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

The Dutch economy is relatively crisis-proof

The gloom merchants were wrong: the Dutch economy did better than expected, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. At national statistics office CBS they work with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other. They meticulously enter the economic growth figures in their note books only to start adding and subtracting all over again. The old figures are erased and a new set is pencilled in ready to be erased again until, at long last, the figures are entered in indelible ink. It’s a bit of a pain for journalists who are trying to make sense of the figures for readers. The first so-called flash estimate of GDP growth which comes out about a month and a half after each quarter gets a lot of coverage in the media. Journalists interview economists about disappointing/promising growth figures, ministers are asked if they will impose extra cuts while the opposition prepares for a good moan about an ‘economy destroyed by cuts’. Fast forward another month and a half to the first proper growth estimate. If it deviates from the flash estimate the newspapers will report it on the inside of page 5. Subsequent CBS updates hardly make even the smallest of headlines. When, some two and a half years later, the definitive figures are published not a soul is interested. And that is how it should be. Newspapers are for news, not economic history. The growth rate of two and a half years ago is seldom relevant for the here and now. Waves But sometimes it is. The economy has been in such choppy waters for the last seven years that it was hardly possible to predict even the present. The banking crisis, plummeting house prizes, the threat of a broken up Eurozone and the huge cutbacks and tax hikes, each with their own momentum, buffeted the Dutch economy from all sides, like a little boat in a pool full of unruly children. Economists and statisticians were hard put to ascertain where the boat would be heading next, and if indeed it wouldn’t be sunk by the next wave. Now that the children are playing quietly and the economy is on an even keel it makes sense to look back. Last week the CBS published its latest estimates for economic growth in 2013 and 2014. They show that the recession in 2013 was not as deep as predicted while the 2014 recuperation was much stronger. Earlier the CBS had already adjusted the figure for economic shrinkage in 2012 from 1.6% to 1.1%. Now the GDP shrinkage for 2013 has been reduced from 0.5% to 0.2%. Production turned out to be higher for trade, IT services and business services and consumption was higher. That means results for every quarter were better than expected. The Netherlands may have been stuck in a very unpleasant recession but it was not quite as deep as was previously thought. In 2014 GDP was growing again, not by 1% as was predicted earlier but by a sturdy 1.4%, enough to compensate for the recession of the previous two years. Things in the building industry were picking up, consumption went up and international trade was doing well. No downward spiral With this positive adjustment the story of ‘an economy destroyed by cutbacks’ was no longer credible. In 2013 and 2014 in particular the government put on the brakes. Cutbacks and tax hikes from previous cabinets, the present cabinet’s own policies and extra budget accords amounted to billions worth of cutbacks during these two years. Many economists feared the Dutch economy was heading for a downward spiral, with new economic setbacks negating the effects of the cutbacks. Looking at the definitive CBS figures it is now safe to say that those fears were exaggerated, to say the least. The economy rallied in spite of the cutbacks. Granted, it would have rallied sooner without the cutbacks and tax hikes but the economy was anything but destroyed by them. And that is a conclusion that can be entered in the books in good black ink. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >

Through teenage eyes: Dutch school pupils shine in writing competition

Through teenage eyes: Dutch school pupils shine in writing competition

Every year, the Netherlands-England Society (Genootschap Nederland-Engeland) organises a writing and a public speaking competition for Dutch secondary school pupils who don't speak English as their native language. Here are this year's three GNE writing award winners, who had to write a column of no more than 500 words on one of six different topics. First prize winner: Joris Bergman, Metameer in Stevensbeek (18) Looking Through a Different Window Topic: These are the best of times, these are the worst of times. The end is near. A tsunami of refugees have swamped asylum centres and spilled onto the streets, where they wage a siege on western norms and values. Hordes of fortune seekers overrun borders, terrorise populaces and undermine authority. The end is near. The last calls for tolerance towards asylum seekers have been drowned out in a chorus of populism. Racists vandalise asylum centres, threaten lawmakers and dash any hope of an open debate. The refugee crisis has reached a boiling point, with the media scrambling to cover it all. Their narratives are non-negotiable. We must believe them when they are repeated on television, we must embrace them when we hear them on the radio and we must parrot them when we are on Facebook. Nobody can deny that these are the worst of times. Foggy windows These media narratives are the windows through which we view reality. Yet windows can be foggy, cracked or simply facing in the wrong direction. Rather than broadening our horizons, these media windows shorten them. Complex issues like the refugee crisis don’t fit on a single tabloid page and nuances certainly cannot be compressed into one JPEG image shared on Twitter. So, are these truly the worst of times, or is our window the problem? When looking beyond the media window, we see a world without dramatic headlines. A world in which people aren’t statistics, but stories. The story of the sixteen year old Klaas, a daily volunteer at his local asylum centre. The story of Rafaat, who built the website amazing-holland.nl to thank the Dutch population for their hospitality. The story of a man from Heesch, who, during the protests against an asylum centre for five hundred refugees, held up a sign saying fifty were fine by him. These are but droplets in an ocean of stories, yet it is that ocean that is grossly underrepresented in mainstream media narratives. They lack the sensation of the end of times, yet have the ability to change the world. Dramatic headlines fuel emotions that have no place in such an important debate. They derail and polarise a discussion that must be carefully manoeuvred through a chaotic minefield of protests, crises and political polls. Personal stories on the other hand, remind us of the humanity of those involved and give a face to headlines, numbers and analyses. Most importantly, they give us a different window through which we view the world. Polar opposite The world we view through this window, is the polar opposite of the dramatic media narrative. It is a world in which help is offered to the grateful victims of war. A world in which people disagree about the scale of this operation, but where they are free to do so. Not the world of doom and gloom we view through the media, but a world where people stand up for their rights and the rights of others. It is a world that must be celebrated, not denounced.
In future decades, we will remember these stories of compassion, gratitude and generosity. Seventy years ago, the slaughter of six million Jews took place under the watchful eyes of some of the most evil men to have been born. Yet what we commemorate and celebrate, are the stories of those who stood against these criminals and who helped the vulnerable escape oppression. Likewise, future generations will remember stories like Rafaat’s, rather than pessimistic media headlines.
 Caterpillars always believe the world is about to end, right before waking up as a butterfly. In a way, we are that caterpillar, waking up to realise that these are, indeed, the best of times. Runner-up: Hanna Merenyi, The International School of The Hague (17) 21st Century Snake Oil Topic: Super food - fact or fancy? Do you want to live longer, look younger and dramatically reduce the risk of getting cancer? Of course you do, everyone does, and marketing specialists know this. That’s why they branded a select group of fruits and vegetables that allegedly come with all the health benefits mentioned above and many more, as ‘super foods’. But is there any scientific evidence to back up all these outlandish health claims? or is this just another ingenious marketing stunt to con consumers into buying exotic (and expensive!) vegetables like kale? To answer that question we should first establish what a super food actually is, unhappily for us though, no legal or scientific definition exists for the term. So turning to the general social consensus, a super food is said to be a food that has a high nutrient content – which is an utterly useless definition. Lots of sunshine It’s just like saying that the sun shines a lot in Holland, the statement tells you nothing about the actual amount of sunshine in the country, due to the fact that the expression ‘a lot’ is entirely subjective. In the same vein ‘high nutrient content’ can mean almost anything. Following this definition any foodstuff with a higher nutrient content than frozen pizza can potentially be regarded as a super food. For this reason, EU legislators have banned the term on packaging unless any and all health claims made by producers can be backed up by convincing scientific evidence. What little scientific research has been done in the area of super foods, is very far from convincing. Most of the trials have been conducted in vitro, which means that when companies claim that broccoli can cure breast cancer, what they actually have evidence for, is that a chemical component of broccoli can kill a batch of human cancer cells in a petri dish. The problem with this of course, is that the vegetable in question usually contains only small traces of the cancer killing chemical, meaning that if people want to experience the healing effects of broccoli they need to consume upwards of 100 heads of broccoli or more per day. Furthermore, a cluster of cells is a very poor model for the highly complex human body, making it very unlikely that the effects observed in the petri dish translate to the same effects on the whole body. Scientific evidence? Despite very little – if any – convincing scientific evidence for the existence of super foods, the term is often followed on packaging by complicated scientific jargon such as "high in antioxidants and polyphenols" and "contains extremely beneficial omega-3 fatty acids". Having studied both biology and chemistry to a pre-university level, I can confidently state that I have no idea what any of these terms mean. In fact, I would wager that outside of the small circle of dieticians and nutrition scientists very few people do; my spell checker certainly didn’t recognize half these terms. The complicated words mean that people believe that anything claimed on the box has been scientifically proven, and end up buying the product as a result. Super foods are the latest version of a centuries old phenomenon, through clever marketing (read making ridiculous and unsubstantiated statements) people are conned into buying snake oil (what was historically pond water in a glass bottle) believing it to be a miracle cure-all. Capitalizing on the desperation of the terminally ill and preying on people’s fear of diseases like cancer, is easy, and disgusting. In the latest attempt by unsavory businessmen to flog fraudulent health products on the desperate, the pond water has just been turned into blueberries. Audience prize: Jelmer Roorda, Haarlemmermeer Lyceum in Hoofddorp (17) Immigration, Most Don't Want It Though We Need It. Topic: Is immigration good for a country? In almost every European country nationalist parties have grown and gained power. People are 'fed up' with immigrants 'coming to their country, stealing their jobs or living off benefits' and now, with the recent influx of refugees, the debate is hotter than ever. I, however, believe that these people are looking at the situation in a manner that is not only flawed, but they also fail to see that immigration brings wealth and that it is needed. When we look at immigration from an economic view point we find that, for example, Eastern Europeans come to work here because they are needed here. I work at a supermarket and each evening I see many immigrants dressed in clothes used on building sites. Why? Because many building companies in the Netherlands are in need of workers because Dutch folk aren’t ‘eager’ or aren’t capable of doing the job. Work This was shown in an article about a recent project where unemployed people were given the opportunity to work at a greenhouse. However, most decided against working there because either they found the work too hard or they turned up their noses at the pay. This is exactly the kind of attitude that forces sectors to employ immigrants! They are not stealing, they are providing their services and are the driving force that allow these sectors to stay in business. Additionally, immigrants keep the level of benefits for those unable to work, such as the disabled and elderly, bearable. As I have learned in economics class, each year the number of people who pay the taxes that provide these benefits grows less or even decreases in relation to the number of those receiving the benefits. It is of the most absolute priority to keep these benefits affordable and in order to make this happen we need to reverse this trend; immigrants can help to provide this growth. This is the most important issue that can be solved by immigration. My grandfather has kidney problems and without benefits he would be driven into poverty by his healthcare bills and he is not alone; this applies to hundreds of other elderly people in The Netherlands. Put yourself in their shoes In the case of the recent flow of refugees, place yourself in their shoes! These people come from a man-made disaster of incomparable proportions. They haven't come to Europe in the hopes of jobs and more wealth. They have come to Europe to escape the horrific situations in which they were forced to live in! Often having lost their house, they have no means to feed their family or their children. They are hungry and starved. Believe me they would not have come here if they did not absolutely need to. They’re leaving other family behind, often to die. They would not travel to Europe unless it is absolutely necessary, and anyone who thinks the opposite should have his head examined because he might be crazy. There are people dying in that war because of forces they can’t control. We, as a western country with all our wealth, have to live up to the human rights we ourselves cherish and if we are unable to, then we forgo all rights of calling ourselves a social and civilized country and I myself would be too ashamed to call myself an European or even a Dutchman. In the end these people bring diversity and sometimes diversity is hard to adapt to but it is what makes a great society. They bring opportunities, so we have to share our wealth and care for these people, that’s what makes a nation social and civilized. DutchNews.nl is one of the sponsors of the GNE Awards writing competition. For more information, contact http://gneawards.nl/  More >

