Daylight savings time and the time zone in the Netherlands

After recent nieuws about the plan of the European Commission to abolish daylight savings time, I decided to investigate the subject. The summary: winter time is our ‘normal’ time, Daylight Savings Time (DST) advances the clock one hour so that we have can enjoy the sunlight longer during summer evenings. The advantage of longer daylight in the summer is clear. I also like having longer sunlight on a summer evening when I’m relaxing in my garden with guests. The Dutch Olympic Committee*Dutch Sports Federation thinks that the extra sunlight in the evening is important for sports participation. I understand that because I also like to go surfing or swimming in the sea after my work. They also mention running, but that is also possible in the dark.

However, the longer daylight for leisure after the workday is the only substantial advantage of daylight savings time. In the different news items and the expansive Wikipedia article about DST I read that the other alleged advantage, lower electricity consumption, is doubted. On the other hand the evidence for negative effects, such as disruption of our circadian rhythm and sleep pattern, is convincing. While I personally don’t experience sleep problems during the beginning and end of DST, it is apparently disruptive to many other people. En the complexity of the clock change is also an argument against DST. Telephones and computers change automatically, but my oven and mechanical clock don’t. There is extra confusion when you have to make a an international phone call because you have to take DST into account when you convert your local time to other time zones.

The first news item also point out that the Netherlands should actually use Western European Time because of it’s geographic location, just like the United Kingdom. In other words, the our clock is actually one hour (two when we use DST) ahead of the solar time. If the solar time would be followed exactly, the sun would reach it highest point at 12:00 hours. A look at the Wikipedia article on time zones tells us that it is even more extreme elsewhere in the world. Russia has a very strange application of time zones, China has one time zone for the whole country (!) and the western tip of Spain deviates strongly. The time zones in the United States do make sense and match the solar time.

Because it interested me to see how the time zone in the Netherlands compares with others, I compared the time of dusk and dawn in The Hague with two other cities. The Hague lies at the 52th parallel north, which is a line of about 111 kilometers wide running over the earth in east-west orientation. Other places on this parallel receive roughly the same amount of daylight, no matter their distance from The Hague. To compare I have chosen Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Lipetsk in Russia.

In the tables below you can see the results. The data was taken from the website Time and Date and applies to 2018. I compare the shortest and longest day for the three cities. Cambridge is located in the geographical center of the WET zone and matches the solar time very closely. Lipetsk is one of the few larger cities in Russia which has a geographically fitting time zone and is relevant because Russia doesn’t use DST.

Current situation
City Date Sunlight Noon Day length
Cambridge 21 Jun 04:38–21:24 13:01 16:46
Den Haag 21 Jun 05:22–22:06 13:44 16:44
Lipetsk 21 Jun 03:57–20:48 12:23 16:51
Cambridge 21 Dec 08:06–15:48 11:57 07:42
Den Haag 21 Dec 08:48–16:32 12:40 07:43
Lipetsk 21 Dec 08:30–16:08 12:19 07:38

In the first news item I mentioned it is written that the chairman of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has a personal preference for permanent DST if we would indeed abolish the current DST. As the first news item explained this is quite an extreme change, because the time in the winter will then have the same large deviation from the solar time as it does during the summer. The consequence is that the sun will rise as late as 9:48 on 21 December in The Hague. I consider this very undesirable and it will certainly not help our cyrcadian rhythms. Effectively it means that we will have to rise even earlier during the night in the winter.

Permanent DST
City Date Sunlight Noon Day length
Den Haag 21 Jun 05:22–22:06 13:44 16:44
Den Haag 21 Dec 09:48–17:32 13:40 07:43

Abolishing DST seems the most logical choice to me, a good compromise. And what if we were to look at the problem in a different way? After we abolish DST we could decide start the workday earlier, at 8:00 hours instead of 8:30 hours for example, to win back some sunlight in the evening

Abolishing DST
City Date Sunlight Noon Day length
Den Haag 21 Jun 04:22–21:06 12:44 16:44
Den Haag 21 Dec 08:48–16:32 12:40 07:43

If we wanted to be entirely correct we shouldn’t just abolish DST but also start to use WET. This takes it too far for my taste because we loose even more light during the summer evenings then. Because the Netherlands lies in the eastern half of the WET zone, the clock is slightly ahead of solar time.

