Writer, speaker and advisor on Europe

Author: Joop Hazenberg

Technologie de baas in de media

Het is inmiddels drie maanden geleden dat mijn nieuwe boek Technologie de baas is gelanceerd, met een mooi evenement op 8 april in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam. Voor een…

Het is inmiddels drie maanden geleden dat mijn nieuwe boek Technologie de baas is gelanceerd, met een mooi evenement op 8 april in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam. Voor een gehoor van ongeveer honderd man zette ik de belangrijkste thema’s en conclusies van het boek uiteen, waarna een panel met Kees Verhoeven (Tweede Kamerlid D66), Robert Went (WRR), Hans Schnitzler (filosoof) en Roos de Jong (Rathenau Instituut) reageerden. Kijk de presentatie hier terug (het geluid gaat aan na 20 minuten). In de ochtend van de presentatie was ik overigens al in de uitzending van BNR om het boek toe te lichten.

Vrij snel daarna volgden twee opinieartikelen op basis van Technologie de baas.

Voor PW. – het grootste HR-vakblad in Nederland – schreef ik op verzoek een lang stuk over de impact van de vierde Industriële Revolutie op de arbeidsmarkt. Als gevolg van de enorme stroom aan nieuwe technologie die de komende jaren over ons komt, zal de arbeidsmarkt en werken als zodanig ingrijpend veranderen, was mijn stelling voor dit artikel.

Rond dezelfde tijd publiceerde Trouw een opinieartikel van mijn hand over het belasten van techreuzen. Technologische vooruitgang drijft ongelijkheid in de wereld op. Een digitaks alleen kan daar weinig tegen uithalen.

In juni interviewde Managementboek.nl mij over Technologie de baas. In het interview ga ik onder meer in op doorbraken in technologieën als robotisering, artificiële intelligentie en 5G – en ik benoem uiteraard ook de bijkomende (ethische) dilemma’s. Lees dit boekblog hier.

De toonaangevende marketing- en communicatiesite Frankwatching schreef een recensie over het boek: Zo ziet het leven er in 2039 uit. Ik wil me nadrukkelijk niet als futuroloog bestempelen, maar de auteur van de recensie stelt gelukkig dat ik mij baseer op ‘betrouwbare bronnen en onderzoeken.’

Ten slotte mocht ik begin juli wederom aanschuiven bij BNR, dit maal om te praten over wat het nieuwe mobiele netwerk 5G betekent voor onze economie en samenleving. Je kunt de uitzending hier terugluisteren.

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The next European Parliament and Commission: expect more Europe, not less

2019 is an exciting year for the European Union. In May, more than half of voters in the EU casted their ballots for the new European Parliament (up from 43%…

2019 is an exciting year for the European Union. In May, more than half of voters in the EU casted their ballots for the new European Parliament (up from 43% in 2014). In November, the successor to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will start, with a fresh team. The European Council also gets a new President. And then there’s Brexit, now scheduled for October 31.

Here’s an overview of the main changes that we can expect for the EU in 2019-2024, the coming mandate for both the EP and the Commission. Let’s start with the European Parliament.


European Parliament: more diverse

Though the EP elections have been dubbed as ‘historic’ and ‘crucial’, it remains to be seen whether the shift in the power balance within the EP will actually translate into different policies. True, the normally dominant blocks of christian-democrats (EPP) and socialists (S&D) have lost their majority. The Liberals will now be necessary to form some kind of coalition – even though this Parliament is not really a Parliament (according to the German High Court) as it does not appoint a government nor does it represent European citizens on transnational lists (though it must be stated that Volt, a pan-European party, got one MEP elected).

But let’s say there will be such a broad coalition, that doesn’t mean that things will change that much. The Greens, if they join the coalition, for sure will want more climate action – but is that feasible giving the already high targets of the EU for 2030 and beyond? And given that the EU is already seen as a climate leader in the world? The Liberals + Renaissance (the list of French President Macron) have a long wish-list to reform and strengthen Europe, for instance on asylum and migration policies and on the Digital Single Market. Many of these points will be supported (albeit sometimes lukewarmly) by other political groups in the EP.

