News - February 23, 2017

Wageningen voting guide

Albert Sikkema

The Netherlands will elect a new parliament on 15 March. Resource read the party manifestos and analysed their positions on key ‘Wageningen’ topics such as food production and research funding.

Photo: Shutterstock

Basic grant or loan system?

At the beginning of 2015 the basic grant for Dutch students was replaced by a social loan system. This was the second Rutte cabinet’s main educational reform. For students it meant an annual bill of about 5000 euros. The coalition of D66, PvdA, VVD and GroenLinks who introduced the loan system want to keep it – of course. They point out how much money it has freed up – between 700 million and one billion a year – for investments in educational quality. But not one of the other parties is keen on the loan system. The CDA, SP, PvdD, 50Plus and ChristenUnie all want to bring back the basic grant. The other parties do not refer specifically to the loan system in their manifestos, but did not support the proposal in 2015. And even the PvdA, D66 and GroenLinks are worried about the impact of ‘their’ loan system on the accessibility of higher education for children from families with low incomes, first generation students and secondary school students from immigrant backgrounds. So they want to make adjustments to prevent the system having a negative impact.

Other positions on education

  • The VVD, D66, ChristenUnie, GroenLinks, SP and PvdD want to transfer responsibility for Wageningen University from the ministry of Economic Affairs to the ministry of Education. A motion on this has already been passed, which the new cabinet has to act on.
  • The ChristenUnie, GroenLinks and D66 want to maximize tuition fees for a second Bachelor’s or Master’s.
  • The PvdD wants to lower tuition fees.
  • GroenLinks wants to scrap the binding recommendation for students.
  • The SP wants to abolish selection, while D66 and GroenLinks want to use it conservatively. The VVD and VNL are big fans of selection.
  • The medium of instruction in higher education should be Dutch, says 50Plus. D66 wants more English used in education.
  • The SP, D66, PvdD and GroenLinks want more power for student-staff councils.

Invest a billion extra?

During the cabinet period which just ended, government spending on research increased slightly. Nevertheless, universities and research institutes complained that they didn’t get enough money. There were two reasons for this. At the universities, student numbers were growing faster than the government’s contribution, making it less per student. And the research institutes – not just Wageningen Research but also TNO and ECN – faced dwindling government research assignments, forcing them to make cuts. So universities, institutes and the employees’ organization VNO-NCW are calling for an extra one billion for research. Two parties have a crystal clear take on this point. D66 wants to put one billion extra into research; PVV wants to stop all investment in knowledge and innovation. The CDA, ChristenUnie and GroenLinks say they would invest more in knowledge but do not name figures. The VVD and PvdA are satisfied with the current situation.

Are the top sectors any good?
The parties have divergent views on the cabinet’s top sector policy, linking research funding from the government with funding from participating businesses. We must carry on with this, say VVD and CDA, because this policy increases companies’ commitment to research and to the position of the Netherlands as a knowledge economy. D66 and SP, on the other hand, want to scrap the top sectors and stimulate research and innovation by other means. The PvdA, GroenLinks and ChristenUnie position themselves somewhere in between. They would want to keep the structure of the top sectors but stimulate research around broad societal themes such as climate change and sustainable development.

Other positions on research

  • Almost all the parties think the municipal bank BNG, the water board bank NWB and the development bank FMO should merge to form a single national investment bank. The left-wing parties want that bank to invest mainly in sustainable development; the right-wing parties talk of knowledge and innovation.
  • The SP wants to install an independent research fund between companies and universities to counteract direct influencing of researchers.
  • The VVD wants to link a bigger proportion of the research budget to research funding by businesses, to attract more private investment in research.

Upscale even further or just the opposite?

Food and agriculture divide the Lower House of Parliament. Parties on the left often wholeheartedly adopt the argumentation and framing of activist groups such as Greenpeace and Wakker Dier, while right-wing parties support the farmers and the agro-industry.

The VVD in particular has turned into the defender of the agro-industry. The demand for food is growing due to the growing world population, so agriculture, a major pillar of the Dutch economy, should become even more intensive. After all, our farmers have to compete on the world market. The CDA opts for a strongly export-oriented agriculture, but has less confidence in the global market. The party thinks Europe should aim at self-sufficiency in food, and wants to see a ‘food referee’ who blows the whistle on unfair power relations in the food chains, and ensures farmers get higher prices. Just like the VVD, the CDA is proud of ‘our’ farmers and agriculture sector. CDA MP Jaco Geurts’ main concern: ‘The persistently negative campaigning of nature and environmental organizations will ensure that soon there won’t be a single farmer’s daughter or son who wants to take over the farm.’

