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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Dutch Cabinet Chief European Court of Auditors: “EU should become financially independent from its member states”. I think he is right…

The year 2014 is a year in which the economic crisis already lasts for more than half a decade. Many middle and lower-class people in the European Union go through severe economic hardship, due to lower wages, lower unemployment benefits and other personal subsidies, strongly elevated tax-levels, ubiquitous mass lay-offs and structurally high unemployment.
The large banks on the other hand, as well as the investors and speculators at the stock exchanges, see their profits multiply. This is caused by the ample availability of virtually free funding money from the central banks and – as a side-effect – the soaring stock prices, as a consequence of the extremely low interest rates and the generous lending capacity of the European Central Bank.
Consequently, a division emerges within the society: between the lower and middle class experiencing hard, economic times and the upper classes, having nothing to worry about in the world. This increasing division in society leads to an atmosphere of anger, mounting nationalism of a nasty kind, envy and despair among the lowest classes. This is an atmosphere, in which people start looking for someone or something to blame.
Almost everybody’s favorite scapegoat at this very moment is the European Union – as an utterly bureaucratic, technocratic and undemocratic institution, which is even  “disconnected from reality” to the eyes of many people.
Especially during the last month, when the EU dared to ask for additional contributions from the United Kingdom, Italy and The Netherlands – based on their better than anticipated economic growth figures –  the qualifications varied from ‘bad timing’ to reactions like ‘who are this bunch of darn idiots. Are they from outer space?’
The leading politicians of The Netherlands and the United Kingdom did their share of jawboning and spinning against this decision of the European Union, but– like I already predicted in the aforementioned article – paid their dues after all (… admitting this really softly to those who did listen)
Few commentators in the leading – often increasingly populist and nationalist – newspapers had the guts to acknowledge that the EU was fully entitled to ask this money. And even fewer newspapers acknowledge that the EU is not a ’slot machine, which pays out more price money to all its member-states than these countries have thrown in originally’. Europe is a simple zero sum game: if one country claims more money than it has paid in contributions, other countries have to pay extra contributions for that country, whether they like it or not.
From an older article of mine:
Every politician – and as a matter of fact every European citizen – should ask himself in what kind of Europe he wants himself and his children to live.
Does he want to live in a “Europe-as-a-slot machine”? A Europe, where solidarity means that one claims as much European subsidies and structure funds as he can, in order to make Europe profitable for him and his country?! Or does he want to live in a narrowminded “Europe-as-an-economic-market”, where the benefits of the union stop at the lock of his national treasure chest?!
Does he perhaps want to live in a Europe where all borders are closed again and where everybody is retreating behind their white picket fences?! A Europe of mistrust, anger and envy against the people with whom we share our lives and our European continent?!
Or does he wants to live in a Europe, in which 28 (or more) countries live together in relative peace, cooperation and prosperity. An increasingly democratic Europe in which countries help each other and in which problems are solved: very slowly, but surely. And a Europe with sensible leaders of whom people can be reasonably proud, because they represent us all quite good.
This weekend, the Cabinet Chief of the European Court of Auditors, Gaston Moonen, has written an excellent Op-Ed in the Volkskrant about this very topic.
In this article, he argues that the European Union must have the ability to collect its own funding, in order to become financially independent and treat its member states in a more balanced way. This is something that I fully agree with.
Here are the pertinent snips of this must-read article:
Discussions about EU funding became a regular phenomenon in the Brussels-based political circus. Every year Brussels lacks a part of its funding and the payment obligations mount, without the necessary funds being in place.
How serious this problem has become in the meantime, becomes clear from the latest annual report that the European Court of Auditors published.
As a matter of fact, the EU does have a deficit, which is disguised behind the name ‘Reste à Liquider’ (i.e. ‘outstanding amount’), even though the EU is not allowed to have a deficit in its annual budget after all. In other words: the EU is not allowed to spend more money than it earns. And borrowing on the capital markets, on behalf of its own budget, is a no-go area for the EU.
Yet, future obligations must be made by the EU, and for these obligations sufficient funding is not available nowadays. In the longer run, this leads to forwarding current financial obligations to the future, thus only increasing the void between financial obligations and funding. At the end of 2013, this ‘reste à liquider’ amount on the EU balance sheet mounted to €322 billion; more than twice the amount of the annual EU-budget.
On top of that, the EU-budget acts also as a warrant for some EU lending programs, established to fight the crisis (consolidated these warrants amount to nearly €60 billion).
The EU Court of Auditors is worried, by the mounting risk that the EU could not meet its future obligations. Besides that, postponement of payment obligations could lead to reputational damage and it could have consequences for the effectivity of EU funded projects.
In the eve of each EU multi year program, all the member states fight fierce battles in order to collect as much money as possible for their own projects. Subsequently, when the member states’ annual EU bill is due during the settlement of the EU budgets, many member states try on the other hand to set these EU budgets as low as possible, in order to minimize their national EU payments.
This results in: mounting future obligations, as well as distrust and disappointment among EU citizens, regarding this troublesome decision-making, in which discussions about the net-receipts from the EU or payer’s positions rule. Multi-year after-taxes instated by the European Commission, which are based on agreements made by the member states, put oil upon the flames.

The core problem is the financing of the EU.
As long as member states have to pay the large majority of the EU money from their own budgets, the annual catfight about ‘who has to pay what’ won’t change. And it might even worsen, in times of economic crisis. In the future, the financing of the EU should come from sources, which are independent from the budgets of the 28 member states.
In the remainder of the article, Moonen argues that the European Council (the most important institution within the EU, having the government leaders as members) has torpedoed such plans to establish independent sources of EU funding, for the simple reason of ‘being not ready for it yet’.

That makes sense in these increasingly nationalist times, in which the European Union is blamed for much that is wrong in Europe, but it is a shame indeed.