The Liberals (formerly known as ALDE, we are still waiting for a new name) are pivoting themselves against the ‘illiberal’ forces that have taken a fair chunk of the EP: nationalist, eurosceptic and anti-EU parties from all over the EU. But the fear of many that they would become a distorting power in the EP, has not materialised. As Politico stated: the populist tide rises but fails to flood the EU. Some parties have done quite well, notably Salvini’s Lega Nord in Italy with 33% of the vote and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France with 23% coming in first place.

The EP had a remarkable campaign to get voters out, including babies

But in other countries such as Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, far-right and nationalist parties only got a thin slice of electoral support – not the third of the cake as was project in some polls. One important thing to note is that these parties do not necessarily work together well and will join the same group, which means that their influence will likely be lower than if you just add up the numbers.

We should actually be content with the fragmentation of the European Parliament. It used to be a pro-integration machine with even strong federalist forces. Such single-mindedness has now been put aside for a more realistic and diverse representation of the European electorate. This is healthy and good for European democracy. It will also liven up the debate in the EP.


The new Commission: working on an EU that protects

How will this change of hearts of voters actually translate into a new European Commission? Right now, EU observers are frantically looking for indications who will be the next Commission President – the starting point to compose the executive body of the EU for the next five years. As readers may well know, the EP has been pushing its own Spitzenkandidaten, primary candidates such as EPP’s Manfred Weber and S&D’s Frans Timmermans. But given the shrunken size of these two (former) reins of power, as well as the formidable opposition to the Spitzenkandidaten system by influential EU leaders such as President Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, it is unlikely that either Weber or Timmermans will in the end be nominated by the European Council.

EPP candidate Manfred Weber on 'listening tour', February 2019
EPP candidate Manfred Weber on ‘listening tour’, February 2019

The EU Member States are expected to take a decision on 21 June on the candidate for the Commission President. It is very hard to give a good prediction of who will come up first. Other candidates, if informal, are the French Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (I would give him the best odds as he is also from the EPP and respected across the board) and the Danish Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

This is a real tombola. In the next weeks and months, EU leaders also need to decide on a new Council President (now Donald Tusk) and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs. The EP has to elect a new President as well. All these posts are connected and a careful balance of power, aka horse trading, is crucial. EPP, S&D and Liberals will all want ‘one of them’ on a crucial place. For instance, if Weber does get elected, that means that not another German (for instance Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel) can get the position as Council President. Then a social-democrat or a liberal will need to be found, possibly even from another region in the EU.

When in the summer all the names will have been checked and approved, the soon-to-be-President can start forming his own Commission which will then be ‘grilled’ by the European Parliament in September-October. Member States will need to come up with candidates; timing is of the essence. Finland has done so already by the way, by proposing Jutta Urpilainen. Bulgaria will most likely put forward again the current Commissioner for Digital Economy, Mariya Gabriel.

More importantly than all the names are actually the priorities of the new Commission. It is expected that current policies to further integrate Europe’s (digital) markets will be continued and that reform of the eurozone governance will also remain high on the agenda. The Commission will also undoubtedly keep pushing for climate action.

A new approach however, which has come up with the rise of Emmanuel Macron, is the idea of a Europe that protects. So not only doing nice things for European citizens in the form of abolishment of mobile phone roaming surcharges and other ‘output deliverables’ that are supposed to increase legitimacy for European integration.

A Europe that protects will for instance, have a stronger European foreign policy which is very much needed given the adversity of Russia, the departure of the British, the loss of transatlantic relations (I expect Donald Trump to be reelected in 2020) and the further (aggressive) rise of China. Another hot topic of course is immigration which will need much stronger and coordinated policies, for instance through the reform of the Schengen and Dublin systems. Then there is the wish of the social-democrats to widen the social protection policies of the EU, which is controversial, because anything related to the welfare state such as unemployment benefits and pension rights, is a competence which lies entirely with the EU Member States. All this will be laid down in a working programme for the Commission which will change from year to year.

Finally, money. The EU will decide on its own budget for the period 2021-2027 before the end of the year, taking into account the new balance of power of the European Parliament. This ‘Multiannual Financial Framework’ will be no more than 1,3% of Europe’s gross national income but still be considerable in real numbers: up to 1325 billion euros – most of this money going to the EU’s agriculture policies and ‘cohesion funds’ for poorer areas in the bloc. One new element is that this EU budget can be revised mid-term, in 2023.