Abolishing DST and switching to WET
City Date Sunlight Noon Day length
Den Haag 21 Jun 03:22–20:06 11:44 16:44
Den Haag 21 Dec 07:48–15:32 11:40 07:43

Finally, there was news that the EU member states postponed a decision on DST. The Netherlands apparently wants to use the same time zone as Germany. And the European Commission wants to avoid a patchwork of different time zones in the EU because it would be bad for the economy. I don’t follow this line of reasoning because the United States, the largest economy in the world, use four time zones without a clear disadvantage to its economy. So I don’t see any issue if the EU abolishes DST en the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Spain switch to WET while the rest of the EU uses Central European Time or Eastern European Time.

The dividend tax stays

On 5 October Unilever announced that it would not move its headquarters from London to Rotterdam because its stockholders opposed the move. Later that day the Dutch government, the Rutte III cabinet, stated that it would reconsider the abolition of the dividend tax. According to prime minister Mark Rutte it did not mean the dividend tax would be preserved definitively. He stated the plan to abolish it wasn’t launched for a single company, but that Unilever’s decision was relevant in the reassessment of the plan.

The words of Rutte don’t connect with reality. The announcement to reconsider the plan came directly after Unilever’s announcement. And the action of just Unilever, one company, was the motivation for the reassessment after all. The statement of Rutte doesn’t have any credibility. Once again it’s a smoke screen, because I think Rutte had been searching for an exit of the despised plan to abolish the tax. Unilever’s action is right up his alley because it enables him to cancel the abolition without much loss of face. That the reappraisal wouldn’t directly lead to preservation of the tax is unbelievable, because otherwise they wouldn’t be sowing doubt with such an announcement. I know for sure now that the dividend tax will stay.

Also consider that Unilever’s plan to abandon the move is a pitifully bad excuse for the reconsideration. The move of the headquarters to Rotterdam would have brought several dozen jobs to the Netherlands. Even if you add some indirect employment, such a small number is meaningless. Are we supposed to believe that this meager amount of jobs is influencing a decision on € 1,9 billion of potentially lost tax revenue? That is the amount lost if the dividend tax would be abolished.

In other news, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands thinks the dividend tax is legally sustainable and doesn’t discriminate against foreign investors. The news isn’t very clear about the arguments of the Supreme Court, but it does give a link to the detailed ruling. I don’t have knowledge about tax law, but after reading the summary I think I understand. Denmark was discriminating because it didn’t offer foreign investment funds the choice to be taxed on the exit instead of the entrance, just like Danish investment funds.

The tax on the entrance is apparently the tax which is paid to the state where the investment fund is located. The tax on the exit is paid to the state where the recipient of the dividend is located, as far as I understand. In practice the choice doesn’t offer any advantage, because exemption from the tax at the entrance is only granted if the tax is paid at the exit. The latter requires so much complex administration that in practice not a single investment fund would want this. If the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration would allow foreign investment funds to choose to pay tax on the exit and then offer them exemption on the tax at the entrance, they’ve got nothing on the Dutch state.

The summary is reasonably readable in this case which is so complex for laypeople. Yet, the unnecessary use of English directly caught my eye in the language used by advocate general P. J. Wattel. For example “zowel de lokale, if any, als de Deense bronbelasting” and “zal het niet-ingezeten fonds moeten tracen welke ontvangen dividenden hij dooruitdeelt”. Naar correct Nederlands vertaald “indien van toepassing” en “traceren”. These words were not English legal jargon without Dutch counterparts. Dutch people have a hand in polluting their own language with unnecessary English. It’s a pity to see that even the Supreme Court is affected by this disease.