It’s time for a new social contract, says a former Dutch union boss

It’s time for a new social contract, says a former Dutch union boss

The gap between the employed and the unemployed is growing and this division will cause serious problems for society. It's time for a new social contract, writes former CNV union boss Doekle Terpstra. The unemployment rate is down but not in a way that might be called significant. The CBS calculated that in April some 2,000 people found work. The total unemployment figure now stands at 6.4%, or 572,000. The economy is recovering but unemployment is still at double the number compared to the eve of the crisis in 2008. Recent research has shown that government employment measures are only minimally effective. The national audit office reports that €266m has been spent on creating employment for people over 50 but that the effects have been unclear. All in all hundreds of millions of euros have been spent on similar types of job creation and stimulation. The general expectation was that the economic recovery would solve the problem. That doesn’t appear to be the case. On the contrary, it is becoming more entrenched. Those with a good education will find their place in an ever more demanding labour market. There is a big shortage of skilled workers, like technicians. But for the hundreds of thousands of people with a greater distance to the labour market prospects are grim. The dream of an inclusive society (the ‘participation society’) is more elusive than ever. The gap between those who have a permanent contract or a small business and those who can’t manage to achieve either is growing and this will have a divisive effect on society. Politicians are not worried The approach to solving unemployment is stuck in a rut and needs to be revised. Politicians don’t seem worried enough to put the inclusive society on the agenda. But they should be. It’s time for a new social contract, a new balance between economic and social interests. To continue to put our faith in the current approach and the institutions that go with it is not an option. It would be natural to call upon the social partners – unions and employers – to work together and draw up a future-proof social agenda. A new social contract could bolster their credibility but it takes courage to leave the trodden path. I have my doubts about the innovative power of the consensus economy and the discussion will have to take place elsewhere. The partners in this discussion will have to be prestigious economists, entrepreneurs, workers and a commission of wise men. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and prepare a social contract for a new cabinet. Such a contract could include the following elements: Make individual regions – public administrators, employers, unions – responsible for the creation of their own inclusive labour market. Central government will transfer funds to the regions. Develop and facilitate the concept of a home service industry. A shift from care provision to service industry would create employment for people at the lower qualified end of the job market. Encourage self-employment but combat excesses in low paid work and limit the social security  risks. That means fixed contracts become less fixed and flexible work less flexible. Facilitate the exchange of staff between sectors on a regional level. Create a regional labour agreement. Embrace new technology. Create the necessary regional training. Promote life-long learning opportunities so people can adapt their skills to the demands of the labour market. Recognise the power of informal learning. A company has a role to play in society and therefore it has a duty to be inclusive. That means they must offer employment to people who have an impairment and ethnic minorities. Put the basic income on the agenda, or some form of negative income tax so that those who are structurally and long-term unable to participate still  have a viable financial basis. Doekle Terpstra was chairman of the CNV trade union federation from 1999 to 2005. This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >

Racism, says Sylvana Simons, is like being touched up

Television presenter Sylvana Simons caused a media storm when she announced she was getting involved in politics. She talks to Senay Boztas about why people would rather see her dance than hear about the dark side of colonial history, and why she believes the Netherlands is suffering a crisis of racism. ‘Somebody touches you as a woman. You say, “oh, I don’t like that”, and the guy says, “I was just trying to be nice”. People deal with racism in the Netherlands in the same way. Because they say they mean well, you’re not supposed to be offended.’ The 45-year-old television presenter has launched her own offensive now, against xenophobia in the Netherlands. She first announced that she will stand for the new ‘tolerance’ party Denk in the general election next year. Then she went to a police station in The Hague to report the worst of 40,000 instances of racist insults that followed. Simons lives in Amsterdam and was born in ‘one part of Holland’ known as Suriname before moving as a baby to ‘another part of Holland’ known as Hoorn. When some people tell her – as they do – to go back home, she points out that she was born in a former Dutch colony, and this is home. Colonial past The problem, she says, is that the Netherlands has not come to terms with its colonial past, conveniently forgetting the nasty bits, and expecting non-Western immigrants to assimilate by leaving other cultures behind. ‘In Holland, integration has become assimilation,’ she says over the telephone to DutchNews.nl. ‘It’s a utopian sense of ever reaching true integration. For me, I could never wash off my colour, so it doesn’t matter how Dutch I become, I will always be a black woman.' Simons believes the Netherlands is experiencing a crisis of xenophobia, intolerance and denial – the kind of thing that led to race riots in America and 1980s Britain. ‘I think it has become very politically correct to be politically incorrect,’ she says, matter-of-factly. ‘Over the past 15 years, racism has been more and more accepted, and inequality along ethnic and racial lines. It’s becoming dangerous. ‘We have seen the rise of some political parties that have made it their number one issue to polarise to gain power. In particular, of course, the PVV.’ Free speech Geert Wilders, party leader, will stand trial in October, for alleged hate speech in a 2014 rally where right-wing PVV supporters called for ‘fewer, fewer, fewer’ Moroccan people in the Netherlands: and Simons believes the accompanying free speech debate is the most important result. ‘There’s nothing wrong with speaking your mind,’ she begins, in classic Dutch fashion. ‘There is something wrong with being racist and a xenophobe, dehumanising and criminalising people and putting fear into people based on ethnicity and race.’ This isn’t a popular message, adds the TV presenter who began her career as a VJ at TMF music channel, was runner-up on the Dutch Strictly Come Dancing and now works across various channels. She says, with increasing passion. ‘In my case, there was nothing wrong with me until I started speaking up about certain social issues. Everybody was like: “She can dance, she can present, she’s an entertainer, we don’t have a problem with that. But please do not interfere, even though you are paying taxes. Let us run the country. You just be happy that we allow you to be here and just be an entertainer.”’ Racist incidents Simons believes the first step is to measure the problem, which is why she has reported the worst of 40,000 online and offline racist incidents to the police, and is encouraging other Dutch people to do the same. ‘I hope more and more people will report what happens to them because one of the things people hear when they do speak up is the numbers don’t reflect that, and this is just you being super-sensitive,’ she says. ‘I’m encouraging people so we can get the numbers and I’m trying to find out what happens once you go to the police. Where do we draw the line of freedom of speech, the right to insult?’ Zwarte Piet, the controversial blacked-up helper to Sinterklaas, symbolises the problem for her – not least, a widespread amnesia about the Netherlands’ leading role in the slave trade. ‘You have to understand that when you make the comparison, for instance, to the United States, there is a conscious awareness of what slavery was and why [blacking-up] is not appropriate. ‘We never went through that process of emancipation in the Netherlands. The Dutch seem to believe that slavery is something that happened on the other side of the world, but we were great slave traders. We’ve accepted a cultural archive that simply doesn’t deal with this.’ Symbol This is something she said she grew up with in Hoorn, home of the V.O.C trading company that flourished in the Dutch 17th century Golden Age. ‘Zwarte Piet has become a symbol, not just to the ones who are against it. A symbol of colonialism and racism, but on the other side a symbol of “this is ours” in a time where people are scared for their livelihood. We are all looking for something to hold on to.’ Although Simons talks about ‘the Dutch’ who don’t want to think about this, then takes offence at being thought of as anything other than Dutch herself, she says there’s no contradiction. ‘I’m talking about us, really, I am. I really understand the sentiments that go along with Zwarte Piet and the whole Sinterklaas thing. I’m not trying to say them versus us. I’m trying to come to a point where we can make Zwarte Piet a symbol that’s acceptable, welcoming and loving to all children, all people in this country.’ Prime minister She has no truck with the lack of political leadership on the subject either. ‘Our prime minister [Mark Rutte] made it very clear that he personally doesn’t have a problem with Zwarte Piet. He spoke to his friends in the Dutch Antilles and they are so happy they don’t have to put anything on their face because they are black. They are lucky because he’s always spending days washing this shit off. I was appalled by that comment.’ It’s also time, she says in perfect English, to get rid of words like ‘allochtoon’, describing people with one parent born elsewhere, but often used pejoratively. ‘My parents were born in the Netherlands. My children were born in Amsterdam. How many more generations before we really can be Dutch? It seems there’s a ceiling to your Dutchness, and we need to fix that. The word allochtoon means you’re different, you can’t really have an opinion about important social issues, you can’t really be included.’ She’s not calling for riots, although social media might get bloody. And she bats away criticism of Denk as being overly sympathetic to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan as ‘dehumanising, criminalising, based on absolutely nothing’. Instead she wants people in the Netherlands to have a good think about themselves. ‘The Dutch are very proud of the Golden Age, the era in which they conquered the world, killing people, raping people, enslaving people and doing a lot of bad. The Dutch have this lack of responsibility and no self-reflection about being able to be hurtful. They have this sense of “we’re good people”.’ And, her implication is, good people don’t harass anyone else, even if they’re just trying to be nice.  More >

