where English is allowed to bloom unhindered while Dutch is withering on the vine. In a recent radio-interview with journalist Frits Spits the increasing influence of English in higher education was recognised at once, but then the subject was conspicuously avoided. All the minister was willing to say was that we should not accept the prevailing idea that all teaching is already being done in English. ‘Higher education is still mainly conducted in Dutch’, she said. In other words, the public commotion about the unbridled colonisation of Dutch higher education by the English language is just so much idle chitchat. This stance wilfully denies the disastrous effects of anglicisation on the quality of Dutch education, and on the Dutch language itself. One-sided It also legitimises the one-sided approach to internationalisation favoured by universities. This simply comes down to removing the language barrier for foreign students so radically that in many cases not a hint of Dutch remains. No other European country has allowed its higher education to be taken over by English quite on the same scale. No other country shows so little appreciation for its native language. Besides, had the minister had the relevant data to hand she would have known that English is already the dominant language in Dutch universities. In the last academic year almost half of all university programmes was exclusively conducted in English, including almost three quarters of the master’s programmes (512 out of 811) and a quarter of the bachelor’s programmes (94 out of 406). This year will probably see the tipping point from more programmes taught in Dutch to more of them taught in English. In addition, a large part of the remaining programmes is euphemistically called bilingual while, in fact, they are largely taught in English. In many of these programmes all lectures are exclusively in English. Recruitment tool Replacing Dutch with English has been an enormously successful recruitment tool. The number of foreigners among the first-year students increases spectacularly in the year following the anglicisation of the programme. Take as an example a number of the psychology programmes across the country.  Twente University saw the number of foreigners among the first-year psychology students rise from 50 to 80% at a stroke, while Maastricht University saw it rise from 52 to 86%. The Amsterdam-based universities Vrije Universiteit and University of Amsterdam made the biggest leaps in the number of foreigners among the first-year psychology students, from 5 to 57% and from three to 53% respectively. But now the universities are reaping what they sowed with their less than creative approach to internationalisation. They can no longer cope with the increase in the number of students, which during the last couple of years has been primarily due to the rise in the number of students from abroad. And the emphasis on English has other, unintended, effects. Take the consequences for language and the use of language. Dutch students and lecturers are compelled to use English. But their English is demonstrably worse than their Dutch, in contradiction to the much-touted pr stories that the Dutch speak such excellent English. This fact limits their ability to understand and to express themselves. And that again affects their thinking processes, which are closely bound up with language. Pitiful The level of Dutch present with students in all-English programmes stays at secondary school level and does not improve during their studies. At the same time students will seldom reach the academic level in English that they could have achieved had they been taught in their own language. Worse still, most students will have to function in their chosen professions with an inadequately developed level of Dutch. That is a pitiful state of affairs.  Lastly, Dutch as a scientific language will gradually disappear. It is a sad fact that concern for the conservation of the Dutch language is often labelled as creepy nationalism. That is not at all what it is about. What it is about is the balance in the use of Dutch and English. So minister, put your gardening clogs on and tend to that beautiful indigenous plant that is our language! Annette de Groot is emeritus professor of language psychology at the University of Amsterdam. Erik Jurgens is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maastricht and the Vrije Universiteit. Jean Pierre Rawie is a poet. Ad Verbrugge is senior lecturer in cultural philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit and chairman of Beter Onderwijs Nederland. This column appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Parents, are you as bad at Sinterklaas as I am?

Parents, are you as bad at Sinterklaas as I am?