Lili, Howick, Harbers and discretionary authority

Earlier this month Mark Harbers, State Secretary for Justice and Security, decided to use his discretionary authority to grant Lili and Howick permanent residency in the Netherlands. I had hoped that the Secretary would be just as uncompromising in this matter as the cabinet is with its plan to abolish the dividend tax. I’m disappointed that Harbers doesn’t have a spine.

Some facts first: Lili (12) and Howick (13) live in the Netherlands since 2008 but are Armenian nationals. Their case was heard eight times by the courts and eight times the judgment was that they did not have a right to asylum in the Netherlands. Armenia is a safe country after all. Their mother had been deported to Armenia in 2017. Because she did not tell were her children were in hiding she was deported without them.

Of course, if you grew up in the Netherlands like Lili and Howick it will be difficult to integrate in Armenia. But difficult is not impossible: if the refugees who come to the Netherlands are able to integrate here, Lili and Howick should be able to integrate in Armenia, right? On their return to Armenia Lili and Howick would have to live in an orphanage for six months because their mother couldn’t care for them. If comfort in the country of return becomes a criterion, we might as well grant every asylum seeker from Africa or the Middle East a permanent residence permit. A quick look at the statistics of forced departures shows that plenty of people are deported to nasty countries where the level of welfare is far lower than in Armenia.

In the Netherlands it is possible to prolong deportation forever by appealing rulings time and time again. But does that make it our fault that Lili and Howick have become accustomed to life here? No! Their mother didn’t have to appeal every decision for years, that was a choice. She accepted the risk that it would lead to denial of residency in the end and should live with the consequences.

The decision of Lili and Howick to go into hiding was effectively a form of blackmail. The concern for their safety is what drove Mark Harbers to grant them a permanent residency permit. In their desperation Lili and Howick probably probably didn’t intend it so, but it’s still wrong. By giving in, Mark Harbers shows other asylum seekers that going into hiding will be rewarded.

What troubles me the most in this case is the very existence of the discretionary authority of the State Secretary. There are no rules for the use of that authority. The State Secretary can decide to grant permanent residency permits to those who have been denied one by the courts as he sees fit and without explanation. This introduces arbitrary decision making in the process. Asylum seekers like Lili and Howick, who are able to play the media and public opinion, do get a permit, while those who are not well-publicized are deported. The very reason we have judges is to prevent arbitrariness and decide objectively if the law was applied correctly. There should not be any discretionary authority with the executive branch to sweep aside rulings made by the legislative branch.

My sentiments about arbitrariness and the stimulation of going underground are apparently shared by the public servants of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. Meanwhile a committee has been appointed to investigate how these sort of situations can be prevented. Apparently stacking legal procedures and appeals for years is hard to prevent because of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. If so, that treaty should be changed.

The abolition of the dividend tax

The plan of the Rutte III cabinet to abolish the dividend tax is continuously receiving negative attention in the media. The cabinet couldn’t deliver convincing evidence that the plan would have a positive effect on job creation. The plan also tears a hole of 2 billion in the budget.

Recently there was news that abolition of the dividend tax seemed to be necessary for legal reasons. Currently the Dutch dividend tax only affects foreign investors because Dutch investors can deduct the dividend tax from their tax return. Denmark had the same rule, but was sued by foreign investors. The European Court of Justice found in favor of the foreign investors because it considered the policy discriminatory. If the Dutch state would lose in a similar court case it would mean that foreign investors would be allowed submit a request for a tax refund as well. Because the Netherlands Tax and Customs Administration would not be able to deal with such a change, it would de facto necessitate abolishment of the the dividend tax. I don’t understand however why plan B – no tax refund for Dutch and foreign investors – is not possible.