So right now in Brussels, it’s a bit of a lull for observers and lobbyists, a transition year in which new priorities will be set. But it’s now already clear that European integration will move on. And that there’s not a sufficient counterforce in the EP or within Member States to halt – or even reverse – the train. The next years we can expect more Europe – not less.

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Nieuw boek: Technologie de baas

Na een jaar van onderzoek, verkenning en schrijfwerk is mijn vijfde boek verschenen: Technologie de baas, vooruitzichten en gevaren van de nieuwe Industriële Revolutie. Het boek is vanaf 4 april…

Na een jaar van onderzoek, verkenning en schrijfwerk is mijn vijfde boek verschenen: Technologie de baas, vooruitzichten en gevaren van de nieuwe Industriële Revolutie. Het boek is vanaf 4 april verkrijgbaar bij boekhandels in Nederland en België, alsmede online te bestellen.


Worden de toekomstvisies van sciencefictionfilms werkelijkheid of leidt technologie ons naar een betere wereld?

Na de uitvinding van de stoommachine, de introductie van elektriciteit en de komst van computer en internet, staan we aan de vooravond van een nieuwe industriële ommekeer. Het tijdperk van de vierde Industriële Revolutie barst los.

Artificiële intelligentie, robotisering, 5G, drones, 3D-printen, virtual reality en nanotechnologie: het is slechts een greep uit de vele technologische doorbraken die deze nieuwe revolutie al heeft voortgebracht. En dit is nog maar het begin. Voor de een klinkt deze vooruitgang als muziek in de oren, maar anderen plaatsen ook hun vraagtekens bij alle radicale veranderingen
die hieruit voorvloeien. Blijven we de technologie uiteindelijk de baas? En kunnen we de komende ontregeling van economie en samenleving wel in goede banen leiden?

In Technologie de baas helpt Joop Hazenberg ons op weg in de verbazingwekkende wereld van de technologie. Als expert in de digitale economie weet hij alles van de vele mogelijkheden die de massale technologisering met zich mee brengt, maar heeft hij ook zicht op keerzijden als het verlies aan privacy en stijgende ongelijkheid. Zijn analyse is verplichte kost voor beleidsmakers, bedrijven en burgers die de vierde Industriële Revolutie willen begrijpen.

Op 8 april is de officiële boekpresentatie in Amsterdam, met onder meer sprekers van de Tweede Kamer en de WRR. Informatie en aanmelding op de site van Pakhuis de Zwijger

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Living in Brussels: the highs and the lows

It has been six years now. Early 2013 I came to Brussels with a bunch of bags and plans, two phones, a laptop and an iPad to start a nomadic…

It has been six years now. Early 2013 I came to Brussels with a bunch of bags and plans, two phones, a laptop and an iPad to start a nomadic adventure of an existence in two cities at the same time. I rented a room with an acquaintance, set up shop in the Press Club Brussels and started my part-time life here in the capital of the EU. The other half I spent in Amsterdam, my real hometown where my boyfriend, cat and friends lived, where we had a house instead of a room with furniture which wasn’t mine, where cars wouldn’t speed every minute past the single glazed window of my Brussels flat.

Today, the adventure has turned into a new life which is all about Brussels, and where Amsterdam only plays a part in the background. The Amsterdam life elements of relationship, cat and house are gone, followed in Brussels by a new relationship, an apartment and a dog (while in 2018 I had to put down my Brussels-based cat and dog, both due to cancer). I even have a car now, as you are almost supposed to have one here in Belgium. Another step to integrate here is the purchase of an old farm in the Ardennes, which we are converting into a retreat and B&B.

So I find myself firmly based in Belgium – though not fully rooted yet. This country offers a lot of highs and a swell of lows. Here is my top-5 of pleasures and annoyances for those seeking a new life in Brussels.


The highs

My favourite view on the city: the Mont des Arts

1. Brussels is truly cosmopolitan. Around a third of the ‘Brusselaars’ has been born in a different country and you can definitely feel this on the streets. Though French is the dominant language, you will hear a lot of English, Arabic, Italian, Spanish and countless other tongues when walking around. This gives a fantastic international vibe to the city. It is also a place without a strong national identity so this makes it relatively easy to adapt for newcomers.