So, Sinterklaas is back in the Netherlands and the count-down to December 5 is well and truly underway. After numerous debacles, Deborah Nicholls-Lee thinks she’s got the hang of celebrating Sinterklaas with her kids. But has she? When the pepernoten appear in Dutch stores at the end of the summer, I usually chime in with the moaning. Not this year. Succeeding during Sinterklaas is all about preparation. I know this from experience: last year was a shambles. The intocht (Sint’s arrival in the Netherlands with his Zwarte Piet helpers) is eagerly anticipated by children, but for foreign grown-ups like me it can be bitter-sweet. This is partly because, until recently, to my unaccustomed British eyes, it looked rather like someone had poured the contents of a 1940s comic book of smiling stereotypes onto the streets of 21st century Amsterdam. But it’s also because it signals the start of a tradition which I’m still struggling to navigate and frequently fail at. Christmas For damage limitation, my husband and I skip the poem-writing and present-giving of pakjesavond (5th December), as celebrating Christmas Day in the UK is ample opportunity to spoil our children. Sinterklaas and the Piets do, however, drop a few small gifts in the children’s shoes from time to time so that they can join in the conversation at school. This, for novice, non-Dutch celebrants like us, causes havoc enough. Nevertheless, the children, who were born here, begin each Sinterklaas season with the blinkered optimism that Sint will deliver giant pakjesavond-esque presents. They ignore the pattern of previous years when the commonality between the gifts was that they fitted inside a shoe. A Barbie house does not – and yet it appears on the wish list annually. At the top of my five-year-old’s list, was something illegible last year. The next morning, I saw her skulking around the shoes as if she was looking for something. ‘What was that word?’ I asked her. ‘A bunk bed. Didn’t get it,’ she replied, shrugging her shoulders nonchalantly and tipping out of her boot the usual sweets and landfill from Kruidvat et al. Shops I wouldn’t mind the wish lists so much– or verlanglijstjes as they are known here – if they didn’t always appear at the very last minute, tucked into a shoe, way after the shops have closed. Lately, they have been accompanied by drawings for Sint, which he is expected to treasure and take away with him, and which are a real bother to hide. One night, I chose to conceal the deceit with the help of my shredder. There was no safe way to muffle its loud groaning and gnashing, and I fed the beautiful drawings in one by one, praying that the kids wouldn’t wake and catch me sheepishly making mincemeat of their offerings. On another desperate occasion, I tried to eat the evidence by gulping down a carrot left for Sint’s horse, Amerigo. It was so big, I gave up and put the gnawed remains back in the fridge, hoping they were unrecognisable. The problem is, unlike Santa’s stockings which are hung just once, the Sinterklaas tradition rumbles on for around three weeks and the children can keep on putting their shoes out. We limit it to once a week but are inevitably stitched up by some other parents who, according to our kids’ unreliable testimonies, let their children put their shoe out most days. Inevitably, the children try to sneak in extra days and there are always exasperated cries of ‘The little buggers have put their shoes out again!’ And last year: ‘Bloody hell, they’ve put our shoes out now as well.’ Recycled To compound the chaos, last year I rather amateurishly ran out of pepernoten and had to pinch them from the kids’ stockpile of goodies from a previous Sint visit. Fortunately, no one suspected that the biscuits were recycled and the enthusiastic whooping over the unremarkable snacks was as lusty as ever. The chocolate letters for the kids’ initials also required drastic action last year. We needed a ‘B’ and an ‘M’, and – you’ll see a pattern here – we’d left it too late. The city was clean out of Bs. Cue my husband trying to melt together two Ps and slide the cobbled result back into the – carefully resealed – packet. It’s times like this that you’ll wish you’d named your children Sanne or Sem, as the ‘S’ for Sint is always in plentiful supply. Miraculously, my husband’s work was nifty enough to go unnoticed, although the Bijenkorf label and price tag on the back weren’t great. Preppers, I have decided, deserve some respect after all, and so I snaffled this year’s letters in September. School Just as we’re getting the hang of it – and dispensing advice on national news sites – it’s all over. My husband returned from the Group 5 meeting at school a few weeks back with news. ‘Sinterklaas…,’ he whispered conspiratorially, checking over his shoulder, and did the cut-throat sign to me across the kitchen. The whole of Group 5 (8-9-year-olds) were going to be told the truth about the charade. In the future, they would – wink-wink – join the Piets on the school yard and hand out pepernoten to the younger pupils still under Sint’s spell. Hooray for Dutch directness! And goodbye to the awkwardness that my brother and I experienced when, despite being on the brink of puberty, we would ‘go along’ with Father Christmas to avoid an awkward conversation with our parents and, above all, keep the present count high. And the end is in sight for parents, too. Although, I must say, once you get the hang of it, it’s all rather fun. ‘What’s that? Group 5 need to make a Sinterklaas Surprise for a classmate?’ How hard can that be…? You can find out more about the Sinterklaas tradition in our guide here.  More >