The ideas of the environmental organizations are mainly voiced by parties such as GroenLinks, PvdA, PvdD and SP. GroenLinks goes for an ambitious climate policy and for nature and landscape. To get rid of fossil fuels will require a CO2 tax on food. GroenLinks also wants to see the back of factory farming-style ‘mega barns’, upscaling and the pesticides glyphosate and neonicotinoids. This programme overlaps considerably with those of the PvdD, PvdA and SP. They too want to legislate for getting cows into the meadows and giving pigs and chickens access to the outdoors, and they want to ban pesticides and mega barns. The want to transform the ‘bio-industry’ into an animal-friendly, sustainable livestock sector. The SP also wants to tighten the rules on fine particles and nitrogen in livestock farming and quadruple the turnover of organic food in ten years. The PvdA wants to stop imports of soya for animal feeds, set limits to livestock numbers in the Netherlands, and stop the use of antibiotics in agriculture. The party for seniors, 50Plus, strongly backs such ideas too.

Two parties take up an in-between position: D66 and ChristenUnie. They would like to see sustainable agriculture with lower greenhouse gas emissions, and a food industry which produces more healthy food. D66 wants to stimulate circular farming systems through taxation: ‘fiscal greening’. This party is critical of the ‘food market’ in which the lowest possible cost price is the main priority, but wants to transform that market through entrepreneurial channels. ChristenUnie thinks food prices are currently too low. The party wants to calculate the pros and cons for the environment, animal welfare and health into the price of food, but in a way that gives the farmer a better income and gets the consumer to pay for added value.

The PVV has nothing to say about food, agriculture or the environment in its one-page election manifesto. Its position on food is represented by MP Dion Graus. When it comes to animal suffering and rights, the party is in line with the PvdD. When it comes to bureaucracy in agriculture, the PVV follows the VVD.

Other positions on food and agriculture

  • Almost all the parties want more attention to dietary education in schools.
  • The VVD is against sugar and fat taxes, GroenLinks and the SP do want this kind of taxation of unhealthy food.
  • The CDA and PvdA want to make specific agreements with food producers on reducing levels of sugar and fat in food.
  • GroenLinks wants meat taxed at the higher VAT rate of 21 percent instead of the current rate of 6 percent.
  • The SP wants additional money for the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, so that tariffs for these services for farmers can go down.
  • The PvdA wants a compulsory monitoring system for farmers to oversee and improve animal welfare.
  • The CDA, ChristenUnie, PvdA, SGP, SP and PvdD have all expressed their support for the establishment of a ministry of Food. The VVD is against it.

Brief statements

Nature hardly gets a look-in in the election campaigns. This is because under secretary of state Henk Bleker (CDA), nature policy was decentralized to provincial governments, so it is no longer ‘The Hague’’s business. Nevertheless, quite a few political parties have included statements – albeit brief – on nature management in their programmes. The CDA is against the acquisition of farmland for nature development. The PvdA wants to convert income support in the European agricultural policy into targeted grants for nature conservation, health and animal welfare. D66 wants to finish off the nature network Natural 2000. The VVD is in favour of incentives for private nature management. GroenLinks and the PvdD, on the other hand, want more funding for government nature management. The SP wants to invest in the ecological main structure. And finally, 50Plus wants to develop new nature areas and open up existing ones to the public more.

End it or go back to old levels?

The Dutch budget for development aid in 2015 was 3.7 billion euros. This money was spent on emergency aid and poverty alleviation, on development projects and on support to knowledge institutions and industry in developing countries. Politicians’ opinions on whether that money is well spent vary widely. The PVV wants to stop all development aid. The VVD wants to cut it back drastically, and only give emergency aid. The PvdA wants to stick to the current budget, while the SP and GroenLinks want to increase development aid. They would like to go back to the earlier norm that the Netherlands spent 0.7 percent of the gross national product (GNP) on development aid. The current budget is officially 0.7 percent of the GNP too, but because provision for refugees comes out of the same budget, the real budget for development aid has shrunk in recent years to just over 0.5 percent of the GNP.