I do believe that a more independent EU, with fully independent funding, could be a catalyst for more sensible and less ‘envious' spending of EU money (see first red and bold paragraph). The scarce EU money should be put to work where it is needed most and not for building bridges to nowhere, which are developed for the simple reason that individual member states don’t want other countries to get ‘their’ share of the EU money (see third red and bold paragraph).

Making the EU funding independent from the member states, could put an end to the EU being the ‘slot machine for the European countries’. And perhaps it could even put an end to the squanderous removals from Brussels to Strassbourg and vice versa.

Exactly this habit within the EU, in combination with the continuing stories about Members of European Parliament, who sign their presence forms in order to earn their presence fees and leave immediately afterwards, give the European Union such a bad name among many hardworking and law-obiding citizens (see second red and bold paragraph).

When the European Union would not be so dependent on France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy for its contributions, it could become easier for the European Commission to ignore the French, German, British and Italian egoes, if necessary. In my opinion, this would make the EU more the union for all European citizens; not only for the ones from the largest countries.

Yet, it will be a longshot to establish such independent funding. Many citizens and many government leaders within the European Union feel that their interests are served best, by a European Union which is tightly at the leash of the European Council. EU contributions coming out of the national budgets, while being scrutinized by the European Council, form such a tight leash. 

In my humble opinion this is a grave mistake, but nevertheless one that we have to live with. Yet, I am glad that Casper Moonen took the time to express his – currently not very popular, but yet very important – point of view.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Een nieuw jaar, een nieuwe start… Software Test Consultant zoekt nieuwe opdracht in 2015!

Al bijna vier jaar probeer ik vanaf deze plaats economische en politieke gebeurtenissen in Nederland, Europa en de rest van de wereld in kaart te brengen en te duiden. Op mijn eigen manier en normaalgesproken in de Engelse taal, teneinde een groter taalgebied te bereiken.

Ik wil mensen graag proberen uit te leggen hoe wij  in ons kleine Nederland of in ons (vooral in de Angelsaksische gebieden) vaak onbegrepen Europa naar dingen kijken. Of hoe het komt dat de Nederlandse economie zo moeilijk uit haar schulp kruipt, na zes jaar economische crisis. En hoe de Nederlandse huizenmarkt toch zo heeft kunnen ontsporen. Omdat dingen zelden zonder reden gebeuren, maar te vaak geduid worden door mensen die de reden niet kennen.

Zonder te willen stellen dat ik die redenen wél ken, probeer ik mijn steentje bij te dragen aan het vergroten van het wederzijds begrip in de wereld. En daarbij een tegengeluid te bieden tegen de ‘communis opinio’ (de algemeen heersende mening). Omdat die nu eenmaal lang niet altijd de juiste mening is.

Maar vanavond wil ik het een keer over mijzelf hebben. Aan het einde van dit jaar ga ik namelijk van baan veranderen.

Na ruim zes jaar voor een werkgever te hebben gewerkt als Software Test Consultant, wil ik met ingang van 2015 datzelfde beroep als freelancer gaan uitoefenen. Omdat ik zelf verantwoordelijk wil zijn voor de keuze van mijn opdrachten en meer verantwoordelijkheid wil dragen voor mijn eigen ontwikkeling en succes. En omdat ik denk dat ik goed in staat zal zijn om nieuwe ontwikkelingen in de markt en in mijn beroep te herkennen en op tijd hierop in te spelen.

Maar in mijn geval betekent het veranderen van baan ook dat ik een nieuwe opdracht als testmanager of als testconsultant moet vinden. Want hoewel de economie en politiek mijn hobby zijn, is ‘Software Test Consultant’ mijn beroep. Een beroep dat ik na 16 jaar en vele opdrachten bij verschillende (soorten) bedrijven nog steeds heel leuk vind. En een beroep waarin op dit moment heel veel dingen veranderen, dankzij nieuwe ontwikkelingen als SCRUM en Agile Testing.

Daarom de titel van dit artikel: Software Test Consultant zoekt nieuwe opdracht!

Ik ben een zeer ervaren tester met langjarige kennis en ervaring in de financiële wereld en in andere bedrijfstakken. Ik heb veel kennis van en ervaring met MKB kredietverlening en betaalsystemen voor het grootbedrijf. Ook weet ik het nodige over hypotheken, creditcards, zorgverzekeringen en (zelfs) telecomsystemen en heb ik gewerkt als tester van werkplaatssystemen voor vrachtwagens.

Maar misschien is mijn beste eigenschap wel dat ik mij snel kan aanpassen aan en kennis kan opbouwen over de business van de klant. En dat ik als tester probeer te werken vanuit een diepgaand begrip van wat de opdrachtgever en de eindgebruiker met hun systemen willen gaan doen.
Omdat kennis en begrip van de business zoveel meer waard zijn dan alleen verstand hebben van testtechnieken en testautomatisering.

Net als vele anderen ben ook ik de laatste jaren bezig geweest met Agile/Scrum, Continuous Delivery en DevOps. De laatste vier maanden ben ik zelfs Scrum Master geweest van een geweldig team mensen.

Ik denk persoonlijk dat Scrum voor veel analisten , ontwikkelaars en operationele mensen een terugkeer van het werkplezier heeft betekend. Omdat het de focus legt op zaken die echt belangrijk zijn, zoals:
Het opleveren van werkende software;
Het recht op het leveren van kwaliteit;
Geen documentatie opleveren omwille van de documentatie zelf;
Het liever opleveren van 8 goedwerkende applicaties, dan van 15 applicaties die nog niet af zijn.

Toch is het van belang te blijven naar de risico’s die aan methodes als Agile/Scrum, DevOps en Continuous Delivery verbonden zijn. Omdat bedrijven in de financiële wereld zich niet meer kunnen veroorloven dat hun systemen niet 24 x 7 operationeel zijn.