Citizens’ rights should be guaranteed, regardless of Brexit

Citizens’ rights should be guaranteed, regardless of Brexit

European leaders should guarantee the rights of British and Dutch nationals alike ahead of Brexit, say D66 MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld and MP Kees Verhoeven. The spectre of failed Brexit negotiations between the EU and Britain means that the status of millions of people at risk. Will they be unceremoniously kicked out of the country between now and a year’s time? Can they keep their jobs? It is high time assurances were put in place for these people now that a no-deal Brexit seems to be approaching fast. After 45 years of British EU membership, it is only six months until Brexit and negotiations are stalling. But whatever the outcome, European government leaders must separate the fundamental civil rights of ordinary Europeans from the negotiations on trade and the economy. Alarm bells are ringing for 3.5 million EU citizens in the UK and 1.5 million Britons living elsewhere in the EU. Five million people are standing helplessly by as a no-deal Brexit looms with all the disruption to personal lives this could entail. Unilateral statement These are people who have used their rights as European citizens in good faith. They live, work or study in a different EU member state than the one stated in their passports. A large number were born with these rights. They had families, bought a house, started a business. Now their gains and their rights could be in danger. The European Parliament will only agree to a Brexit deal if the civil rights of all Europeans who are affected by Brexit are guaranteed. However, if no deal is reached the European Parliament will have no say in this and it will be up to individual national governments to decide. That is why the EU and European government leaders must unilaterally declare that the rights of British citizens in the EU are secure. Meaningful concept For a start, leaders should follow the German example and allow duo nationality for those duped by Brexit. That would not only help Brits in Europe but it would also be in the interest of over 100,000 Dutch citizens currently living in the UK. Europe, as the stronger negotiation partner, must do its utmost to keep that particular fuse far away from the powder keg. People affected by Brexit have long pleaded with the authorities to provide more clarity. They should have been heard much sooner and helped with the same zeal that companies are being supported as they prepare for Brexit. It is time they were offered a way out of the impasse, not just because they, unlike the multinationals, have nobody to go to bat for them but to show that European citizenship is not an empty concept to be obliterated at the stroke of a pen. Civil rights should be guaranteed,  deal or no deal. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


The social partners have done talking, time for politicians to take action

The social partners have done talking, time for politicians to take action

The social partners have mulled over all the main issues in the government accord. So now it’s time for the government to take decisive action, says economist Mathijs Boumans. In March 2017 we went to the polls. In October, following the longest formation period in history, we had a cabinet. We are now a year into a new government but we are still not really being governed. Voters have no idea where the country is headed. Of course there is the government accord, boldly ambitious about a climate friendly economy, a dynamic and fair labour market and the introduction of a shiny new pension system. But no sooner had these plans been put to paper than the government decided to let them be mulled over by civil society. Unions and employers’ organisations were asked to chew on pension reform and the cautiously worded labour market plans. A motley crew of representatives of the business world, local authorities, environmental organisations, knowledge institutes and – here they are again – unions and employers’ organisations set to work on the climate plans. Lethargy The government then sank into a state of lethargy reviving only to quarrel a little about the 2019 budget, finding excuses to abolish the tax on dividends, and tinkering with some purchasing power loss here and there. Meanwhile it was taking no real decisions about the future of the country, preferring instead to outsource this to society - a practice known as 'poldering' in reference to the land that the Dutch work together to reclaim from the sea. Prime minister Jan-Pieter Balkenende decided to spend the first hundred days of his fourth cabinet in ‘a dialogue with society’. Rutte’s third cabinet will be chatting with society for at least 365 days by the look of things. Compromise But making compromises is what we do. Every solution to every problem has to be chewed on by every organisation in society. And chewed on again. Only after passing all four stomachs of the polder cow it will once again land on the government’s plate, usually reduced to an unrecognisable pulp. It’s not pretty but that is how the Netherlands has done it for centuries. But reaching a compromise is one thing and exaggerating is another. The polder (the combination of unions, employers and civic organisations) is not the government. Consultation is a fine thing but if it could deliver ready-made policy options we would not need a government. Poldering can lead to consensus but it’s the politicians who have to take decisions and choose direction. Civil society, after poring over pensions, labour market and climate for a year, has achieved all it can achieve. It is now time to tie a nice bow around the package and ceremoniously hand it over to the people we have voted for and who are paid to take tough decisions: ministers and MPs. They are welcome to it. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Universities partly blamed for downturn in Dutch as a language degree

