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


How Dutch meetings are different part 3: the catering

Cheese, mustard, coffee and cake: Greg Shapiro warns European diplomats not to expect too much when it comes to the catering during the Dutch presidency of the EU. If you haven’t already seen the billboards and banners, the Netherlands is playing host to the EU Presidency for the first half of 2016. You may NOT have seen the billboards and banners, and that’s because the Dutch government has announced it’s best not to be seen spending too much money on the whole affair. Witness the logo recycled from the last time they hosted in 2004. And when it comes to showing off Dutch cuisine, let’s hope we do better than more reheated leftovers like the logo. On the international stage, cuisine can play a pivotal role. Compare the climate summits in 2009 and 2015. In Copenhagen 2009, the Danish environmental minister had a simple strategy: lock the delegates in a room and don’t let them out until they reach a deal. There was no deal. By contrast, in 2015 the French stopped the whole summit to make sure everyone had enough to eat and drink. Even as the final negotiations were nearing completion, the French hosts called a break for a full lunch, coffee, croissants and chocolate. The resulting climate agreement was the most successful ever. Voila. Coffee and cake Just a few weeks later, the Dutch welcomed EU officials to a ceremony in Amsterdam featuring what looked like filter coffee and mini-muffins. There was also an evening ceremony, reportedly with cheese blocks and mustard. And hopefully they also served the classic mini-croquettes, which the Dutch insist on calling ‘bitter balls.’ The term ‘bitter’ refers not to the flavour, but to the way foreign dignitaries feel when presented with deep fried gravy. The warm exterior will mask the scalding-hot inside, so that you can hardly take a bite without burning your tongue within the first 30 seconds. After that, the Dutch hosts can serve any number of follow-ups from liverwurst to pickled onions and describe them as delicious. The guests just have to take their word for it. Lunch Then, of course, there’s Dutch lunch, which is a lot like Brussels lunch - except there’s no warm food, there’s no alcohol, and there’s no dessert. Many an international business deal has gone wrong because of those Dutch Calvinistic roots, reminding us not to take any joy in anything. And now that EU delegates are here demanding more budget for the refugee crisis, thank goodness there’s Dutch catering - which is the equivalent of turning out one’s pockets to show they’re empty. Let’s hope the 2016 Dutch EU Presidency will still be a success, with lots of international agreements and accords. And to that end, let’s all raise a tall glass of buttermilk. For more insights on how Dutch Summits are different, watch Greg Shapiro’s United States of Europe. Greg Shapiro is the author of 'How to Be Orange’ and the upcoming ‘How to Be Dutch: the Quiz.’  More >


Instant gratification goes hand in hand with greater efficiency

Instant gratification goes hand in hand with greater efficiency

Instant gratification goes hand in hand with greater efficiency, writes trendwatcher Farid Tabarki I want it all, and I want it now! It’s still one of the better opening lines ever written. That was 1989 and what the young wanted then was already quite a lot. And it’s only become worse: we’ve all become Very Hungry Caterpillars. Fashion, a market invented for demanding and trendy individuals, is moving towards immediate gratification too. Burberry’s fashion shows will be ‘see-now-buy-immediately’ from September. One click will buy the item as it is being shown on the catwalk. That is revolutionary for a sector used to presenting next summer’s collection after the previous one has just ended. Copy cats will no longer have an opportunity to put their designer-based fakes on the shelves months ahead of the real thing hitting the shops. Vogue’s Sarah Mower described the fashion fast forward move as follows: ‘It feels as if the whole fashion landscape, from top to bottom, is changing at last’. Fast fashion And about time too. We could already watch the big shows and tweet about the new collection but that was a case of old wine in new bottles. With the present trend everybody will be allocated a new role, including the fashion expert who will no longer blog about future trends but about what is happening at the moment. High fashion and fast fashion are merging into a 21st version of the fashion industry. The well-heeled will get whatever they want the moment they want it. The ‘I want it all, I want it now’ mentality is not limited to fashion. Manufacturing, and 3D-printing in particular, is heading the same way. Starting out with little plastic gadgets made with an improvised printer, it is now making great strides. Recently I attended the opening of an innovation centre for new technology, the 3D Makers Zone in the Waarderpolder in Haarlem. One of the cases presented there was the production of a new switch for a KLM flight simulator. The traditional route to replace broken switches is to order a new one at Boeing who will take three months to produce it – far too long if you take into account that a flight simulator that stands idle costs €100,000 a day. The 3D-printed switch is ready within a week, at 10% of the cost. Will we ever have enough? Of course we will, just like the caterpillar in Eric Carle’s book. After it has gorged its way through ice creams, lollies, salami and watermelon it has built up enough reserves to turn into a beautiful butterfly. The modern end user will instantly get the product of his choice, tailor made, in the same way. This column appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad   More >