In mijn testwerkzaamheden probeer ik de balans, tussen de snelheid en aanpasbaarheid van softwareontwikkeling volgens Agile/Scrum enerzijds en de vereiste stabiliteit en betrouwbaarheid van bedrijfskritische systemen voor financiële instellingen anderzijds, goed in de gaten te houden en hierin goede keuzes te maken. Omdat de interne en externe klanten moeten kunnen rekenen op de bedrijfskritische systemen van de bedrijven waarvoor ik werk.

En nu zoek ik dus naar een nieuwe opdracht als Test Consultant, die ingaat in het nieuwe jaar: vanaf 8 januari 2015.

Ik hoop dat dit artikel een aanleiding voor u is om mijn CV aan te vragen, als u op zoek bent naar een zeer ervaren, gemotiveerde en vooral creatieve testconsultant. 

Dit kan via of Ik beloof u dat ik u niet teleur zal stellen!

Met vriendelijke groet,

Ernst Labruyère

Monday, 17 November 2014

It seems that the European Commission means business against tax evasion, fraud and illegal state aid. One of the ‘usual suspects’, when it comes to tax avoidance, The Netherlands, might get spanked over its Starbucks deal.

Last Friday, the French ‘Euro Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs’, Pierre Moscovici, held a speech on behalf of the European Commission, in which he emphasized that he and his team mean business against the ubiquitous tax avoidance (or evasion) by large multinationals. In his speech Moscovici signalled the increasing worldwide hunt against tax evasion and fraud, as the tolerance for tax evaders is currently at a depth, in economic behemoths like the United States and the European Union.

This increasingly hostile stance against tax avoidance and evasion is caused by the continuing global crisis, resulting in anemic economic growth everywhere, and the fact that many (large) governments are seriously strapped for cash, due to a number of years with disappointing tax yields. Besides that, numerous law-obiding inhabitants of these countries are seriously fed up with the multinationals, which bend the rules for tax payments to their advantage, in order to pay very little or no taxes.

Here are the pertinent snippets of Moscovici’s speech (the French parts of this bilingual speech have been translated by Google Translate and have been edited by me):

Tax evasion is increasingly a global phenomenon. Cooperation with the heads of states of the world is essential to provide an effective solution to this problem. In particular, we are working in Brisbane on the development of a program, which deals with the erosion of tax bases and transfers of profits (BEPS English).

We pledge to ensure that work on the BEPS will be finalized in 2015, as planned, in order to establish a more homogeneous and justified global tax environment. Within the OECD, we helped with determination and efficiency to establish a new global standard for the exchange of information, that will ensure an unprecedented level of openness and cooperation between tax authorities worldwide.

In addition, negotiations are well underway with our 5 close European neighbours (Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Switzerland), to ensure that the automatic exchange of information is cemented in our bilateral relationships with them.
Member States have agreed to proposed changes to the Parent-Subsidiary Directive, which will close loopholes and block a common form of tax avoidance.

The Commission is in close cooperation with the authorities of the Member States concerned to proceed in a constructive and cooperative manner in this area.

On a more general note, Commissioner Vestager’s services have asked information to various countries and she will be vigilant to enforce State aid control in a fair and justified manner. Beyond this, it is clear that we need to take a more systematic approach to the problem of corporate tax avoidance. We need to look at the root causes and consider long-lasting remedies.This includes digging into the question of how to ensure more appropriate taxation for the modern, digital economy.

With this in mind, and in line with the mandate given to me by President Juncker, I will give high priority to advancing the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base proposal (CCCTB). The CCCTB could fundamentally change the corporate tax environment in Europe, ensuring a closer link between taxation and economic activity and shutting off major channels of avoidance.

However, it is important to emphasize that the competence primarily lies with the Member States. This has two implications. On one hand, if the Commission can propose any initiative in the fight against tax fraud, only the Member States are entitled to vote and give their consent. Awareness and acceptance on their behalf is required for these countries to act in this direction.

On the other hand, as a consequence of the required unanimous acceptance by the Member States, carrying through this legislation may take more time than we desire. As a matter of fact, it might not even happen at all. To avoid such thing to happen, I intend to work with the European parliament in the coming years to achieve our common objectives in this priority area.

I will use every instrument at my disposal to achieve the concrete results that Europe needs and our citizens expect from us. Existing projects and new ideas, like the automatic exchange of information of tax rulings, will be fostered with strength and conviction.

Apart from the blatant expressions of self-promotion, that these speeches from high public officials always seem to contain and that I tried to remove from these snippets, this was a strong speech by Moscovici. I do believe that the European Commission is indeed involved in a serious battle against undesirable tax avoidance currently and that the Commission does its utmost to minimize fraudulent behaviour, with respect to corporate tax payments within the European Union.

That Chairman of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker has been the highest official of Europe’s most infamous tax haven Luxembourg for 18 years and that he could and should have known about the countless tax-rulings set in his country, makes him very vulnerable for criticism from the press and the government representatives in the European Council. This particular circumstance will undoubtedly lead to him putting his full focus on the battle of the commission against tax evasion.

On the other hand: as Moscovici already explains, tax avoidance and tax-rulings, which are blatantly distorting the competition and the level playing field for business, are first and foremost questions of national competences (see red and bold text) of the member-states within the European Union.

Delegation of national tax competences towards the European Union and the introduction of draconian anti tax avoidance legislation require unanimity among the member states. Especially the countries with the most favorable tax-rulings for large corporations, like Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Ireland are not very likely candidates to give these competences away easily.

Still, the European Commission wanted to show that it’s got teeth last week, with respect to the corporate tax regulation. One of the usual suspects for tax avoidance (and perhaps even evasion), The Netherlands, received a serious salvo from the European Commission for its ‘sponsorship’ of American coffee behemoth Starbucks.

The ways this company could shift its profits and sales numbers within the European Union, thanks to extremely favourable Dutch tax-rulings, gave the Commission and some other member states a serious eyesore.

They were stunned that the American coffee company, with billions of dollars in profits, could end with a tax payment of close-to-nought. These Dutch rulings likely will be treated as illegal state support, by the European Commission.