Universities partly blamed for downturn in Dutch as a language degree

Dutch is no longer a popular choice for prospective students but universities are partly to blame, says Lotte Jensen, professor of Dutch cultural and literary history at Radboud University in Nijmegen. In recent weeks newspapers have been reporting on the alarming decline in the number of young people opting to study Dutch at university level. It is a worrying development which, if the trend continues, could land Dutch in the department of minority foreign languages. There are several reasons why this should not be allowed this to happen. Not only do we need academically trained Dutch language and culture graduates to teach at secondary schools, we also need specialists to conduct research into the Dutch cultural heritage. Johan Koppenol, professor of Dutch literature (1100 to 1800) at the VU University in Amsterdam, rightly said that a profound knowledge of the Dutch language, culture and history has never been more relevant: all current public debates are about language and culture – from the national anthem to immigration and integration.’ Negative attitude Teachers at secondary schools and universities are doing everything in their power to promote Dutch for the benefit of future generations. But there is one thing they have no control over and that is the negative attitude of some university officials towards the Dutch language. If they think Dutch is a second-rate language, what are future students going to think? We have witnessed the rapidly declining status of Dutch in university education: 74% of master degrees are already conducted in English and the number of English-language bachelor courses is growing apace. Increasingly, English-language courses are poaching students from their Dutch-language equivalents because future students think the former carry more status. This also has a negative impact on Dutch as a subject in secondary schools. The message to students is that they had better concentrate on their English language skills if they want to go on to higher education. Internationalisation The recently agenda on internationalisation published by the association of universities VNSU is an abject example of just how undervalued Dutch is. There are pages and pages about the importance of internationalising university education (i.e. switching to English) while at the same time Dutch is relegated to second place. The association mentions in passing that there will have to be a ‘sufficient’ number of bachelor courses in Dutch at a national level but fails to explain how many ‘sufficient’ actually is. No mention at all is made of Dutch-language master degrees. We see a reflection of this attitude in a letter sent to MPs by education minister Ingrid van Engelshoven. In it she pledges her support for more internationalisation and an extension of the law to give English-language education even more headway than it already has. Cast aside It isn’t until  the final paragraph that the minister mentions the importance of Dutch: ‘We must not cast aside Dutch as a language used in culture and science too lightly.’ Several Dutch language students have been pondering this one. Does it actually say we can cast aside Dutch provided we don’t do it too lightly? I was pleasantly surprised when the minister of all people addressed the audience at Tilburg university at the opening of the academic year in Dutch. The reason for this, she said, was to promote a better balance between languages, a slightly lopsided view since the rest of the ceremony was conducted completely in English. President of the executive board Koen Becking justified his use of English by saying ‘I’m doing my speech in English, because that is what we do when there are people among us who do not speak Dutch’. Apart from a not too polite dig at the minister, this also illustrated how lightly some people cast aside Dutch. We really want new students to choose Dutch but it would help if university officials everywhere would demonstrate that they take the language seriously. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant      More >