Health warning: the government’s smoking policy kills

Smoking kills but vote-hungry politicians are failing to act, write psychology professor emeritus Frits van Dam and lung specialist Wanda de Kanter. May 31 is another World No Tobacco Day, the United Nations’ cri de coeur against smoking. Almost a quarter of people over 15 in the Netherlands smoke. Half their number, over 20,000 people, will die of smoking-related illnesses. Public health director-general Angelique Berg agrees that smoking should be actively discouraged but her plan – scary pictures on packaging and information campaigns in schools – is mere window dressing. It won’t stop young people from taking up smoking nor will it help young smokers to kick the habit. She has failed to mention the most effective strategy for combating tobacco use: a tax hike. In countries which do use fiscal measures to tackle smoking, such as Australia and Sweden, the number of smokers is significantly lower than in the Netherlands. Sales Another obvious measure would be to limit the sale of tobacco to licensed outlets but this has met with vociferous protests from the supermarket and petrol station lobby. Angelique Berg is keeping quiet about this too. On January 28 2016 a plenary session in the Dutch parliament about the tobacco law was attended only by the tobacco spokesmen for seven parties in an otherwise empty chamber. Most politicians show no sense of urgency at all about the subject in spite of the fact that we are being faced with a national health crisis. Every year ten times as many people die of smoking-related illnesses as perished in the flood of 1953, and smoking deaths outnumber traffic deaths by 35. Thirteen motions and amendments were proposed during the debate. The VVD and PVV rejected all anti-tobacco motions and Labour, for the most part, concurred. Their philosophy is a simple one: people have a choice. It’s up to them to decide to smoke or not to smoke. There was no mention of the fact that once people are addicted they no longer have that choice. The VVD’s Eric van den Burg, an alderman in Amsterdam, does understand. In a debate at the Balie on May 8 he said that his party and its tobacco spokesperson in particular ‘are mistaken in that they think everyone is capable of making the right choice’. Free to choose? Addicts are not free to choose; it’s what makes them addicts. Van den Burg thinks the price of a packet of cigarettes should go up by €10. But it won’t happen, he says, because ‘the lobby and powerful tobacco industry are preventing this from happening’. And, he added, ‘a tax hike would cost the VVD two to three seats and naturally that is something the party would want to avoid’. The same goes for Labour. Even Labour’s tobacco spokesperson, family doctor Marith Volp, is not promoting a tax rise. It’s easy to understand why. It would be the smokers among the Labour electorate – people on low incomes – who would be hardest hit. Labour stands to lose more than the VVD in this respect. There can only be one conclusion: smoking is an addiction perpetuated by a coalition motivated by electoral gain. Society is paying the price: deadly diseases, premature deaths, productivity loss and huge health care costs. There is still some time to go until the next elections but who should we vote for if we want to protect society, and children in particular, from the dangers of tobacco? Simply vote for the party which at the very least includes a commitment to increase tax on tobacco and limit its sale to designated outlets in its manifesto. This article appeared earlier in the NRC  More >