Brussels has confronted the Netherlands over sweetheart tax deals by alleging the country artificially lowered Starbucks’ tax bill through a complex, irrational and inappropriate corporate structure.

In a 40-page letter outlining preliminary conclusions from a probe into Starbucks’ Dutch tax deal, the European Commission alleged that the US coffee chain paid less tax than it should have done under Dutch law, labelling it a form of favourable treatment that amounts to an illicit state subsidy.

The Netherlands’ tax ruling is one of four in-depth investigations being carried out by the commission, at a time when Jean-Claude Juncker, its new president, is under fire for widespread tax avoidance in Luxembourg during his 18 years as its premier. Other tax rulings, or so-called comfort letters, under scrutiny include Ireland’s arrangements with Apple and Luxembourg’s clearance of structures used by Fiat and Amazon. The commission is empowered to order countries to recoup any illegal aid.

An in-depth state aid investigation into the Starbucks ruling was launched in the summer and the commission’s letter to the Dutch authorities, published on Friday, details its main allegations. The letter is addressed to Frans Timmermans, the former Dutch foreign minister who has since become commission vice-president.

“At this stage, the commission considers that the measure at issue appears to constitute a reduction of charges that should normally be borne by the entities concerned in the course of their business, and should therefore be considered as operating aid,” the letter said. “According to the commission practice, such aid cannot be considered compatible with the internal market.”

The Netherlands and Starbucks will be pulled into the political storm over sweetheart tax deals on Friday as the European Commission confronts Amsterdam for allegedly subsidising the coffee group’s tax bill.

From my point of view, I wish the Commission success in its battle against tax evasion and avoidance, fraud and illegal state aid: in my country, as well as anywhere else in Europe.

In the case of The Netherlands, the advantages of these tax rulings for the country itself are very limited, in my humble opinion. The companies, that profit from these tax rulings, open in most cases so-called letterbox companies in The Netherlands and rarely genuine headoffices, which bring real economic activity and hundreds of real jobs for Dutch people.

The additional jobs in The Netherlands, which are created as a consequence of such tax rulings, probably amount to a few thousand at the most: mostly jobs for legal representatives and tax experts. These are highly qualified and well-remunerated jobs, but they do very little for general unemployment in The Netherlands. 

On top of that, these tax rulings give an enormous blow to the confidence of Dutch citizens and SME entrepreneurs in their government; they wonder why they have to pay the jackpot, when it comes to taxes, while these ‘fat cat’ corporations pay close-to-nought in taxes?! That is a question that I – and probably the European Commission – share with them.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Could the oncoming end of the brick-and-mortar bank shops eventually become the end for the current bank establishment in The Netherlands?

It is just less than 40 years ago, when almost every small town in The Netherlands had one of more bank offices with a cashier’s function.

When you wanted to save money, you took your piggy-bank or your cash wages, as well as your deposit booklet, to the bank and made a physical deposit, which was quoted in that very booklet. And when you wanted to withdraw money for the weekend, you better be at the bank before four o’clock on Friday: otherwise, having no money meant having no groceries for the weekend. Unless you could use the warranted bank cheques that almost everybody used in those days, of course!

Every bank had a cash desk, where you could order foreign currencies, like Deutschmarks, Pounds Sterling or Belgian and French Francs.  And if you wanted a personal loan or a mortgage, you made an appointment with a stringently looking fellow, who assessed you and made an estimate based on his gutfeeling, whether you could pay back the money or not eventually.

Banks were stately organizations in those days, with a somewhat stuffy appearance, and bankers belonged to the notables of their places of residence: people with prestige, who were in high esteem.

However, since those days five developments would dramatically decrease the importance of the physical bank office for the banking industry:
  • The ‘electronification’ of the salary payments in The Netherlands;
  • The introduction of the Automated Teller Machines (i.e. ATM’s) and automated deposit machines;
  • The introduction of the electronic payment terminals in shops;
  • The introduction of the Euro, which annihilated the demand for foreign currencies;
  • The introduction of internet, as the perfect medium for doing almost all banking business. 

These five developments all made – in their own respect – that bank offices changed from indispensable distribution centres of cash money – in all necessary currencies – and customer service points, which offered a job to many bank employees, into increasingly superfluous and unpopular bank shops.

Especially internet offered a relatively cheap and very reliable way to do almost all banking business from one’s home or office. Why bother to go to a bank office, when you can do almost everything that you want from the comfort of your favorite chair.

Many teenagers nowadays do not realize how the electronification of money flows and the internet totally changed the face of banking in little over fifteen years:
  • They would probably laugh out loud when they would see the very slow, unreliable and interference-sensitive teletext and viditel ‘Telebanking’ solutions, that their peers used in the Eighties and Nineties of last century.
  • And they would surely be astounded, when they would visit a branch of the Russian Sberbank, which looks exactly like a Dutch bank office in the seventies. 

Although the large Dutch banks often seem to pretend that they were taken by surprise by the consequences of the success of internet banking, in reality this has become the epitomy of their long-term strategy to strongly reduce the number of expensive, physical contacts and physical operations in bank offices.

Every closed cash-desk, every removed ATM, every closed bank shop and every reduction in customer-service personnel saved the banks a lot of money: money, which subsequently could be used for the development of new and improved internet services, that would beat the competition.

The unstoppable rising of internet, during especially the last decade, changed the modern Dutch banks from massive, but yet extremely cautious users of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into front-runners of internet development. In the six years that I worked for ‘my’ large, Dutch bank, this company went through an unbelievable paradigm shift, turning it into an modern and very technology-driven company, which builds and deploys new software twenty-four seven and all year long. And so did the other large banks.

The amount of banking services, available through internet, has soared during this last decade and it will continue to do so in the coming decade, until 90+% of all banking services is available online and physical contact will become a rare exception. Inevitably, this unstoppable development of internet banking led to a strongly diminished number of physical bank visits and consequently, to a strongly diminished number of bank shops. The bank shops that remained open, often lead a lingering existence, with yet too many customers to close down, but too little customers to stay open all day. Many of these bank shops will be closed down after all in the coming years.