I suspect the politicians of the VVD (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which is the largest party in the Rutte III) launched the plan because the lobby of the multinationals whispered it in their ears. According to the news item the legal argument may have been the real reason for Rutte III. It wouldn’t have been communicated openly because public servants had advised not to mention the legal aspect. It would have weakened the legal position of the Dutch state. Did Rutte III really create a smoke screen? Often the simple explanation is the better one: the VVD politicians are not political masterminds but the pawns of the multinationals. The lobby for this plan goes back for years and the legal dimension only entered the spotlight very recently.

Whatever the true reason may be, in principle no one likes discrimination? Certainly not if we are discriminated, as with the German road toll plan. This plan entails that foreigners pay tolls for the use of German highways, while Germans get a refund on their road tax for the tolls they pay. At the end of last year the Dutch state decided to join other EU member states in a legal case against Germany at the European Court of Justice. Is it not consistent then to deal with the dividend tax as well?

In the end, what really matters for me is if the abolition of the dividend tax is honestly compensated by higher taxes on capital and profit (specifically including corporate tax on the profits of companies). We will have to wait for the upcoming government budget later this month, but it does seem to go that way. The plan would be to cancel the intended reduction of the highest corporate tax to 21%. Instead, it would be reduced to 22% to compensate for the loss of the dividend tax.

The problem is that the highest tariff of the corporate tax currently is 25% and used to be 46%. The Netherlands allows itself to be dragged into a race to the bottom for tax competition along with other states. The idea is that corporate taxes should constantly be reduced because companies might relocate to other states where taxes are lower. Consider some statistics. The tax burden (total revenue of taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product) has risen from 37,2% in 1995 to 38,5% in 2017. The revenue of the corporate tax as percentage of the gross domestic product rose from 2,87% in 1995 to 2,90% in 2017.

The tax burden evidently rose while the share of the corporate tax remained virtually unchanged. This small change is more grave in reality. The Netherlands Bureau of Policy Analysis (CPB) can partially explain the leveled revenues of the corporate tax with two causes. On the one hand the lowered tariffs were compensated by a broader tax base, caused by less room for tax deductions, depreciation and such. On the other hand there is a shift in the legal entity used by companies, for example from sole proprietorship to the private limited company (plc). A business using the sole proprietorship entity pays income tax and a plc pays corporate tax. Because corporate tax is lower, it is attractive to convert the sole proprietorship legal entity to a plc. The consequence is that revenues from the income tax take a hit.

The above is of course only a part of the answer because we only discussed corporate tax. Unfortunately I can’t find any good historical statistics on the division of the tax burden between companies and households. I have a strong suspicion that these would show that the share contributed by companies has decreased while the share contributed by households has increased. Lowering the corporate tax tariffs slightly less sharply is not going to solve the problem.

The tobacco smoking ban at street-level

On 3 August it was announced that the municipality of Rotterdam has plans to impose a ban on tobacco smoking for several streets. The Erasmus Medical Center, the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and the Erasmiaans Gymnasium launched this initiative to protect public health. To guarantee that there will be no smoking in front of their entrances, there would effectively be a smoking ban on three streets near their buildings. Apparently other municipalities are also eager to designate non-smoking zones in their Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening (APV, a local ordinance in Dutch law).

Actually I’m surprised that smoking in public is still allowed. I suspect electoral motives are playing a role here. Because there are so many smokers, a ban on smoking could cost votes for the political parties who enact such a ban. Perhaps the fact that smoking is on a slow decline in the Netherlands is the reason that we are seeing more action on this issue today.

It’s strange that smoking is dealt with so weakly in comparison with other drugs. Take cannabis, a drug which poses a health risk roughly equal to or lower than tobacco. Smoking cannabis in public is already banned in most municipalities, who also use the APV for this. Or psilocybin mushrooms, mushrooms with a psychedelic effect. Even though these are not addictive and are barely harmful for public health, they were banned completely in 2008. By comparison tobacco is a mass murderer which faces almost no constraints.

