Populism is scaring away big business in the Netherlands – Taipei Times

An anti-immigrant, anti-business mood has taken hold, and it is causing large corporations to seek opportunities elsewhere

  • By Sarah Jacob and Cagan Koc / Bloomberg

Unilever is a storied name in Dutch business history, and it is also a harbinger of what the future might hold for what was once continental Europe’s most open economy.

The consumer goods behemoth, which left its Dutch headquarters to consolidate in the UK four years ago, is considering listing its 17 billion euro (US$18.3 billion) ice cream business in Amsterdam or London. The decision depends on the Dutch business climate being attractive, chief executive officer Hein Schumacher told the Buitenhof TV program on Sunday last week. However, that is far from certain.

“We have seen some surprises in recent years,” he said. “A predictable government and regulations are very important.”

Illustration: Louise Ting

Recent laws to tax share buybacks and reduce tax benefits for expatriates — alongside a bill that would cap the number of foreign students allowed to study in the country — have set off alarms at firms that rely on international talent. Those concerns have been supercharged as it becomes clear that a country that has long prided itself on its liberal consensus is preparing to clamp down on immigration.

The resounding victory of far-right ideologue Geert Wilders in November last year’s election illustrates how far public opinion has shifted among Dutch voters since 2022, when the influx of migrants into the country increased by 60 percent.

Wilders recently abandoned his bid to become prime minister, but still has the power to be a political kingmaker, and all three of the parties likely to have seats in the next government campaigned on anti-migrant platforms.

The backlash in the Netherlands, home to companies like ASML, Boskalis and NXP Semiconductors NV, highlights a developing threat to businesses across Europe: that rising populist sentiment could endanger access to the overseas labor on which they have come to rely.

“What I’m hearing from business leaders that have bigger operations here is that they are not going to be able to get people — or many won’t be interested in coming,” said Marjella Lecourt-Alma, chief executive officer of Datamaran, a software analytics company that focuses on ESG risks.

With coalition talks still in progress, the political direction of the EU’s fifth-largest economy remains uncertain, and corporate heads are now speaking up, with some threatening to leave — or expand overseas, rather than stay at home.

Boskalis NV chief executive officer Peter Berdowski recently told De Telegraaf that the company is deciding whether to relocate its headquarters out of the Netherlands. That puts it with the 16 percent of Dutch companies considering moving at least part of their operations abroad within the next two years, a report commissioned by the Dutch Economic Affairs Ministry said last year. Among organizations that are mainly global, that figure rose to about 33 percent.

Corporate leaders have expressed concern about possible restrictions on hiring foreign workers as well as existing regulations that complicate day-to-day business.

Kaan Terzioglu, chief executive officer of Amsterdam-listed telecommunications firm Veon Ltd, singled out the country’s visa schemes. Under the current rules, Terzioglu complained that he is rarely able to fly Pakistan and Bangladesh-based employees without EU passports over for meetings.

“It takes six months to get an appointment for a visa,” he said.

Among the various firms uneasy with the current state of affairs, tech companies are the most influential.

Semiconductor equipment manufacturer ASML, which has a 360 billion euro market capitalization, is so critical to the Dutch economy that outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte set up a task force to ensure it did not expand outside of the country. Yet it would be strongly affected by restrictions on hiring non-Dutch nationals. More than 40 percent of its employees in the Netherlands hail from abroad, as do more than half of new hires at chipmaker NXP. About 70 percent of the staff in the Amsterdam office of DataSnipper, a company valued at US$1 billion that uses AI in auditing software, are foreigners.

Should it become harder to find qualified candidates in the Netherlands, corporate leaders have warned that they would follow the talent.

“If the Netherlands shuts down and we cannot get immigrants or foreign students, then fine, you should accept the consequences,” ASML chief executive officer Peter Wennink said at a press conference in January. “We are a global company, we will go where we need to go to make sure the company can grow and service our customers.”

Although it has become more apparent since the November election, the anti-immigrant, anti-business mood that has taken hold of the Netherlands has been brewing for years. Public attitudes towards big corporations began to sour during the financial crisis, said business leaders, when Dutch taxpayers were forced to spend billions bailing out banks.

Rutte, who started his career as a human resources manager at Unilever and went on to lead the pro-business People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, has fought to keep the Netherlands attractive to businesses. In recent years, he has encouraged chief executive officers to appear on television shows to improve the Dutch public’s dim view of big businesses, people familiar with the matter said.

Even so, Rutte was unable to block measures to raise taxes on banks and tax share buybacks — moves he warned would “lead to the departure of banks” — as well as a dividend tax that targets multinationals. Nor could he stop Dutch Christian Democrat leader Pieter Omtzigt, whose center-right party is now in coalition negotiations with Wilders, from cutting a tax benefit designed for expats.

Some companies have already acted in response to what they view as the country’s increasingly unfavorable tax measures. In 2021, energy giant Shell PLC opted to move its headquarters to London following the Dutch government’s decision to tax dividends and a court ruling ordering it to speed up emission cuts.

In a recent parliamentary debate, Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy Micky Adriaansens expressed concern about the Netherlands’ global image. The shifting regulations are “no longer an irritation,” for companies, but a big issue. “Business owners indicate that the unclear, changing policies are incredibly damaging to investing in the Netherlands.”

With concern mounting, the Dutch finance ministry is currently working on alternative proposals to the bank and share buyback taxes as well as shrinking expatriate tax breaks. Ministry officials expect to present an outline to parliament in the coming days, people familiar with the matter said.

In the meantime, any clarity about what might come next would be welcome.

“Companies can live with populist governments,” Cardano Asset Management strategist Corne van Zeij said.

The main problem is “unpredictability — that they don’t know what the government is going to do,” he added.

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