Although this development seems favourable for the renowned, large Dutch banks (‘less bank offices mean less personnel expenses, which will lead to more profits eventually’), in reality it hosts a disguised, but nevertheless very palpable hazard for their sheer survival.

The bank offices have always been exclusive and very visible expressions of bank presence. People often bonded with their banks during their childhood, through such offices. At many occasions, their relations with their bank lasted longer than the relations with their loved ones did. Banks were trusted advisors and many decisions were only taken by people, after they received the green light from their account manager at their local bank.

In other words: a bank, which presence you saw in your favorite shopping centre, was a bank that you probably trusted more than any other bank. It was there – at a physical place –  where you could visit it, for advice and help; for instance when financial matters didn’t go as you planned them.

Nowadays, however, banks turn more and more into ‘internet labels’ for many people, as their physical presence is strongly diminishing and people increasingly do their bank operations online. But with the disappearance of the physical bank offices of the renowned Dutch banks, the loyalty of their customers will also disappear. In my humble opinion, this is an inevitable consequence of the current developments. Although I can’t prove it, I think that the ‘internet label value’ of the traditional Dutch banks – like Rabobank, ABN Amro and ING – is not per sé much stronger than the label value of new online banks, like Binck Bank, Alex Vermogensbank, Knab or Leaseplan bank, at this very moment.

To put it even stronger: the disappearance of the physical bank shops, operated by the large Dutch banks in the Dutch towns and cities, could make it easier for renowned and ubiquitously visited internet companies with banking ambitions (i.e. Paypal, Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook) to conquer the Dutch banking market.

Every professional and globally operating online company, with a good reputation, an elaborated electronic infrastructure and excess cash, could ask for a Dutch banking license in order to offer plain bread-and-butter, retail banking services, like:
  • Savings & loans;
  • Mortgages
  • Credit cards
  • Small and Medium Enterprise loans
  • Insurances
  • Other simple banking services.

One should not forget that many ICT and online services companies, like Apple, Google, LinkedIn and Facebook sit on a huge stockpile of cash, for which they hardly have a purpose nowadays. And although it is not easy to start a bank in The Netherlands or elsewhere, for these companies it is probably a piece of cake:
  • Many of these globally operating online service companies already offered near-bank, financial services in the past and present and have ample experience with a financial infrastructure;
  • Experienced bankers, operational risk managers and ICT-engineers with specialized banking experience can be taken over from the current banks;
  • The popularity, market penetration and marketing infrastructure of these online services companies are often much better developed than those of the current banks;
  • Such companies don’t carry the burden of the 2008 credit crisis and did not lose their trust and reputation during it;
  • The exploitation of their vast ICT infrastructure and internet hosting services has always been their "specialty-of-the-house", at which they are probably much better than many of the current, large banks.

On top of that, a bank could become a stable source of future income and profits, when the original products and services of these online companies get out of fashion, under influence of future competition. It does not matter how these companies earn their money, as long as they do earn it!

And last but not least, the name and reputation of these companies are improving by the day:

People, who use Google, Apple and Facebook every day on their smartphones, iPads and computers are very likely to trust these brands so much eventually, that they even want to outsource their banking affairs to these companies. 
This could be especially true for the current generation of youngsters, that is used to doing EVERYTHING online and does not have their parents’ emotional attachment to the traditional banks. 

And so it would be the irony of fate, when the development which currently seems to make the traditional banks more resilient and profitable, could eventually become the end for the classic banks as-we-know-them.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Herman van Rompuy – the ‘grey mouse’ president of the European Council is finally roaring in his last interview with the Dutch press. Why the European Union owes him very much, for his unexplicit and non self-centered leadership.

If you encounter a worthy human,
Try to follow his lead.
If you encounter an unworthy human,
Assess yourself

Herman van Rompuy, the departing, Belgian president of the European Council has been ‘the mother of all grey mice’. Nevertheless, this is the man who guided the European Council – and thus the European Union as a whole – through the biggest crisis of its sheer existence. We – the Europeans – owe him a lot for that. And now, he speaks out in his final, personal interview with the Dutch press…

Herman van Rompuy, the departing, Belgian president of the European Council, is not a man to leave a long-lasting impression at first glance. People could justifiably call him ‘the mother of all grey mice’: a politician so non-descript and uncharismatic, that you could wonder whether he recognizes himself in the mirror in the morning.

This – as well as his undeniably pro-European, but yet fairly moderate political stance  is something that is often held against Van Rompuy by more charismatic and less civilized national and European politicians. Politicians like the Dutch Party for Freedom’s rabble-rouser Geert Wilders and UKIP’s Nigel Farage, whose only real strenght seems to be their power to offend other people.

Still, if we look at Herman van Rompuy’s achievements during the nearly five years of his presidency, one could not deny that it are particularly his hard to overestimate diplomatic skills and unexplicit, non-self centered leadership, that saved the day for the European Council and – as a matter of fact – the European Union as a whole.

Van Rompuy never seemed to look for the diplomatic trenchlines and was always willing to disregard his own ego, thus giving the government leaders the chance to flaunt with his ideas and his precooked plans.

With his diplomatic skills par excellence, he could guide the European Union through the biggest crisis of its sheer existence and prevent the European Council from falling into the abyss of self-centeredness and political implosion.

Many people will probably never realize how close a Grexit (i.e. Greece leaving the EU) has been during the last five years and nobody will ever know what the consequences of this step would have been for the union as a whole. Also the smouldering, British forest fire has been kept more or less under control until now, through his guidance.

Although I have pleaded for more charismatic political leaders in Europe myself, on a number of occasions, I realize very well that much of Van Rompuy’s success was based on him being uncharismatic and non-descript, but also extremely persistent and patient.

And now, as the time of his resignation from the European Council and the end of his political career is approaching, Van Rompuy took the time to speak with the Dutch press in a last, personal interview. 