2. This city is buzzing. You wouldn’t notice it when you walk through the dead streets of the EU quarter or stumble over the tourists on the Grand Place, but Brussels is full of life. Especially in cultural corners there are so many activities that you can barely keep up, whether it is a particular kind of a music scene you’re interested in, modern art (lots of galeries), gay life with the (in)famous parties of La Demence and Revelation, or just the hundreds of free open air festivals evolving around music, beer and food. Brussels is not a big capital with just 1.2 million inhabitants, but it has a lot to offer for its size.

3. Beer. Not so much a beer lover myself, as I grew up with Grolsch, Heineken and Bavaria, I ditched my beer glasses a decade ago. But since I live in Brussels, I have educated myself in the beer business as Belgium just makes the most wonderful beers, full of tastes and contrasts. You can go to several bars here in town where they will have a few hundred different locally brewed beers on the menu. After tasting and enjoying a long list of these, my personal favourites are for example Zinnebir, Westmalle Triple, Maredsous Blonde, Lupulus and La Chinette.

4. Finding work and making friends. I have always been fascinated by European integration and globalisation. But it was really hard to find work on these topics in the Netherlands. In Brussels, mainly because of the presence of the EU and NATO, there are literally tens of thousands of jobs on international cooperation. Since my move, I have worked as a freelance correspondent, a communications advisor for climate NGOs and since 2016 I work for the GSMA, focusing on technology and the digital economy. It has been a great ride until now. Also in terms of meeting people. Apart from all the talented colleagues you can work with, it is very easy to make new friends. For absolute newcomers: try the market drinks at Place du Chatelain on Wednesday and mingle with the EU trainees on ‘Place Lux’ every Thursday.

5. Vicinity. Though Belgium’s infrastructure is falling apart (more about that below), Brussels is extremely well connected. You can travel by train to London, Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam in around two hours or less (the Thalys takes you to the heart of Paris in 80 minutes). Brussels Airport is compact and has direct connections to almost all important destinations in Europe, as well as to Africa, the US and Asia. So if you get tired of the city, a weekend away is organised with a few clicks.


The lows

The sign says in French: Cyclists, go on foot. In Dutch it says: Pedestrians, go on foot!

1. The daily traffic hell. Brussels is one of the most congested cities in the world. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people flock into the city, taking their state-sponsored car or the train on their way to work. Biking in this town is outright dangerous as there are virtually no separate bike lanes, and car drivers are not used to cyclists, leading to a lot of aggression and (deadly) accidents. Even walking is not so healthy as the air is very polluted due to the mass amount of diesel cars on the road. Car is king in Belgium and sadly, this applies to Brussels as well.

2. Chaos in the city. Brussels is badly managed. The city is split up in 19 different municipalities, each with their own mayor. There are a thousand elected politicians, governing the myriad of organisations that keep Brussels running. The municipalities have a lot of trouble coordinating their policies, from traffic to trash collection. Besides the governance problems, there seems to be a gross neglect of rule of law. Rules are simply not enforced, or sometimes they are – it is very random. People park on pavements, on pedestrian crossings all the time without being fined. They dump their old furniture on the streets and then stick a sign to it: ‘A donner’ – for free. Escalators of the metro are out of order all the time. Some roads are being under construction for years, leading to more chaos and irritation. At the beginning of this year, I didn’t have a pavement in front of my house for a month (the workers just disappeared). One of the most bizarre things here are the signs for road works, which express the way people improvise continuously. There is an artist who follows these Belgian Solutions closely and even publishes books full of examples of them, without being judgemental.

3. Je-m’en-foutisme. People care more about their close relationships with family and friends, than about the public spaces (see also the next point). So drinking beer in the bus? The bus driver: Je m’en fou! (I don’t care) Want to buy something in the supermarket ten minutes before closing time? The shop manager: Je m’en fou! Get out! Want to pay by card? The restaurant owner: je m’en fou! There is a cash machine a few streets away. Of course, most Belgians do have a spirit of service, of doing something nice for strangers, but all too often I see another side of the inhabitants: you just have to f*ck off or look away.

4. Lack of a maintenance culture. I know, the Dutch like to be perfect. Everything needs to be clean, efficient and organised in my home country. Contrast that with the Belgians, where uniformity is abhorred. ‘We are real anarchists,’ said the Flemish writer Geert van Istendael once. Crumbling facades, graffiti on buildings, public infrastructure falling apart – the average Belgian wouldn’t even understand what I am complaining about. I once read an unexpected defence to this lack of a maintenance culture. ‘We use our materials until they are completely worn out. This is what sustainability is about.’ The Belgian continued: ‘In any case, there is also a certain charm in decay, right?’ Sounds like Absurdistan to me.

5. Taxes and rules. The tax burden in Belgium is very high (unless you are a fonctionnaire at the European Union). The country has one of the highest employer tax rates in the world. If you’re self-employed like me, you can easily lose up to two-thirds of your gross income. And for what in retun? OK, healthcare is cheap and affordable, but for the rest, Belgium offers a fraction of the service you can get in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. That is because of the outsized and grossly inefficient public sector in Belgium (there are SIX governments and parliaments in this country of 11 million souls) but also due to widespread corruption, a burgeoning black economy and the aforementioned je-m’en-foutisme. Add to this the enormous bureaucracy of rules and regulations that you have to adhere to when running a business or renovating a house, and you know why Belgium has a certain reputation. One striking example: The European Commission has called the super strict rules for Airbnb in Brussels ‘out of proportion’ and started an investigation.


So dear reader, Brussels really is a mixed bag. There are moments when you will love living in this city, especially during the first few years as you dance in an old factory or in a metro tunnel to the hippest house music you can imagine. But you will also loathe this place when there is another national strike, being organised every year just for the sake of it, and public transport and supermarkets close their activities to celebrate socialism.

Rave in the Hallepoort Tunnel, January 2019. Picture by VICE

There will be times when you are ready to pack your bags and head home. But also moments that you will relish, as you marvel at the fin de siècle architecture in Ixelles, St Gilles and Uccle or enjoy a cocktail on a sun-lit square where nearby food stalls sell cheap and delicious organic food, and everyone around you is relaxed and happy.

In 2017, I seriously considered leaving Brussels. I had enough of it and I started to call this place Hellgium. Not work wise but city wise, also because most of my new friends had left. But then one long-time Brussels immigrant told me that he had the same experience. ‘You think about it, you fight against Brussels, and then you just give up and accept living here.’ I am about to do the same.

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Upcoming book – Technology in charge

I am happy to announce that I will write my fifth book this year, focusing on the upcoming wave of technological innovations that will radically change our world. Since I…

I am happy to announce that I will write my fifth book this year, focusing on the upcoming wave of technological innovations that will radically change our world.

Since I started working at the GSMA in 2016, I have had little time to write (hence the silence on this blog), but all the more opportunities to learn. Though I have always been interested in technology (for instance resulting in a stint at Google), I now have a rare privilege to work directly on future automation of our lives. The GSMA, the trade association of the mobile industry, aims to connect everyone and everything to a better future. This includes in my case preparing the advent of self-driving cars, the roll-out of mobile health services, European drone policies and the list goes on.

The dive has been so deep and fascinating that I almost forgot my background: I am a historian, an observer, a writer and a journalist (it’s all one and the same thing, of course). I love to share insights on how the world functions and operates. After nearly two years working on European mobile communication policies, I feel it’s now time to write these observations down (while continuing to work at the GSMA – it is a great organisation).

Fourth Industrial Revolution

So in September 2019, my new book will be published with a focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is now taking off (Industrie 4.0 is a concept invented in Germany). This involves basically the coming together of a range of technologies and the integration of these into industries and services, leading to first a more automated and efficient economy, but foremost to a complete overhaul of our societies.

As one colleague of mine predicted: “The next twenty years, more will change than in the past hundred years.” And this colleague is not a self-proclaimed ‘futurist’ who daydreams about robots replacing bees, but a very experienced mobile industry expert.

Self-driving cars are just the start of this upcoming Revolution. What to think of millions of drones and unmanned vehicles who will occupy our skies in the not-too-distant future? The 3D printing of organs? Downloading your memories? What will happen then to human workers, as we may no longer be needed? (hint: experiences of previous industrial revolutions disprove such assumptions time and again) And is technology really in charge once we grow old, or can we always ‘pull the plug’ if needed?

In the book, I want to address a range of topics, questions and dilemmas, such as:

  • Quick guide into the main buzzwords such as Artificial Intelligence, 5G, Internet of Things, Robotisation, Big Data, VR/AR, biotech, nanotech, quantum mechanics
  • Are robots going to take over your job?
  • Will computers become smarter than humans?
  • Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution lead to more inequality?
  • Can we stop the blurring of reality and fiction?
  • Can Europe decide to ignore the Revolution?
  • Social acceptance of new technologies
  • Can we solve major problems in the world thanks to the Fourth Industrial Revolution? (Think climate change, food security, ageing populations)
  • What skills are needed in the world of tomorrow?
  • Preparing organisations and businesses
  • The future: a merging of physical, digital and biological worlds

Call for experts / sources

The next months are reserved for research on all these topics. In case readers want to recommend experts to interview, sources to read or innovative factories to visit, please write me at contact@euwatcher.eu.

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The Dutch election: populism loses a round, but democracy still in trouble

European leaders breathed a sigh of relief at the Dutch election results. Nevertheless the results are a sign of the ongoing crisis of Western democracy. The Dutch parliamentary election of…

European leaders breathed a sigh of relief at the Dutch election results. Nevertheless the results are a sign of the ongoing crisis of Western democracy.

The Dutch parliamentary election of 2017 has exposed the ongoing crisis of Western democracy. Not so much in the surge of anti-liberal democratic and populist parties, but rather in the continuing fragmentation, decreasing legitimacy and erosion of the political foundation underneath Western welfare states.

On 15 March, political pundits across the globe sighed with relief, after yet another political disaster in the West was diverted. Last year, Brexit and Trump shook the belief in democratic systems, as lies (‘alternative facts’), fake news and a continuous outpouring of misinformation resulted in the UK population voting with a (slight) majority to leave the European Union, and Americans opting for Donald Trump to be their next President.

Anti-establishment forces rejoiced because of these uprisings. In Russia, Hungary and other autocratic states, the people’s choice was welcomed. In France, the spokesperson of Marine Le Pen tweeted: ‘as their world crumbles, ours is being built.’

Would 2017 be just as bad for liberal democracy as 2016? With elections looming in Germany, France and the Netherlands, a domino-effect was feared that would push the pendulum from TINA (There Is No Alternative) to the Alt-Right.

Yes, you have a choice, people, the populists in the three founding nations of the European project stated. Go for Frexit, Gexit, Nexit. Release yourself of those chains of globalisation and the European super state. Protect your welfare state. Distrust the immigrants.

No wonder that media across the globe watched with great interest what was happening at the next stage for the domino theory: the Netherlands. With the last general election in 2012, the Dutch would be able to have their say on five years of harsh reform executed by a kind of bizarre coalition government, consisting of ‘just’ two parties: the conservative liberals teamed up in the Union for Freedom and Democracy VVD, and the classic social democrats of the Labour Party PvdA. In the meantime, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party PVV kept hammering hard on the ‘dismantling’ of the welfare state, the flux of migrants (‘We want less, less Moroccans in Holland, and I will take care of it’ said Wilders – echoing Joseph Goebbels, and being convicted of racism because of this statement), and of course the bloody EU, eating away our sovereignty. At the end of 2016, he was firmly leading in the polls, though his election programme consisted of just one A4 sheet.

Two elections in the Netherlands

‘There are two elections in the Netherlands,’ tweeted one observer in March. ‘One for the foreign media, and one for the Dutch population.’ Indeed, how the Netherlands was portrayed in the foreign press didn’t really match reality. Only Wilders’ party was in favour of a Nexit referendum, along with a handful of new parties that were completely unknown until the start of the election campaign. So a possible exit of the Dutch from the EU was not a serious political option, also because almost four in five Dutch citizens is positive about European integration. Plus none of the mainstream parties wants to slam the brake on cooperation within the EU.

And then there is Wilder’s popularity. Actually, it never got much beyond twenty percent of the total share of voters, and that is important because the Netherlands does not have an election threshold. A mere 70,000 votes is enough to get you into Parliament as one of the 150 members of the Second Chamber. So twenty percent of the vote will never be enough to get close to a majority.

In fact, in March no parties were polling over 17 percent, which meant that a coalition government would become difficult. The Dutch always have had coalitions, and are used to having ten parties in Parliament (including one for pensioners, one for animals and one for right-wing Christians), but this election seems to have led to an even greater fragmentation of the electorate. More about that later, because for me this is the real crisis and showstopper of democracy.

Geert Wilders, a firebrand in Dutch politics since decades (and since 2004, on his own after he left the VVD to found the PVV), was effectively barred from governing after a government with him, the VVD and the Christian Democratic party CDA collapsed in 2012. It was Wilders who pulled the plug on this coalition which was based on a programme that, according to Prime Minister Mark Rutte, was ‘a finger-licking sensation for the right-wing part of the Netherlands’  (‘waar rechts Nederland zijn vingers bij kan aflikken’).In the ensuing election Wilders was punished with a loss of 9 seats. After that traumatic experience for VVD and CDA, the only two parties potentially interested in cooperating with Wilders, they excluded him explicitly as a coalition partner.

And now in the 2017 election, Wilders scored lower than in 2010, with a mere 20 seats in total.

So the fuss about the Dutch election was much ado about nothing, right? The Dutch economy is one of the fastest growers in the EU, unemployment is very low and the Dutch are the richest population in the Union (after, well, Luxembourg).

Powerless state

‘We’ in the lowlands, with our culture of pragmatism and cooperation, may have halted the rise of populism for now. It seems as if the disaster-scenarios can also be brushed off the table in France and Germany, with Marine Le Pen polling third in the first round of the presidential elections and with the race in Germany being all about a contest between the centrist giants of the Christian Democrats (Merkel) and increasingly popular Social Democrats (Schulz).

Still, our societies are in ever more troubled waters. And that has to do with a range of continuing processes that undermine the nation-state and weaken the foundation for (liberal) democracy. I have written several books on this development, coining the process in Dutch as De machteloze staat (The Powerless State) in 2012. I was predicting an end to the left-right paradigm in politics, to be replaced by a new division between cosmopolitans and sovereignty-seekers. Boy, did I get that right! A bit sooner than expected, though.

So why is the state becoming powerless? This has to do with four ‘megatrends’: globalisation, European integration, the IT revolution and horizontalisation. These trends have gained speed and traction in the last two, three decades, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The advent of internet (in 1994) and the spread of mobile phones (this year more than five billion people in the world will have a mobile in their pockets, half of them being a smartphone) helped to empower people through the massive distribution of information and building new networks, turning borders and old institutions redundant.

The rise of the network society (Manuell Castels / Jan van Dijk) can be regarded as an outcome of these four megatrends, which then slowly but decisively hollowed – and hollows – out national democracies. To throw a third name at you, Dani Rodrik calls this the inescapable trilemma of the world economy. Rodrik stated in 2007 that you can’t combine democracy, the nation-state and globalisation in one system. One of the three has to go.

Yet, politicians in the West still try to combine the three. Once in power, they realise that national capitals can no longer ‘steer’ the economy or society, their central position within the country has evaporated. Remember drastic changes in governments in southern Europe, at the height of the eurozone crisis? Despite the rhetoric of freeing up their states, notably in Greece, they were forced to implement crisis measures, dictated by the EU and IMF (who were themselves, in essence, dictated by the invisible hand of the market).

Floating voters

Back to the Dutch polder. What happened at the latest election? A few notable things, that fit seamlessly in the theory of the powerless state.

First of all, the indecisiveness of the voters. In January, 70% of the electorate didn’t know which party they were going to support. And just before the election, 40% still were hesitating between one, two, even three parties. The programmes of most parties are so much alike, and expectancies of change so low, that for many voters it was hard to form a solid opinion on voting preferences. The ‘zwevende kiezer’ (floating voter) is not a recent phenomenon but in this election they were markedly present, which meant that a party gaining (or losing) momentum just before the election, could enjoy the bandwagon effect.

This is exactly what happened to GroenLinks, a green-progressive-left party that went from 4 to 16 seats, also because it is led by a charming 30-year old with the looks of young Justin Trudeau, who managed to sell out enormous halls of up to 5,000 seats to speak – unheard of in the Netherlands.

Back in 2012, the PvdA had a similar surge, shooting up to 38 seats and nearly becoming the biggest party, while they were polling around 10-15 seats in the months before the May 2012 elections. The social-democrats have now been severely punished though, dropping from the 38 high to a mere 9 low, in fact an all-time low for the party which has been in (coalition) governments for decades and produced a number of statesmen-like Prime Ministers, such as Wim Kok in the 1990s.

So the electorate is very volatile and easily moves from the radical left SP to the radical right (or supposedly so) PVV. Or they switch from PvdA to Denk, a right-wing club of disgruntled pro-Erdogan Turks that gained three seats in Dutch Parliament. Also the Forum voor Democratie got two places in the Second Chamber, its leader being a young intellectual troublemaker, with close links to Trump’s gang in America and Putin’s mob in Russia.

Just as in other Western countries, centrist parties lose their appeal. Just as in recent years, a new Dutch government will only be able to push some handles up and down of the complicated system that’s called the welfare state, but not bring back sovereignty. European integration will continue, more power will go to Brussels to save the euro and to increase our external border plus boost our common security. The real future of the Netherlands lies in the (invisible) hands of the EU, the market and the ongoing technological revolution.

So the margins for national policy makers and national politicians become smaller and tighter. And this cannot remain without a response. The void in power needs to be filled. We can identify some striking examples, apart from the increasing appeal of populists and nationalists who claim that there is an alternative, that there is a third way in our globalising world.

  • The European Commission is doing everything it can to deliver results for Europe’s citizens: abolishing roaming charges for your mobile phone when travelling abroad, free train tickets for 18 year olds to discover Europe, while also putting some-sort-of-halt to enlargement and limiting the amount of new rules coming from of Brussels. By showing the added value of European integration to daily lives of ordinary Europeans, political strategists hope to re-win the minds for the good works being done in Brussels.
  • Increasing assertiveness of cities and regions. Now that of the nation-state is under pressure, citizens look for new identity frames. One way is to ‘buy local’. More and more people now read and watch regional media, cultural festivals of regions are also increasingly popular. Cities realise they can put an end to climate change if they work together, and start initiatives like C40 that aims to make the biggest cities in the world CO2-neutral in the next decades. Not unimportant as one realises that the overwhelming majority of the global population lives in an urban environment – and that is also where most CO2 is produced.
  • Decentralisation of powers. This is a big trend, in which the national government gives a lot of responsibilities back to lower levels – in the Netherlands this process has already taken place in a drastic way, giving municipalities the lead in providing previously nationally planned provisions for the welfare state (healthcare, housing et cetera).
  • Citizens discovering what it is to be a citizen. After most of its citizenship has been taken over by the state (no need to put Grandma in the attic, the government has built elderly homes), now the personal involvement in society is coming back. That can take many forms, from women’s marches against Trump in the US to picnics on roads in Brussels to ask for pedestrianisation of the centre. Or from Cinque Stelle trying to tear down archaic political structures in Italy, to crowd funding for societal projects and raising millions in a matter of days, all over the world.

The show must go on

The decline of the nation-state is a gradual process and we need to wait if it can be reversed. Maybe we’ll look back to this period in thirty years’ time and regard the rise of Trump and Great Britain leaving the European Union, as no more than futile attempts, a swan song even, of politicians to keep in control of the nation. Unless, of course, they reject globalisation fully and go on the path of autarky. ‘Poor but proud of our independence’ would then be their clarion call.

Luckily, no such tendencies exist in Dutch mainstream politics. What the March 2017 election showed, however, is the realisation that politics do not really matter anymore apart from changing accents within the welfare state, or show moral leadership. Redefining what the nation-state is and does, and how it relates to regions, Europe and the world – those difficult questions have not been tackled at all in the Dutch election campaign. They will need to get a proper answer though, otherwise Wilders and the likes may be more successful in their next attempt to gain power.

This article was previously published by the 

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