Syrians need bread, not bombs, say Dutch socialist MPs

Syrians need bread, not bombs, say Dutch socialist MPs

Emile Roemer, the Socialist Party's leader and its foreign affairs spokesman MP Harry van Bommel are highly criticial of the Labour party's U-turn on bombing Syria. The PvdA no longer opposes air strikes by Dutch F-16s on IS targets in Syria. It’s a curious decision since the arguments against such an intervention raised earlier by the party remain the same. The civil war in Syria has killed over 260,000 people and ten million people have been forced to leave the country. Although understandable from a humanitarian point of view, lessons need to be learned from earlier interventions. That is why the SP was happy the PvdA refused to support the strikes. Party leader Diederik Samsom rightly said that what is needed first and foremost is a political plan for the future of Syria. No such plan is forthcoming and the warring parties are still quarrelling about who should take part in the negotiations. Benefit to Assad Labour also argued that air strikes could benefit Assad, who bears the bulk of the responsibility for this terrible war. Now that Russia has started to bomb Syria, Assad’s troops are encroaching on rebel territory. If the Netherlands bombards IS strongholds it will help Assad to gain even more ground. That is not the intention of the Labour party's decision but it would be the result. The social democrats also said strikes would be ‘unwise’ as long as Turkey continues to attack Syrian Kurds and the Russians the moderate armed opposition. That is exactly what is happening at the moment. Dutch support for air strikes will not change this but will result in more people fleeing the country who can’t all be accommodated in the neighbouring countries. The existing camps are already bursting at the seams. There are more reasons not to increase the number of air strikes by deploying Dutch F-16s. There will be more civilian casualties and it will become even easier for IS to attract new recruits. Terrorist attacks A greater Dutch military involvement in Syria makes the Netherlands a target for IS terrorist attacks, something that can’t be dismissed. We agree with the military experts who say that terrorism can’t be fought from the air, especially since the terrorists are part of the original population. Surely 15 years of ‘war on terrorism’ have taught us that terrorists benefit from the chaos that always ensues after western involvements. We have only to think of the illegal interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter spawned IS. A focus on military action in the fight against terrorism creates its own enemies. Instead of air strikes, which can have the opposite effect, efforts should be focused on bringing about a diplomatic solution. An unconditional cease fire would be a first step. Anything that contributes to the conflict, be it guns, money or militants must be stopped. In order to achieve this, a weapons embargo needs to be in place as well as border controls between Syria and Turkey. In the short term, humanitarian aid can save lives and that is what we must focus on. The Syrians don’t want bombs, they want bread, medicine and blankets. Without immediate humanitarian aid and a diplomatic offensive this country has no future. The warring parties will remain at war. And there is not a thing Dutch fighter planes can do about it. This article appeared earlier in NRC Next  More >