It was a surprisingly emotional interview from this ‘cool cat’ politician. Here are the pertinent snips of this interview with Ulko Jonker and Rik Winkel of Het Financieele Dagblad:

Herman van Rompuy, as first steady chairman of the European Council also known as ‘the unofficial president of Europe’, feared for the euro twice. 

First, at the G20 in Cannes in November, 2011 [for some background information, please see this articleEL] and second, during the summer of 2012, in the time between the announcement of the bank union and the redeeming promise of ECB-president Mario Draghi ‘to buy unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds’.

“That August was really a horrible month. I was at holiday in Spain and truly wondered in which Euro-country I would return”, Van Rompuy confesses.

“Cannes was the absolute low for me. The Greeks wanted a referendum; not about the euro, but regarding the package of austerity measures that they had to deploy. With this particular definition, we were convinced things would end in catastrophy. Fortunately, we could convince them to abandon this plan”. In Cannes, people were also fearing for Italy. “The Greek economic problem could have been contained, but the Italian economy was a whole different ball-game. The whole climate was horrible, with even President Obama assessing the viability of the Euro-zone. We have had some dramatic meetings with him”.

With Van Rompuy at the helm, the power of the European government leaders has rapidly expanded, through the European Council. This was mainly caused by the crisis, which required overnight decisions, in which loads of tax money would be at stake. 

These affairs were so sensitive, that they could only be arranged at the highest political level, according to Van Rompuy. “The main question was: ‘Do we survive or do we not?! It was this decision or a catastrophy’. The steady chairman helped to maintain continuity, according to him. “People discovered that we could be trump card. Imagine that we should have battled the Euro-crisis with six, rotating chairmanships: six prime ministers that would have to learn things all over again?!”  

His biggest worry for the future, and consequently for the new Polish chairman of the Council, Donald Tusk, is the lack of French/German impulses. “I would prefer that the French/German axis would still exist and would be as strong as it has been in the past. I did my utmost to reinforce this axis. Let I be very cautious by stating that the relation could be improved this very moment”.

When asked about UKIP’s mockery, Van Rompuy reflects: “Someone can only be really hurt by people they respect. If such things keep you awake at night, you cannot function. Some members of the European Council experience a hundredfold of my inconvenience.

This is partially caused by these council members themselves. It is a handicap for the European concept, that some people act if they had not been present at the council meetings after all. I am now mentioning an extreme case and I’m definitely not referring to Mark Rutte [Still, the name has been dropped and not by coincidence, in my humble opinion EL].

On the question, whether the European Council has been sitting on its arms since 2012, when the worst crisis had been solved, Van Rompuy responds: "When the crisis had passed, further reforms became more difficult. I wanted to make structural reforms enforcable. Yet, there is much resistance and I did not want it to end in failure. If my successor wants to expand the Economic and Monetary Union and there is no acute crisis, two conditions must be met: the European Commission must play a more explicit role and there should be a stronger French/German cooperation”.

I do not want to make a holy man of Van Rompuy at all. In some recent situations, the European Union (European Council) has shown very poor judgment.

Especially in the Ukrainian situation, the European Union has acted so recklessly and undeliberatly, that Putin could easily put the EU and the NATO in the same political corner, for ‘trying to achieve an agressive, expansionist politics, that is threatening the sheer existence of Russia’. We in Europe might not understand that, but the Russians, who experienced numerous cases of foreign aggression on their home turf in the past, swallow this message like candy.

Also the smouldering forest fire, caused by the possible British referendum about EU membership and the mounting British hostility against the EU, has festered for much too long these days. While Van Rompuy helped to contain the problem, he did not SOLVE it.

Still, I consider Van Rompuy a man to whom the Europeans owe very much; whether you like him or not.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Has the European Union, as we know it, passed its ‘Best before’- date, now that the UK has (definitely) fallen from grace? Perhaps, it is now the right time to build an ‘EU Next Generation’!

Germany, represented by Chancellor Angela Merkel, presented the UK a yellow card with a ‘reddish’ glow for its unilateral, hostile stance towards the EU immigration policy. Maybe it is time to think ahead of a Brexit and build upon the ‘EU Next Generation’.

It has been the ‘talk of the town’ lately: the unprecedented speculation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel upon a British exit – a so-called Brexit – from the European Union. The German weekly magazine Der Spiegel (i.e. the mirror) had the scoop for this bombshell, quoting sources around the Chancellor. 

Still, in spite of the unprecedented impact of a possible Brexit, few people will dare to doubt the truthfulness and correctness of this news item by this authorative German magazine.

This unusually straightforward expression of dissatisfaction with the British stance regarding the European Union, coming from the European ‘Leading Lady’, can best be compared with a yellow card during the final of the Champions League football. 

When such an event happens, the referee is clearly expressing an unambiguous message to one of the players at an extremely important moment. “Cross this line again and you will be sorry about it!”

According to Der Spiegel, this yellow card was NOT given for the British ‘whining and jawboning’ with respect to the considerable after-tax of €2.1 billion, that the United Kingdom had to pay to the EU. Chancellor Merkel could probably understand the British frustration about this colossal amount, seemingly coming out of thin air.

No, Merkel was infuriated about the translucent British attempt to deploy an ‘immigration  quota’ in the United Kingdom for labourers from Eastern Europe

Such a quota would violate one of the foundations, that are the bedrock of the European Union (i.e. ‘free traffic of labourers’) and it would send shockwaves through the whole community of member states; especially towards the populist, right-wing parties all over Europe, that would see this as their ‘Alea iacta est’-moment (i.e. 'the die is cast').

Perhaps, Merkel hoped that her ‘nuclear attack’ against the United Kingdom would spur Cameron to make the decision to either:
  • Finally start to firmly defend the foundations of the European Union against the UKIP and his populist Tory grassroots, instead of himself acting as a copycat of Nigel Farage, or;
  • Step out of the European Union immediately and put the United Kingdom ‘out of its misery’, instead of letting the whole EU wait for  the notorious referendum of 2017, which is hanging above the UK and the European Union as Damocles’ sword. 