Unions and employers see soft landing on a downy pension pillow

Trust the employers and unions to come up with a complicated and opaque new pension plan, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. The Sociaal Economische Raad (a senior government advisory body made up of unions, employers and lay members) is laying out a soft pillow filled with the downiest of goose down sown up in a sturdy cotton pillow case. It’s  there to cushion the fall for every unfortunate generation whose luck on the stock exchange has run out. Who fills this miraculous pillow? All the generations whose luck held. Excess investment earnings from one generation go to generations whose shares tumbled. Lucky generations compensate unlucky generations. There’s solidarity among the age cohorts: we have a mutual investment return insurance policy. Buffer The buffer for luck and bad luck is an important part of the SER’s recent pension report in which it outlines a new pension system in which workers create their own investment pot. Even considering such an individually tailored pension is a revolutionary step for the union and employer talking shop. Abolishing the collective pension pots containing all the premiums in exchange for a vague and hardly secure promise of a nominal amount of money upon retirement was something the unions never even wanted to consider. Every adjustment of the system was dismissed as an attack on solidarity. But now the polder is coming round to the idea that the present system no longer serves. Years of discussion about actuarial interest rates, funding ratios and indexation have shown that the rot has set in and that the ‘best pension system in the world’ is crumbling. So the system has to change. Collective pots become individual pots, underpinned by that huge pillow. Collective The pillow is not an individual pillow but a collective pillow. Filled with a downy solidarity tax on the investment returns of those individual pots that are ‘too high’. The buffer for luck and bad luck is nothing but a shadow pension fund that collects premiums on the investment returns of pension funds. It’s a new collective fund filled with money whose exact ownership is unclear and which will be divvied up based on investment returns expected in a far-away future. And what will constitute ‘normal’, 'above average’ and ‘too little’ return on investment? Do I hear someone say ‘actuarial interest’?  The fight between the generations over the money in the pillow will break out before the opening bell of the stock exchange. In the end every age group will consider themselves as the unlucky generation surrounded by generations with all the luck in the world. Individual pension pots subject to a solidarity tax to fund a collective investment buffer based on arbitrary investment return expectations – those who thought the new system would be simpler and more transparent have reckoned without the SER. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >

How moderate right-wingers have become ‘extremist’ europhiles

Economist Mathijs Bouman charts the journey from being a moderate right-winger to an extremist europhile. You think that free trade is a good starting point for economic diplomacy, preferably via multilateral free trade agreements, or if that can’t be done via bilateral agreements. You think close cooperation with the US is a no-brainer. Naturally, some hard nuts will have to be cracked at the negotiating table but then a mutually advantageous free trade accord should be in the bag. You thought everybody would see the advantages of such an agreement but while your back was turned for five minutes public opinion had shifted dramatically. Free trade is in the interest of multinationals, people say, and they are only interested in poisoning us with chlorine chickens  and hormone beef Freedom and prosperity After a quarter of a century you are cancelling your Milieudefensie membership. Once an organisation for nature lovers you gladly supported, it now has an anti-globalist agenda which opposes free entrepreneurship and free trade. You’re branded an extremist because you think European cooperation will promote freedom, security and prosperity. You are still not convinced that a Europe with national currencies and fluctuating exchange rates will function better than a monetary union. You fear the Russian bear more than the Brussels snail. Your sort is called a europhile these days (yes, this is now a term of abuse). And market forces, well everybody knows what a complete and utter failure they are. Never mind that we put our superfluous stuff on auction site Marktplaats at the weekend and bid for the cheapest wellness-arrangement on vakantieveilingen.nl while vilifying the price mechanism as an instrument to fill the pockets of the big earners the rest of the week. Trap Semi civil servant Antoinette Hertsenberg is given airtime by semi state broadcaster AvroTros to condemn market forces in the health system. Even childhood hero and writer Jan Terlouw has fallen into the trap. In a reaction to consumer programme Radar, he twitters : ‘Does anyone still have a good word to say about market forces in health care?’ In the early seventies Terlouw in his book How to become King convincingly explained how the monopoly of corrupt doctors brought ruin to the people in a city in the kingdom of Katoren. He has changed his tune since then. I prefer the Terlouw of 1971. Those who positioned themselves slightly to the right of the centre on the political spectrum, and paired a considered distrust of state interference to a belief in international cooperation, are now seen as neoliberal slaves to capitalism, or Europhile extremists. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >

The TTIP is bad for agriculture and environment

Representatives of the farming unions, livestock farmers’ associations and environmental groups don’t often agree, but all think the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership should be stopped. The European Union (EU) and the United States (US) are in negotiations about a free trade agreement (TTIP). This is happening behind closed doors, and the precise contents of the agreement have not been made public. But farmers and livestock farmers know enough for the alarm bells to go off: the TTIP will flood the European market with American agricultural products produced to a lower standard. This will adversely affect the incomes of farmers, the safety of our food, workers’ rights, the quality of the environment and animal welfare. The same goes for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) the Canadian variant of the TTIP. These agreements leave no room for production standard requirements, apart from a brief mention of food safety. The EU and the US have fundamentally different rules for allowing products and materials onto the market. The EU favours a precautionary approach: no, unless proven to be safe. The Americans turn this around: yes, unless. They will only ban a product or material if it is proven to be unsafe. Unfair competition American agriculture and livestock farming have no legal standards regarding animal welfare, and standards for pollution, food safety and working conditions are much less stringent then in Europe. This means production costs are much lower. Because the EU and the US want to come to a mutual recognition of each other’s standards the abolition of import duty will open the door to unfair competition from American products. Tariff-free import quota for American products will likewise lead to unfair competition and lower prices. The European market will become unbalanced and this will seriously affect the continuity of the primary agricultural sector in Europe. Unfair competition will force farmers to scale up and family businesses will be closed. Job losses in the supply chain and the processing industry will be inevitable. The working conditions and workers’ wages in the entire agricultural sector will come under even more pressure. No guarantees The fact that the European Commission and the Dutch government maintain that standards won’t be lowered in no way constitutes a guarantee for farmers and consumers. Already the EU is postponing and relaxing laws governing food safety. With TTIP and CETA raising standards would become practically impossible. Standards can only be raised if the farmer pays for the added costs and the EU market is protected against products that comply with lower standards. But with free trade agreements that is impossible. American as well as European research shows that European agriculture and livestock farming will suffer once the TTIP comes into effect: there will be more imports, lower production and lower prices. We find the enthusiasm of our politicians for these agreements incomprehensible. We demand an end to the TTIP negotiations. We demand that CETA not be ratified by the EU and the Netherlands. Should the negotiations continue then agriculture, livestock farming and food should be excluded. Ingrid Jansen - chairman Nederlandse Vakbond Varkenshouders (pig farmers) Eric Douma - chairman LTO Varkenshouderij (pig farmers) Hennie de Haan - chairman Nederlandse Vakbond Pluimveehouders (poultry farmers) Sieta van Keimpema - chairman Dutch Dairymen Board Irene van der Sar - board member Nederlandse Melkveehouders Vakbond (dairy farmers' association) Keimpe van der Heide - board member Nederlandse Akkerbouw Vakbond (arable farmers' association) Piet van IJzendoorn - chairman Vereniging voor Biologisch-Dynamische Landbouw en Voeding (organic food producers' association) Jacomijn Pluimers - campaign leader Duurzaam Voedsel Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth) Wim Baltussen - FNV sector Agrarisch Groen (trade union) Guus Geurts - board member Platform Aarde Boer Consument (consumer platform) This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >

Ebru Umar’s wretched columns are a small price to pay for press freedom

As a 'shock columnist' who likes hurling playground insults, Ebru Umar is no fearless martyr to the free word in the mould of Vaclav Havel, writes Gordon Darroch. Ebru Umar might be a fool but we still have to fight for her. The Dutch Metro columnist’s holiday in the Turkish resort of Kusadasi has been indefinitely extended while police decide whether to charge her with insulting the country’s president on Twitter. She appears to be bearing it bravely: she's tweeted a picture of the sunset from her balcony. This in itself makes her a rarity among freedom of speech campaigners in Turkey, such as Erol Zavar, since for most of them sunlight is a rare privilege. Zavar, the editor of the leftwing magazine Odak, was given a life sentence in 2000 for ‘changing the constitutional order by force’ and is currently fighting a losing battle with cancer in a high-security jail in Ankara. Umar, meanwhile, is sipping tea in the sunshine and posting selfies from the hair salon. Umar is the type of shock columnist who attracts praise because ze neemt geen blad voor de mond – a Dutch expression that loosely means she speaks her mind. Sadly, it seems she has little discernible mind to speak of. She was arrested for a couple of critical tweets about Erdogan, and recently she signed off a pre-emptive strike against Erdogan’s supporters in the Dutch Turkish community with the words: ‘I have only one thing to say to you: go fuck yourself’. Martyr This is not somebody in any danger of being mistaken for a fearless martyr to the free word in the mould of Vaclav Havel. When another Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink, was expelled from Turkey after spending 25 years reporting on the Kurdish civil war, Umar responded in a radio broadcast: ‘What business do you have there? Go away! If you’re a journalist in Turkey you know there’s a chance of vanishing behind bars’. But let us be charitable and call Umar a late recruit to the cause of press freedom. More vexing is the pinned tweet at the top of her timeline: ‘Dear tweeps, I’ve been Ebru Umar for almost 46 years now. Trust me: I will remain Ebru Umar for the rest of my life.’ Forty-six years on earth distilled into the hollow cry: ‘Look at me! Point the camera at me! I’m the story! Not them! Me! Me! Me!’ But no matter: freedom of speech is not just the freedom of beetle-browed intellectuals to debate the influence of Gramsci over a frothy macchiato. It is also the freedom of simple souls to say witless things on Twitter about their ancestral homeland’s government. Human rights The Dutch government says it is working hard behind the scenes to secure Umar’s release, and so it should. She has had phone calls from the prime minister and foreign minister, she says, and been treated courteously by the police. None of this, however, should detract from the wider issue of Erdogan’s abhorrent attitude to human rights, which has been tolerated for too long. Europe, with the Netherlands as chairman, must wise up and realise that it holds the trump card here. Erdogan has promoted himself as the fixer who can solve Europe’s refugee crisis in return for visa-free travel for his citizens, accelerated membership of the European Union and a €6 billion funding package. Now the Turkish president hopes to use that deal as a lever to seize the initiative on freedom of expression and lower the threshold for EU accession. The likes of Umar and Jan Böhnermann are decoys in a deeper campaign against modernity. But for all his empty threats to dump busloads of refugees at the Greek border, Erdogan can ill afford to miss out on that €6 billion bonanza. It should be impressed on him that EU membership is out of the question unless Turkey drastically improves its record on human rights. Censorship The country ranks 151st out of 180 countries on the latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, the internet is routinely censored, trials of journalists are held behind closed doors and the president’s bodyguards recently assaulted Turkish journalists who tried to ask critical questions during a tour of the United States. Umar deserves to be defended to the hilt not because of her wretched columns, but because of what she represents. It was distressing to see an MP from the misleadingly named Denk (Think) party in the Dutch parliament argue on Nieuwsuur that the Netherlands had no business intervening because Umar had failed to comply with Turkish censorship standards. Focus The benefit to society of letting conscientious writers check the power of presumptive dictators far outweighs the irritation caused by attention-seeking columnists. If the west can’t stand up for its own simpletons, what message are we sending to the likes of Idris Yılmaz and Vildan Atmaca, two reporters from pro-Kurdish news agencies who are currently in detention facing trial for posting anti-Erdogan cartoons on Facebook? Yet if Umar simply reverts to hurling playground insults at Erdogan and his followers when she returns to the Netherlands, it will be a pretty miserable return on the efforts made on her behalf. Perhaps she can use her international fame to focus on the excesses of Erdogan’s regime and the harassment, intimidation and abuse of process that are part of everyday life for journalists in Turkey who don’t have a direct line to the Dutch prime minister. It will mean venturing beyond the hair salon and the Aegean balcony, but you never know; 46 isn’t too late to start. Gordon Darroch is a freelance journalist who also writes for DutchNews.nl. This column first appeared on his blog WordsforPress.   More >

Is a university campus prayer room any different to providing a bar?

Is a university campus prayer room any different to providing a bar?

Universities provide bars, yoga classes and gyms on their campuses, so why not places where students of every religion can go to pray? asks Molly Quell. Last week, Delta, the Delft University of Technology magazine, reported that the university was investigating how to provide silent rooms on campus. The same week, the AD reported that students in The Hague had requested a prayer room. Judging from the reaction in the media, you could have mistakenly thought Muslim students at these schools had demanded the forced conversions of the princesses. The AD had something to say. Omroep West reported on it. PowNed had a story. Geen Stijl voiced their thoughts. Even the JOVD (the youth wing of the VVD) had something to say. The JOVD column reads, in part: 'A university should be a secular place where the gathering of scientific knowledge is the main aim and, therefore, there is no place for religious expression.' Pubs So I fully expect to see the JOVD calling for the closure of TU Delft’s nine faculty pubs and protesting outside the pottery class offered by the Culture Centre. It’s not the first time this conflict has arisen. In 2012, Nos reported that students at The Hague's hbo college had requested prayer rooms. At the time, it was pointed out that universities in Leiden, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Maastricht all offered prayer or meditation rooms for their students. These universities certainly have no problems accepting tuition money from international students, but when asked to fulfil those students needs, suddenly campus is only for academics. Student life The reality is universities play a much larger role in the lives of their students and staff than merely a place to study and work, something that is clearly visible in the amenities offered by modern institutions: bars, cafes, sports facilities, concerts, festivals, yoga classes, debates and movie showings. It seems to me that if the university can indulge my need for an afternoon beer, they can accommodate a group of students who would like a quiet space to pray. And if you want to argue that the university is no place for religion, then you'd better also be arguing in favour of classes on Whit Monday. Otherwise someone might mistake you for a bigot. Molly Quell is the international editor of Delta and a journalist based in Delft. The opinions expressed here are entirely her own. You can find her on Twitter at @mollyquell.   More >