Tackling drugs requires harm reduction, not repression

Tackling drugs requires harm reduction, not repression

In April, the United Nations is meeting to discuss the worldwide policy on drugs. Junior health minister Martin van Rijn must be urged to forge a different approach, write Dutch MPs Vera Bergkamp (D66) and Marith Volp (Labour). A war on drugs is no longer compatible with modern times. Big words and repression should be replaced with measures focusing on limiting health risks. Prevention, information and care are the areas international drug policy should be concentrating on. Now that the Netherlands holds the presidency of the EU and junior health minister Martin van Rijn will soon attend a special meeting of the United nations, it is time to promote a different approach to drugs. In April this year the United Nations is organising the third United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem. During this meeting countries will discuss the measures included in the worldwide policy on drugs. In 1998 the meeting agreed on a roadmap to eliminate drugs: the so-called war on drugs. Nearly two decades on drugs are still with us and that is hardly surprising. It is impossible to eliminate drugs altogether. And so the question we need to ask is whether the war on drugs, with its emphasis on criminalising drug users, is effective. Health D66 and the Labour Party prefer to focus on limiting the effects of drugs on health. For that, a new approach to an international drugs policy is necessary. Ditch the strong language and concentrate on what scientists call ‘harm reduction’, i.e. limiting the damage drugs do. The present policy on drugs has an enormous social impact. In many countries drug users are regarded as criminals and for this reason many go without the necessary (medical) help. Drug users who inject are still 28 times more likely to become infected with hiv but only 1 in 10 infected drug users receives medication. Youngsters on drugs are often left to deal with things themselves for lack of a specific policy on the prevention of drug use. Another aspect is the damage caused to the environment by drug production. And all the while poverty and feelings of hopelessness drive people into the arms of the big drug syndicates and organised crime. Progressive The Dutch presidency of the EU and the recent shift in drugs policy in the United States, where several states are introducing progressive drugs policies, open the door to a better common approach. The forthcoming UNGASS conference provides the ideal opportunity to break the current impasse. Junior minister Van Rijn, as the coordinating government representative, would do well to take the lead in making this policy change happen. We propose that 10% of the current drugs policy budget is invested in limiting the effects on health. This money should not only be used to treat addicts but also to train substance abuse social workers. Money is also needed to fund programmes for youngsters. In Eastern Europe, 30% of users start using drugs before the age of 15. Apart from providing medical help steps also need to be taken to improve these youngsters’ living conditions. We ask the junior minister to highlight the vulnerability of those who are at risk of abuse as a result of the present drugs policy. Why not use micro financing to help make people less dependent on criminal organisations or drug syndicates? The time has come to introduce a new, realistic vision aimed at health instead of repression. This article was published earlier in Trouw  More >


The European Union is ignoring the Dutch referendum on Ukraine

The European Union is ignoring the Dutch referendum on Ukraine

Ukraine and Brussels are busy implementing their treaty of association, even though it has not been fully ratified. The Dutch referendum on the treaty is being sidelined, write campaigners Thierry Baudet and Erik De Vlieger. We are frankly astonished at just how the European Union is ignoring the upcoming referendum in the Netherlands. Never before has there been such a massive reaction against a proposed expansion of the European Union: nearly half a million people in the Netherlands supported the GeenPeil coalition of concerned citizens, websites and think tanks. And never before has it been swept under the carpet so brazenly.  At this moment the polls show that some 75% of voters would vote ‘no’. The commission simply issued a statement to the press on December 31 saying the entire association treaty would become operational from January 1. ‘On 1 January 2016, the European Union (EU) and Ukraine started applying the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (..) the rest of the Association Agreement has already been in force since November 2014.’ Ratification Earlier, Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko took to Twitter to say ‘the Brussels parliament ratified the association accord. All EU countries have now completed the ratification process.’ When he visited the Netherlands he claimed – at a joint press conference with Rutte: ‘The referendum won’t block this association treaty.’ The Dutch prime minister refrained from comment. Only the fact that GeenPeil gathered enough signatures to initiate a referendum effectively stopped the Netherlands from ratifying the treaty. We, the citizens of one of the oldest democracies in the world, have still to approve the agreement. Foreign minister Bert Koenders said it himself in October 2015 in his reply to a number of parliamentary questions. He added: ‘The treaty can only become operational if all parties ratify the it.’ Consultative Meanwhile, the government is blithely adopting the treaty. Agreed, the referendum is consultative and therefore non-binding. Nevertheless, the letter and spirit of the referendum law suggest that a possible negative outcome must be given serious consideration by the Dutch state. The government has manoeuvred itself into a position in which it is unable to do so. So suppose it’s a ‘no’ vote - could the Netherlands still opt out? This policy flouts every democratic principle. It flouts common sense. And it flouts the consultative referendum law which also states that no law can become operational while a referendum about it is being held. The fact that the European train is thundering on regardless clearly shows that the institutions in Brussels regard their democratic roots as museum pieces - or worse still, as mere decoration. The final say in the European decision-making process hasn’t belonged to the citizens for a long time. The consultation of the people is becoming a farce, a democratic shadow play, just for show. We think that is wrong. Demands That is why we demand the Dutch state: 1 Stop the implementation of the association accord as of now until the Dutch citizens have voted. 2 Explain, in its capacity as EU president, to the EU and Ukraine that the Netherlands has not ratified the treaty – in spite of what Poroshenko says. 3 Formally request the EU and Ukraine to halt the implementation of the association accord out of respect for the Dutch democracy until the results of the April 6 referendum are in. 4 Outline all legal and political possibilities in case the people vote ‘no’ and parliament asks the government to respect the vote; If the Dutch government does not respond satisfactorily to these demands we will initiate summary proceedings to subpoena the Dutch state and use the legal route to make sure the democratic rights of Dutch citizens are respected. Thierry Baudet is a writer and Erik de Vlieger an entrepreneur. Both were involved in the initiative to call a referendum about Dutch support for the treaty between the EU and Ukraine. This column was first published in the Volkskrant.  More >