Here are the pertinent snips from the Spiegel article (in English):

Approaching Brexit? Merkel Fears Britain Crossing a Red Line on Immigration

David Cameron is furious about the EU Commission's demand that the UK make a back payment of €2.1 billion. But it is the British prime minister's stance on immigration that has German Chancellor Merkel more worried. She fears he may be crossing a red line.

Two adjectives best describe the British prime minister in recent days: shrill and loud. Late last month in Brussels, an angry David Cameron vented over the surprise €2.1 billion ($2.62 billion) back payment being demanded by the European Commission. "I am not going to pay that bill on Dec. 1," he fumed to the press. The charge, he said, was "completely unacceptable."

Merkel was much more worried about a different development. For the first time, according to an assessment by the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry, Cameron is pushing his country toward a "point of no return" when it comes to European Union membership -- a point at which Germany would cease doing all it can to convince Britain to remain a member of the EU.

Were Cameron to continue insisting on an upper limit for immigration from EU member states, Berlin sources said "that would be that." Sources say that Merkel left no doubt about where she stands on the issue during a private meeting with the British prime minister on the sidelines of the recent EU summit. The sources said that the surprise bill from Brussels was hardly mentioned.

It seems doubtful that Merkel's message has been sufficiently understood. Just days after he met with the German chancellor, a red-faced Cameron once again addressed the issue of immigration, this time venting his anger in the House of Commons.

In the 12 months ending in March 2014, Britain saw net immigration of 243,000 people and Cameron's government has pledged to drastically reduce that figure. But significant restrictions on immigration from non-EU countries could hurt the UK's economy. So Cameron is evidently considering rejecting the immigration of certain groups from within the EU's 27 member states. The plan likely calls for upper limits on the immigration of less prosperous, less educated migrants. And such a plan is one that Merkel finds unacceptable.

Should Cameron continue on his current path despite the resistance, sources in Berlin believe, he will unwittingly fulfill UKIP's greatest desire: Britain's exit from the European Union.

And that’s that from Der Spiegel...

There was not a single unclear word in the article: “Put a sock in it, David, or we will kick you out of the EU. And please don’t be so naive to think that Angela Merkel will not do that, when she deems it necessary for the future and unity of the Union!

For Germany, the United Kingdom is not France, when push comes to shove, and it can be missed with much less pain than Paris, in the axis of the EU. 
Since the seventies, the United Kingdom has been a pain in the neck for the EU on more than one occasion, with its stubborn politics and its special privileges and discounts.

Regular readers of my blog know by heart, that I see PM David Cameron mainly as a spineless rabble-rouser, who now in fact acts as a strawman for the UKIP. And the current United Kingdom acts as a ‘fission fungus’ within the EU: if you let it go rampantly, it will blow the whole EU to smithereens.

The country is not aiming at making the EU stronger as a whole, but it is only trying to achieve its own narrow-minded goals: a EU that solely fulfils the desires of the UK – by acting as a free trade zone alone – and does not ask for anything in return. No regulations, no commitment, no respect for the sheer foundations of the EU.

I, myself, am almost sorry that I have to write yet another critical article upon the United Kingdom in general and David Cameron in particular, but letting this loose cannon go, is almost the same as blowing up the EU with your own two hands.

To make things worse, he – and Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson too, to mention another (in)famous Briton – seems to represent a United Kingdom that searches for ‘splendid isolation’, out of a misplaced and arrogant feeling of utter superiority in comparison with the rest of Europe.

There is, however, something that both David Cameron and an imminent ‘Brexit’ could achieve within the European Union:

Often, people think only about painting and renovating their own house, when they see the dry rot emerge in their window frames and woodwork. In such situations, an indispensable painting job does not come one second too early. 

When we see the EU as a house, the Brexit could come as an unmistakable signal of dry rot in the woodwork, against which we should act, as a whole EU.

The barely prevented Grexit, as well as the countless arguments within the European Union about technocratic ‘baloney’, like:
  • additional austerity measures; 
  • stability and growth pacts;
  • untenable national deficits and; 
  • unbalanced balance sheets, 
were also signals of serious dry rot; especially when you put them on top of the general indecisiveness, which has clouded the atmosphere within the EU for such a long time.

The current European Union, with 28 members, has seemingly turned into an ungovernable monstrosity, in my humble opinion. In this EU, the European citizens live under a ‘de facto’ German/French impediment, as François Hollande, Angela Merkel and the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe have the last word in almost every political decision, which is made within the EU. 

These are the unchosen leaders of an EU, for which 26 member states could not vote and probably would not have voted if they could. And when these two (Hollande and Merkel) would be brave and visionary leaders, with ideas that would improve the economy and general wellbeing within the EU, it would be OK. But they aren’t… to the contrary.

The current European Union has become an EU of stagnation and economic deterioration: 
  • An EU with bureaucratic and technocratic leaders in the European Commission itself, who don’t have any charisma and grassroots and lack even the slightest direct mandate from the European voters.
  • And an EU with generally weak and spineless leaders in the member states. 
    • Local leaders for whom the political position and status of the own European commissioners and MEP’s (i.e. Members of European Parliament) is much more important, than the quality of the integral European ‘government’ itself.
    • It is like having a football team in the EU with 11 forward attackers, no goal keeper and no midfield. 

Or could you think of a good reason for having a President Commissioner (Jean-Claude Juncker), a Senior Vice President for Bureaucratic Affairs (Frans Timmermans) and five Junior Vice Presidents for 'Miscellaneous, Unknown and Disguised Affairs' within the European Commission, other than keeping everybody happy with a so-called VIP: Very Important (Fake) Position?!

I cannot help, but call it ‘dry rot’ and we must be careful that the EU has not definitely passed its ‘Best before...’-date.