We should distinguish between how damaging a drug can be for public space in theory and in practice. In an ideal situation we aren’t troubled by tobacco smokers who smoke at a good distance from other people. In practice however I see that many smokers on the bus stations and platforms of Utrecht Centraal don’t keep that distance. They smoke close to other groups of people waiting for the train or bus, who still receive second-hand smoke.

Many smokers also throw their cigarette butts on the street because cleaning up is too much work for them. The excuse is probably that they can’t throw a cigarette which isn’t extinguished in the litter bin. When I recently seated myself on a bench in a park in The Hague during my lunch break, I noticed the ground around the bench was littered with cigarette butts. It looked like they had accumulated there over some days or weeks. Apart from that smoking in public always gives a bad example to children.

This ambition to ban smoking in public comes late, but is very welcome. I do hope that we can institute a nationwide ban on smoking in public instead of having to wait for every individual municipality in our country to take action. There is no reason why smoking should be banned in some streets in Rotterdam while it would still be allowed on the Grote Marktstraat in The Hague.

Because a complete smoking ban might play into the hands of illegal production and criminals, I don’t wouldn’t advocate a complete smoking ban. I would treat tobacco roughly equal to cannabis, assuming that cannabis production will probably be legalized in the near future. So only legal sale in coffee shops (so no tobacco sale in super markets and such!) and use banned in public.

Why an apology for slavery should not be made

On 30 June the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, called on the Dutch government to make a formal apology for the Dutch slave trade. De Dutch state had expressed its regret for the slave trade before, but it never came to an apology out of fear for possible legal responsibility. There are several reason why I think a formal apology is not a good idea.

At the very least I think it is ironic that just Aboutaleb with his Berber origin calls for an apology. The Barbary pirates from North Africa undertook slave raids to Europe from the 16th to 19th century to enslave Europeans. Where is his call to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to formally apologize to the European countries for their slave trade? Of course Europeans have traded far more slaves than the Berbers, but that is not the point. It’s just an interesting question, not an appeal to hypocrisy towards Aboutaleb.

Europeans nowadays don’t demand an apology from North African countries for their slave trade from the past. Indigenous Dutch people nowadays don’t demand an apology from Spain because their distant ancestors were killed during the Eighty Years’ War due to the actions of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish Empire never compensated the United Provinces for the damage. Apparently these people do realise that you shouldn’t keep pulling on the distant past.

There are of course other situations possible were an apology is appropriate. The most important criterium should be if the people who demand the apology actually suffered from the acts for which an apology is asked. The killings perpetrated by Dutch soldiers in the Indonesian village Rawagede and in South Sulawesi in 1946 and 1947 are a good example. The widows of the men who were killed at that time were compensated for the damage and received an official apology.

It should be noted that the Dutch politicians who were responsible for the violent suppression of the Indonesian War of Independence are no longer alive. An apology loses value if it is not made by those who were responsible for the misdeeds. In this case the responsibility is more abstract because the apology is made on behalf of the Dutch state as a legal entity. This does not affect the necessity of the apology however.

Compare this with the situation of the slave trade by the Dutch. Among the people who demand an apology from the Dutch state, there is no one who has suffered from slavery and they did not have parents who have been slaves. In which way were they damaged by the slavery? How will an apology make them sleep easier at night? I can’t help but think that these people want an apology so that they can hold the Dutch government responsible in the court of law and then demand financial compensation through lawsuits.

The failure of GroenLinks to join the new coalition government

Jesse Klaver, political leader of GroenLinks, is blamed by VVD, CDA and D66 for the failure of the formation of a new Dutch coalition government. Negotiations failed because GroenLinks doesn’t want to make any “Turkey-deals” in the future to restrict streams of refugees from Africa. The VVD notes that governing leftist political parties elsewhere in Europe, like in Greece and Portugal, do agree with this policy. The CDA considers these deals a new European reality and thinks the desire of GroenLinks is impossible to satisfy with the rest of Europe being in favor of it.