Three ways Dutch diplomacy is different

As holders of the EU presidency for the first half of 2016, the Dutch have a chance to show off their unique sense of diplomacy on sensitive topics like immigration and refugees. So what should we expect, asks Greg Shapiro? While the Dutch are known for being tolerant, that doesn’t mean they’re not still judgmental as hell. To prepare yourself for Dutch leadership, here are three ways Dutch diplomacy is different. 1) Honesty The Dutch pride themselves on being open and direct - sometimes at the expense of politeness, or tact, or even diplomacy. I was once introducing my mother – an American - to a group of Dutch people and someone commented on her outfit. The comment wasn’t ‘nice outfit,’ but rather: 'It’s too bad American clothes are so baggy. But of course that’s because you are all so overweight.' This Is the Dutch way of saying ‘welcome.’ 2) Chauvinism Or, it’s actually the lack of chauvinism. The Dutch seem to be allergic to anything resembling bragging. When dealing wth the Dutch, it’s important to ‘doe normaal.’ Just act normal. Be yourself. And it’s important NOT to do ‘opscheppen’ or ‘piling it on.’ The Dutch are known for their belief in equality. Specifically, if you start talking yourself up or acting bigger than everyone else, they’ll cut you off at the knees. For example, in Dutch meetings, it is NOT okay to say ‘My idea is great!’ However - remembering Point 1) - if you say ‘Your idea is stupid’ that’s OK! And why stop there? As one Dutch meeting partner once said to a colleague: ‘Your idea is stupid. And your beard looks like you have pubic hair on your face.’ 3) Honesty plus Dutch courage When Dutch honesty is mixed with ‘Dutch Courage’ (alcohol), it’s like a truth serum that makes them share every single observation and judgment that comes into their head, no matter how inappropriate. Frequently after a show, I’ll have someone come up and say:
 ‘I saw you onstage! You were not very funny. You’re so loud! Such an American thing. I think it’s to hide the fact you’re so ignorant… That means stupid. Wow, you look angry now. Are you going to shoot me with your gun? Bang! Bang!’ In America there’s the phrase ‘Never discuss politics in mixed company.’ In the Netherlands, expect uninvited political commentary in the first two minutes of your conversation. Even right after September 11, I’d have Dutch guys come up to me and say: ’You know America had it coming, right? You funded the Saudis. You armed the Afghans. You should have seen it coming.’ At the time, I wanted to punch the guy. But in retrospect, I wish there had been more drunk Dutch guys in the Bush White House. For more insights on how Dutch diplomacy is different, watch Greg Shapiro’s United States of Europe. Greg Shapiro is the author of 'How to Be Orange’ and the upcoming ‘How to Be Dutch: the Quiz.’  More >


‘The freelancer is a weed to be exterminated’

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


Dutch EU presidency: will Rutte show some guts?

Dutch EU presidency: will Rutte show some guts?

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


Three ways Dutch European summits are different

Three ways Dutch European summits are different

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


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

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