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


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 >


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 >