The refugee deal with Turkey entailed that refugees ask for asylum in Turkey and are prevented from travelling to Europe to do so. Refugees (including those which reach Europe) are received by Turkey, for which the EU pays. Eventually, those who receive a refugee status (primarily Syrians) get divided over the EU member states. Klaver thinks that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees, based on the reports written by Amnesty International. He does not think Tunesia is safe, either.

Based on a reconstruction of the Volkskrant and the other parties, GroenLinks agreed to potential refugee deals on Thursday 8 June. This happened after a top diplomat explained that refugee deals can be compliant with international law. According to GroenLinks all parties should have known that Klaver would bring in new discussion points the day after. Klaver added a demand that the Netherlands should take in 5 to 25 thousand refugees a year after committing to refugee deals. This demand was later shelved, but Klaver maintained his objection to sending back refugees to African countries. When the impasse continued on Monday 12 June, the negotiations ended.

In an interview with the Volkskrant on Thursday 15 June, Jesse Klaver said negotiations could have failed over plenty of other issues. Examples he gives are the failure to meet the goals of Paris climate treaty, or the desire of the other parties to ease the bonus regulations for bankers. That last wish was apparently dropped by the others after Klaver stated he didn’t agree with it, but imagine how different the news headlines would have been if negotiations broke down over either of these two issues. Klaver wouldn’t have been blamed for ending the negotiations. Compliance with the Paris treaty would have been considered a much more legitimate policy goal than a more lenient asylum policy.

I’m very disappointed with Klaver. He gained a historical election victory and could have made GroenLinks participate in the governing coalition for the first time in our party’s history. But he squandered it. He bowed his head to the pro-refugee camp in GroenLinks and refused to compromise on the refugee deals. We know that there is huge support for such deals among other EU-member states and among the general Dutch population. Actually, given the seats the right wing parties have won and the general sentiment, there is precisely that support for containing the refugee influx.

By now the VVD, CDA and D66 parties have formed a coalition government with the ChristenUnie, a Chistian political party. At least the sound environmental policy of the ChristenUnie comes second to only GroenLinks itself. It pains me to write this, but environmentalists might have been better off voting for the ChristenUnie because that party does have courage to make compromises. GroenLinks doesn’t want to compromise or take responsibility.

Stopped as secretary of GroenLinks Zuid-Holland

In April this year I ended my tenure as the secretary of the board of GroenLinks Zuid-Holland. That is the local chapter of the Dutch Green party in South Holland province. I could have opted for another two year tenure, but I felt I had no longer had the motivation for the job.

Mostly, it was simply the desire to do something different after two years of working for the board of the provincial chapter. That’s why I’ve solicited to become a candidate for the GroenLinks branch in The Hague for the municipal council elections of 2018. Another reason is that the nature of work done by the secretary is not satisfying. It became frustrating and inefficient too often. I’ll explain this in detail here.

As the secretary I often communicated with local chapters and party members in our province. Contact data of party members, including members of local chapter boards and local politicians is all stored in the Customer Relations Management (CRM) system of GroenLinks. The secretary is the only one who has access to the CRM system.

I had to export the data on party members from the CRM to MailChimp, which is used by our chapter to send our members newsletters. Because there are constant mutations in membership, you have to perform a new export from the CRM every time you send a newsletter. If you send newsletters often, this can be quite a hassle. MailChimp is also expensive (around € 60 per month if I remember correctly) because the South Holland chapter has several thousand members who receive newsletters. If you consider that there are many more local branches in the country who use MailChimp to send newsletters, the costs start adding up. But the party bureau never considered a cheaper alternative for MailChimp for all local chapters, or at least some integration of the CRM with MailChimp.

Another issue with MailChimp is that a good template which local branches can use for their newsletters is missing. If every local chapter makes its own inferior template it doesn’t look like professional communication. At the very least the party bureau should design such a template. I’ve asked, but the answer was that everyone was busy with the election for the House of Representatives this year. But nothing happened after that election either.

It isn’t possible to filter on certain job titles in the CRM system. I can’t make a selection of municipal councillors or aldermen, or a selection of campaign leaders, and only export data on those persons. Because our campaigners need that contact data I had to maintain separate spreadsheets with those contact persons and manually update them when changes occur. Very dull work and inefficient. Giving every chapter distribution lists such as board.rotterdam@groenlinks.nl or campaignleaders.southholland@groenlinks.nl and synchronizing these with the CRM to catch mutations in the members of the list could solve this.

The content management system (CMS) behind the websites is no good either. Drupal is used to power the websites. I don’t know if it’s inherent to Drupal or not, but it’s not user friendly at all, even for an IT guy like me. That’s why it’s even more frustrating to read that the web team of the GroenLinks party bureau simply denies that there are usability issues. This was especially frustrating for me, certainly after helping webmasters of local chapters in our province with issues several times.

A disadvantage of the CMS and CRM combined is that there is no feature to keep track of registrations for events. Advance registration is necessary in my opinion if you organize a meeting and have a voting procedure on the agenda. You want to know if attending people have voting rights, which are granted to party members who have paid their contribution. The best thing you can do in the CMS is enabling a registration form, which buries you in registration e-mails if a lot of people want to attend. You then manually need to verify if those people have voting rights. This is another very labour intensive and demotivating job. I suspect the party bureau does have some way to automate their registration forms for their own much larger events. Yet they never considered to develop a registration form for the CMS which is integrated with the CRM for local branches.

To conclude, the secretary plays an important role on the board. But if the secretary is not supported by the party bureau with the right tools, the job becomes very unattractive. You find yourself wasting too much time on work which doesn’t demand your skill and intelligence, work which should be automated.

Of course being the secretary also taught me a lot about organization and teamwork skills. I had the benefit to work with many good people. Even though I’m quite critical of the IT facilities provided by the party bureau, there are two employees I’d like to thank: Marieke Schep and Folko de Haan. Both work tirelessly for local chapters.

CETA is dangerous and should not be ratified

On 15 February 2017 the European Parliament approved the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA). Now the treaty will need to be ratified by individual member states before it comes into effect. Let’s hope that CETA is either adequately modified before it’s ratified or rejected. I’m not principally against free trade agreements, but CETA is a bad treaty. As you might already know, CETA contains many nasty provisions favouring big business over the small citizen.

The Stop TTIP campaign (which also wants to stop CETA) covered these issues very comprehensively. There are too many to discuss in a single post so let’s single out one which worries me most: the investment court system (ICS), also known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). This is not unique to CETA, but included in many other free trade agreements as well.

The problem with ICS is that it gives foreign investors acces to special courts for investment disputes with states. I can imagine this is justified in case the state in question doesn’t have an impartial legal system, but the EU and Canada have high-quality legal systems. ICS is only accessible for foreign investors, which creates inequality for domestic investors and other actors in society. The rights for foreign investors to have their investments protected are vague and can interfere with the democratic process of lawmaking. And even after modification, judges aren’t employed on a tenured full time basis and a fixed salary, which gives a potential for conflict of interest. These objections, and more, are voiced by 101 European law professors.

Recently South Africa decided to withdraw from treaties with ISDS, Indonesia won’t renew them. India will remodel its treaties to nerf ISDS. Brazil never signed an investment treaty with ISDS at all and doesn’t have difficulty to attract foreign investment. Why do the EU and its member states not notice that? Do we really have to wait for ridiculous claims from foreign investors before we realize that ICS was a terrible idea? Unsurprisingly, my own political party GroenLinks voted against provisional application of CETA for this and other reasons. Another left-wing party, the Dutch Labour Party, thought that ICS was okay after it had been softened (but still subject to the above criticism). D66, slightly less left-wing, maintained that CETA shouldn’t interfere with the rule of law, but voted in favor anyway. They didn’t explain at all why a separate court for foreign investors is necessary.

Fortunately, the regional government of Wallonia resisted CETA fiercely before it reached a compromise with the Belgian federal government to approve the treaty on 27 October 2016. The compromise consisted of an addendum to the treaty which is analyzed in detail here. The most important succes of the compromise is that it requires a review of ICS for compatibility with European law by the European Court of Justice. It also states that the Wallonian region may veto the treaty if the chapter on investment protection is not improved by the time of ratification. We will have to see what their effort is worth by the time they make the decision to ratify the treaty or not.

Even though he couldn’t stop CETA, I’m grateful to Paul Magnette, the minister-president of Wallonia, for his efforts. In an opinion piece on CETA he not only discusses the danger of corporate privilege, but also the environmental consequences of international trade. International trade accelerates climate change through transportation of goods with fossil fuels and should therefore not expand any further. We have to produce more of our goods locally to counter climate change.

Make high-speed rail travel more efficient

Last year I wrote that I had stopped using aircraft because of their excessive use of fossil fuels. The consequence was that from then on I would only use other forms of transport to travel for holidays. In fact mostly trains for their speed. Last year we practiced what I preached and used the train to travel to Puglia.

The journey went well. The French TGV and the Italian FrecciaRossa high-speed trains can reach speeds of 300 km/h, shortening travel times significantly compared to ordinary trains and buses. On the railroad from The Hague in the Netherlands to Foggia in Italy, you’ll experience these speeds between Paris and Lyon as well as Milan and Bologna for example. It’s awesome to see the surroundings next to the train flash by in the blink of an eye. The problem is that you won’t be travelling so fast for most of the time.

Take the part from Rotterdam to Paris, Lyon and then Milan for example. Coincidentally, according to Google Maps the distance covered by all three legs of this journey is very close at approximately 450 kilometers each. Travel times are also close, at 4:30 hours each. This doesn’t take into account possible congestion, but the route is a worst case scenario which passes through the center of each city. For the train journey with Thalys (from Rotterdam) and TGV (from Paris onwards), the three legs take 2:46, 1:51 and 5:11 (!) hours respectively.

Much of this is to blame on the route through the Alps where the TGV can’t go fast and stops at every provincial backwater. This will be solved with the Turin–Lyon high-speed railway, but that is expected to be finished by 2028 due to the construction of the 57 km long Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel. Another big issue is that the Thalys arrives in Paris at Gare du Nord and that the TGV to Milan departs from Gare de Lyon two hours later. There is a good subway connection between both stations, but you lose a lot of time which could have been spent in the train.

Such important tunnels as the Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel should already have been constructed in the past if there had been foresight of the future. Paris should have one huge TGV station on the outskirts of the city. Give it a good connection to the center with a subway line so the TGV’s can be focused on serious long distance travel and short transfers between trains (which also means more trains). When that’s done, high-speed trains will be able to compete much better with aircraft.

In other places the story is the same. Milan also has two stations for high speed trains, requiring you to make a transfer. When you travel from Milan to Foggia, there simply is no high speed rail on Italy’s eastern coast. The intercity on that route wasn’t slow, but I’m looking forward to the new high-speed line from Napoli to Bari which is due to finish in 2022. When I explored options for a trip to Spain (which also has a decent high-speed rail network) I noticed that there is still no high-speed railway between Montpellier and Perpignan (in France) and that there is no high-speed railway from Madrid to Lisbon (even the ordinary railway connections to Lisbon are scarce).

I can deal with such limitations by spending the night in a city half way through the journey. But others will just take a flight. If we want to make long distance train travel attractive, we have to do a lot more.

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