ING takes the money and the biscuit, says VVD MP

ING takes the money and the biscuit, says VVD MP

Society has nothing to apologise for but ING does, says VVD MP Roald van der Linde, who is the party's financial markets spokesman in parliament. ‘It’s MPs who are fuelling public mistrust,’ said Henk Breukink, a member of the supervisory board at ING, in a recent opinion piece in the Financieele Dagblad. When I read this I nearly fell off my chair and I don’t think I can have been the only one. For years ING has looked the other way as criminals laundered the proceeds of their criminal activities. Far from incidental, this was part of a structural policy which criminals were quick to turn to their advantage while the chic bankers of the ING pretended not to notice. The end result was an out-of-court settlement of €775m, the biggest settlement the Netherlands has ever seen. As MPs, we represent the people and it is our job to call out these bankers. We are not alone. The finance minister said the practices at ING were ‘extremely serious’. Ordinary citizens are at a loss to understand how their bank could have been mixed up in this and are wondering how it has managed to get away with just a settlement. No remorse I have not been able to detect any signs of remorse at ING. As far as I know it has not written any letters of apology to the customers and shareholders who are paying for this transaction. I have yet to see an interview with an executive or board member explaining what happened. Instead, Breukink is referring to ‘an industry’ in the broadest sense, which is ‘fuelling mistrust towards big organisations’. But it was ING that was in the wrong – not MPs, not the minister and certainly not the public. Breukink claims that public trust in institutions is waning. That is true, and it is mostly down to the credit crisis and the role of big financial institutions in it. It is up to those institutions to rebuild that trust and avoid a repeat. Looked the other way ING workers have looked the other way, and they did so knowingly. Until now they have escaped the consequences, hiding behind the system. I am a lawyer and even I find this difficult to explain. Try applying the same reasoning to an ‘outlaw’ motorcycle club: only the chairman steps down but the boys can carry on because they  were just doing what the club system asked of them. The VVD is a party that wants a good climate for businesses in this country, with a strong financial sector. But we also want a country in which companies have their house in order. We need the banks to tackle terrorism and other crimes and we need them to support sustainability and finance new innovative businesses. That means all sides will need to come together and discuss effective regulation and joint action plans. It is up to ING to take up the challenge and show it can regain people’s trust. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


Glass ceiling? It’s a sticky workfloor that makes women stay put

Glass ceiling? It’s a sticky workfloor that makes women stay put

It's not the glass ceiling that keeps women from the top positions but the sticky workfloor of part-time jobs, says Barbara Baarsma, director of knowledge development at Rabobank and economics professor at the University of Amsterdam. If, like me, you think quota are a paternalistic panacea for the lack of women in top executive positions, you are duty-bound to monitor the labour market for women with an eagle eye. Unfortunately, the last 15 years do not make for happy viewing. The good news is that in 2018 over six in ten women are in work, half a woman more than in 2003. Having children is, apparently, no longer the hurdle to employment it used to be. Some 29% of working women have jobs in management, which is a good sign as it paves the way to the top. Compared to the 26% of women who work full time, women are not doing badly at all. The ratio is much lower for men: 73% work full time while ‘only’ 71%  of managers is male. But apart from this not much has changed since 2003 and in some respects women’s position on the labour market has worsened. They are working part time more often when working full time would improve their chances at climbing the corporate ladder. Meagre score The rungs that lead up to a position on the board of directors or the supervisory board are the so-called executive management functions. Only one in eight of these were held by women in 2017. In this day and age that is a very meagre score. But in order to qualify for a function such as this, years of full time working experience and a willingness to put in the hours are a must. That is where the women come a cropper. Highly trained women are working full time more often (by an increase of almost 0.5% since 2003) while the percentage of full time working women with a mid or low level of education fell by 4.5 percentage points. As long as this situation persists, quotas are not going to make any difference. The problem is not so much a glass ceiling as a sticky work floor littered with small part time jobs. Women – and men – are of course free to work part time or not at all but only as long as society is not called on to foot the bill. Financial independence Relatively small part time jobs also undermine women’s financial independence. To be economically independent means to be able to survive on an income without having to rely on a partner or the government. The norm for economic independence is a net income from work of more than 70% of the net minimum wage. Thanks to the fact that more women work and the economic upturn, 60% of women are economically independent in 2016, still 20 percentage points down on men. But the figures are showing some worrying trends as well, especially among women with a low level of education. Only a quarter can look after themselves financially while women with mid-level qualifications struggle at just over 50%. Women who are not economically independent are in a vulnerable position when it comes to a divorce. According to figures from the socio-cultural think-tank SCP they see their spending power plummet by an average of 25%. The chances of a divorce happening are 40%, which makes working a small part time job, or not working at all, a risky strategy. Longer hours The best insurance for financial independence is not a partner who earns more or social security but sufficient own income. And that usually means working longer hours. The position of women on both sides of the labour market spectrum would benefit from women working longer hours or full time. It is the only way to increase the number of financially independent women and open up the road to the top jobs. Women don’t need the old fashioned boost of quotas. They need a modern labour market policy which will stimulate working longer hours while offering decent conditions such as adapted school schedules, flexible working hours and good child care at reasonable cost and not subject to a seesaw government policy. A cabinet who will make this a priority can ditch quota once and for all. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >