How to be cool
Sigrid Kaag talks tough, while Shell takes rap for "carbon-neutral" tankers
WITH APOLOGIES FOR THE SUMMER HIATUS (it’s been longer than I’d intended since my last post), welcome back to 2ndOpinion. Not long ago, news editors considered the holiday period as the “silly season”, the slow months when people who make headlines disappear into voluntary exile at the beach. Not that you’d notice in the Netherlands. In the Hague parliament has resumed, but - as the French cliché has it - the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s been six months and counting - 191 days, as I write - since the general election.
And still no sign of a new government.
The ballot on March 17 confirmed some visible trends. Dutch far-Right parties achieved their best result yet, in combination, rallying voters to their anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-EU ticket. At the other end of the electorate, the pro-EU and socially liberal D66 party won a record 15% of votes, enough to replace Geert Wilders’s populist Freedom Party (PVV) as the new official opposition.
All the other big parties agree that the far-Right parties shouldn’t be in the cabinet. Other than that… Niets. No deal. Or nada, as Americans like to say in Spanish.
Talks to form a new coalition have stalled. Not on issues of principle, but more due to clashing personalities, suggested Mariëtte Hamer, outgoing chairperson of the negotiation process. The largest centre-Right parties, VVD and CDA, appear to have ruled out any deal with the centre-Left PvdA and GroenLinks, whose alliance bars either one from sharing power in a coalition without the other.
Perhaps these lines in the sand are a measure of progress, a modest step closer to what’s known in negotiation theory as ZOPA, a Zone of Possible Agreement. For D66 leader Sigrid Kaag, occupying what’s euphemistically called the centre ground, it must be hard to know which way to turn. Kaag favours a Left-leaning five-party deal, but prime minister Mark Rutte argued that five-party cabinets are unstable.
With each ultimatum, prospects for any coalition with a parliamentary majority have receded. Simultaneously, the D66 said it won’t revisit any power-sharing deal with the anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia ChristenUnie. The ZOPA is shrinking.
A minority cabinet of VVD, CDA and D66 now looks like the “most credible option”, according to Hamer. In parliament, that liberal-centre-Right trio could claim support from 72 of 150 MPs. That’s three short of a majority, and one less than anticipated after dissident CDA MP Pieter Omtzigt quit his party in June.
(Omtzigt is back in parliament as an independent, but his departure after 20 years in the CDA is another stain on the Netherlands’ drifting political process: Omzigt’s popularity ratings soared from relative obscurity after his dogged scrutiny exposed a racist algorithm in the tax system, prompting the entire cabinet to resign over the Belastingdienst child benefit scandal.)
Kaag talks tough
If the coalition talks are dragging, MPs looked hungry after their summer recess. No sooner had parliament resumed than, Kaag resigned as foreign minister - her feet were barely under the desk, since taking up the post in May 2021. The tweede kamer upheld a motion criticising the evacuation of staff from the Dutch embassy in Kabul, in response to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Those chaotic scenes, MPs said, endangered Dutch staff and Afghan workers, many of whom were abandoned in the country. “You judged that the cabinet has acted irresponsibly,” Kaag told MPs on September 16, “I can only accept the consequences. The minister must go if the policy is disapproved.” Other D66 ministers will stay on in their caretaker jobs pending a deal on a new cabinet.
The D66 leader will remain in her role at the head of the party. Freed from the doctrine of collective responsibility to cabinet, Kaag has an opportunity to break with the diplomatic conventions of foreign affairs and multilateral institutions. I know that seems unlikely, not least from a career diplomat, but it is at least marginally less unlikely than it was.
Kaag weaves a bird's nest of abstract, rather long-winded words and sentences in which the blame is mainly placed on others
- Theodor Holman in Het Parool
Just 10 days before her resignation as foreign minister, Kaag allowed herself a long moment of candour that set headlines ablaze. The occasion was the 13th annual HJ Schoo lecture, an event in honour of the late Elsevier Weekblad editor Hendrik-Jan Schoo, which marks a seasonal curtain-raiser at the start of the parliamentary session.
In polite tones, Kaag’s lecture signalled her deep sense of grievance: “A shadow had fallen” on the political landscape of the Netherlands, “where we are so keen to congratulate ourselves on our mature leadership, reasonableness, willingness to compromise and sense of justice”. The child benefit scandal and lack of a credible policy response to the coronavirus pandemic were systemic problems of “complacency”, which she attributed to “political myopia”.
Kaag did not mention Rutte by name. Less diplomatically, she referred instead to a recent conversation with a senior civil servant. He had asked her what the government had achieved in the past 20 years, Kaag said. Both had thought long and hard, but neither could think of an answer. Tactful or not, this was a stinging rebuke of Rutte’s legacy as the soon-to-be longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history:
We can no longer ignore the fact that in the sunny political and administrative climate of the neatly tidied up Netherlands – where we like to congratulate ourselves on sober governance, reasonableness, willingness to compromise and justice – an unmistakable shadow has fallen. The reality of the allowance affair and the corona crisis management mercilessly expose that a well-functioning democratic constitutional state is never a peaceful possession. That we have the necessary lessons to learn when it comes to humanity, reliability, openness and effective governance. That also applies to those who shout the loudest how incredibly cool our 'country' really is. For far too long we have been lulled into the numbness of complacency by political myopia.
In Parool, columnist Theodor Holman opined that Kaag is prone to “haughtily making a bird's nest of abstract, rather long-winded words and sentences in which the blame is mainly placed on others” - hooghartig een vogelnestje maken van abstracte, tamelijk langdradige woorden en zinnen waarin vooral de schuld bij anderen wordt gelegd.
The day after her lecture, Kaag and Rutte were back in parliament for the debate on Hamer’s report. Neither would make eye contact with the other. In De Groene Amsterdamer, Aukje van Ruessel described “a frost that is visible to everyone” between the leaders of the two largest parties. “Mutual distrust in politics in The Hague is now alarmingly high. And the politicians no longer even need the voter. They really do that all by themselves,” wrote Van Ruessel.
Personally, I doubt that journalists have much to learn from diplomats about pious moralising. Foreign correspondents exhibit the same weaknesses: we are prone to reporting loftily from places where we don’t speak the local language, we don’t get out enough, and too often we spend too much time with our own kind.
Even so, as Holman acknowledged, Kaag looks like a welcome new face. Defying a tide of hostile and misogynistic abuse on social media, the working mother of four is a fluent Arabic speaker - she “speaks the language,” conceded Holman - who might be assumed to know her way around the world. Admirers hope she will prove a compassionate but hard-headed and pragmatic champion of D66 priorities: to tackle the climate emergency and eliminate racism.
As a serial partner in so-called “purple” coalitions spanning two decades, the D66 is of course deeply implicated in their failures. For all her metropolitan traits, Kaag’s political ideas are orthodox ‘Third Way’ and ‘Washington Consensus’ - a policy mix championed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Democratic, centrist, socially liberal, fiscally conservative: D66 policies betray a strong fin-de-siècle flavour. Kaag came of age in the decade between Margaret Thatcher’s resignation (1990) and the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers (2001).
Taking my cue from recent stories about Shell, let's try a new game: Gaaf of niet gaaf
In her HJ Schoo lecture, Kaag took issue with the sunny optimism of politicians who insist that the Netherlands is gaaf - a slightly fogey-ish turn of phrase meaning ‘cool’, or ‘great’. A term favoured by the (deliberately) fogey-ish Rutte, pundits duly interpreted this as a direct critique of the prime minister. In a speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly, Rutte obligingly stuck to his usual glibness, telling world leaders to be wary of “cynicism” or “fatalism” in the face of global crises.
Perhaps, with a little journalistic licence, this kind of terminology can illuminate. As a Dutch Hamlet might say: to be cool, or not cool? That is the question.
Gaaf means kind of cool, but in a cheerful way. It's the opposite of angst (a trait generally described to the Left). For Rutte, gaaf invokes a coded boast to remind doubters that the Netherlands has a great deal to be proud about.
The Dutch Hamlet would pose his curiously Dutch question in a curiously Dutch manner. He would dilute the rhetoric with a half-shrug, a casual lack of urgency. Gaaf implies a tolerance that readily embraces even Dutch society’s lurid intolerance. Hence Kaag’s objections. For her, gaaf denotes a reactionary point of view.
In Parool, columnist Theodor Holman deplored the D66 leader’s tendency to “haughtily making a bird's nest of abstract, rather long-winded words and sentences in which the blame is mainly placed on others” - hooghartig een vogelnestje maken van abstracte, tamelijk langdradige woorden en zinnen waarin vooral de schuld bij anderen wordt gelegd.
Long-winded she was, but Kaag’s remark challenged an entire proud culture of pedantic engineers. For a national politician to rail against complacency in this way is provocative. At base, she blamed an old habit of resilient self-regard, a cheerful Dutch smugness, for the country's myriad new and existential dilemmas. Gaaf of niet gaaf, I think she’s on to something.
It’s not just parliament and politicians beset by self-doubt. I’ve noticed the same ambivalence in attitudes to Royal Dutch Shell, the crown jewels of Dutch industry. A large proportion of people (I have no statistics) express a sincere pride in Shell as a global giant, combined with a simultaneous distrust of anything the company has to say. Nowhere is the tension more obvious than over claims that She'll is a committed actor in the energy transition to net zero emissions.
Taking my cue from recent Shell-related stories, let’s play…
Gaaf of niet gaaf
After four years as minister for infrastructure and water management, VVD politician Cora van Nieuwenhuizen left the caretaker government for a new job as a lobbyist with Vereniging Energie-Nederland. A spokesman for the industry alliance, whose members include the fossil fuel-producing incumbents Shell, Eneco, RWE, GasTerra, Vattenfall, BP and Essent, said the organisation would continue its work “to accelerate the energy transition”. Gaaf of niet gaaf?
On LinkedIn, a post by Margriet Kuijper, an ex-Shell employee exasperated by the latest edition of company magazine Voek, a publication for retired and former staff. Coinciding with the latest ominous warnings on man-made global heating from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Voek’s front cover announced: CO2 in perspective. The article began: "It is widely thought that the burning of fossil fuels by humans is the main source of CO2 in the atmosphere. This view is baseless".
This was a straw man, protested Kuijper - whose posts imply a deep loyalty to Shell and some impatience at the company’s critics. By way of correction, she explained:
NO ONE is saying that the burning of fossil fuels is the main source of CO2 in the atmosphere; however, [it is the main source] of the INCREASE in CO2 in the atmosphere; sloppy mistake for someone who calls the opinion of 234 scientists based on 14000+ papers 'baseless'. And it gets worse afterwards (rattling story about plate tectonics and that one has forgotten to include the CO2 that is released in the way; nonsense).
Long story short, with apologies for the clumsy translation, what do the editors of Shell’s magazine think the company is doing? Shell was the first oil and gas producer to acknowledge global warming, in 1991, when it released a corporate film Climate of Concern. Three decades later, and just months after a Dutch court ruled that the company must curb production to meet the Netherlands’ emissions targets under the Paris Climate Agreement, the error in the Voek article looks Freudian. It’s an accident that exposed the ugly truth of an incumbent’s deep complacency.
Gaaf of niet gaaf?
So it was heartening, finally, to learn that a group of Dutch students had forced a belated reckoning - for Shell - with at least one of the inconvenient truths that provoked Kaag. In a case brought by nine law students, the Stichting Reklame Code, a self-regulatory advertising standards committee, ruled that Shell’s advertisements for “carbon-neutral” fuel were misleading and should be taken down.
The advertisements promote a scheme that allows Shell customers to offset emissions from their fuel by paying an extra one cent per litre to fund forest conservation and tree planting. Offsetting is a recognised legal mechanism for polluters to trade and compensate for emissions, but the advertisers’ self-regulatory authority found no evidence to substantiate the promise in Shell’s one cent-on-the-litre scheme.
Barring a successful appeal, billboards - and slogans affixed to electrically powered oil tankers loaded with fossil fuel - will be taken down. The Stichting Reklame Code has no legal mandate and its decisions are not binding in law, but the longstanding precedent is that advertisers are governed by its decisions.
Gaaf. Echt gaaf.
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