Now that a Brexit seems imminent, the remaining politicians should not continue as they were, by assuming the ostrich position and thinking that everything will blow over within a few years and a few rounds of Quantitative Easing by Mario Draghi.


Now is the perfect time to build up ‘EU Next Generation’: a European Union that is – even more – a home to everybody in the whole of Europe. 

A Union in which the good foundations from the first EU remain, but in which they are made complete with new foundations, emerging out of the mistakes and recognized ‘built-in’ flaws of the first Union.

And especially a Union that is:
  • Much more democratic;
  • Much more ‘one man, one vote’;
  • With more governance coming from all the European countries and not merely from the dominant ones: Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom;
  • With leaders that Europeans recognize and trust and for whom they can vote directly;
  • More decisive and unisono in its domestic, as well as its foreign policies;

Maybe this EU Next Generation will remain a mirage and maybe it is a nightmare for many people. 

However, if nothing changes within the current EU, it will collapse, as a consequence of the dry rot totally getting out of hand. And then we are much farther from home.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

“And the Oscars for Best Leading Performance go to Matteo Renzi, David Cameron and Mark Rutte”. Whining and jawboning of these leading politicians, regarding the EU after-tax, sheds a stinging light on the impopularity of the EU payments

The UK, Italy and The Netherlands got ‘punished’ by the European Commission for better than expected economic results, through a massive after-tax to the tune of (combinedly) billions of Euros. To the ears of many inhabitants of these countries, this after-tax sounded unfair and perhaps it was?! 

The whole soap opera about the unexpectedness of these payments, however, complete with the whining and jawboning by the government leaders, was pathetic and for the domestic political stages alone. Still, it sheds an unfavourable light on the impopularity of European Union payments.

Perhaps it was one of the most embarrasing and pathetic European political events of 2014.

About one week ago, the United Kingdom, Italy and The Netherlands received a massive after-tax bill from the European Commission, with a staggering total of over €3 billion euro‘s, 'for better than earlier forecasted’ economic results. On top of that, a number of other countries  including Greece(!)  received a relatively small after-tax bill for the same economic results. 

"Invoice payable before December 1st, 2014! Kind regards, the  European Commission".

On the other hand, other countries – like especially France, Denmark and Germany – received (considerable) rebates on their earlier paid EU premiums, to the tune of hundreds of billions of Euro’s, for ‘worse than expected’ economic results. 

This is visible in the following two charts; data courtesy of the European Commission: 
Annex 1: VAT - GNP/GNI own resources
adjustments for years 1995 - 2013
Data courtesy of European Commission
Click to enlarge

Annex 2: Financial impact of the VAT-
GNP/GNI adjustments for the memberstates
Data courtesy of European Commission
Click to enlarge

While the rebate receivers silently counted their blessings and disguisedly opened a bottle of real French Champagne, the 'losers' of this verdict (i.e. the economic winners of the pack) screamed, whined and jawboned, like a tourist in the centre of Amsterdam after being robbed by a pickpocket.

According to PM David Cameron, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had screamed that this after-tax was ‘not just a number, but a lethal weapon’, while Cameron himself stated, ‘that he would only pay this bill when hell froze over’! Or something like that.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte and chairman of the Euro group, annex Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem played the murdered innocence and told the media that they didn’t see this one coming, at all. They were shocked…, really, SHOCKED to the bone… by this insult, coming from the European Union!

Britain has been told to pay an extra €2.1bn to the EU budget within weeks because of its relative prosperity, a hefty surcharge that will further add to David Cameron’s domestic woes over Europe.

To compensate for its economy performing better than other EU countries since 1995, the UK will have to make a top-up payment on December 1 representing almost a fifth of the country’s net contribution last year. France, meanwhile, will receive a €1bn rebate, according to Brussels calculations seen by the Financial Times.

The one-off bill will infuriate eurosceptic MPs at an awkward moment for the prime minister, who is wrestling with strong anti-EU currents in British politics that are buffeting his party and prompting a rethink of the UK’s place in Europe.

Mr Cameron is determined to challenge the additional fee and on Thursday night met Mark Rutte, the Netherlands premier, to discuss the issue. His country is also being required to make a top-up payment, although it is smaller than the UK’s at €642m.

 George Osborne, chancellor, on Friday denounced the decision as having been made by “junior officials” in the “bowels” of the commission. Interviewed on Sky News, he said that once he had learned of it, Mr Cameron was “immediately” on the phone to other European prime ministers presented with demands who were “similarly surprised”. “It speaks to the wider complaint about Europe,” he said of the process. “It’s relationship with Britain is not right at the moment.”

Mr Rutte said he was considering possible legal action to reverse the ruling.
“This is an unpleasant surprise and raises many questions,” he said. “We will get to the bottom of this and of course will be asking for detailed clarifications from the commission.”

A few days later, the European Commission replied drily, with a sub-zero tone of voice, that the financial data had been sent to the government leaders more than a week earlier and nobody had responded to it, until then. 

De Volkskrant:

The European Commission should not be blamed for an after-tax, which has been charged to certain member states. The after-tax has been calculated, based on data coming from the member states themselves. This was stated by European Commissioner Jacek Dominik (Budget Issues), during a special press conference with respect to the after-tax charge. In his opinion, the member states had no other option than to pay their dues.

Commissioner Dominik explained the high after-tax for certain countries by pointing out that some pending questions and disputes had finally been settled, after  sometimes  many years. Such disputes concerned f.i. the settlement upon the question, which financial data exactly belonged to the gross domestic product. ”We don’t want to be accused of abuse, when we simply want to improve the national statistics”.

Dominik told that he was genuinely surprised by the extremely critical response from PM David Cameron to the after-tax. ‘Until now, there was no signal whatsoever from the United Kingdom, that the government had a problem with the after-tax’. 

Cameron and Rutte made a big show of it, during the EU summit of last Thursday and Friday, in spite of the fact that they had been informed one week earlier. ‘The member states have all been informed on October 17, in Brussels as well as in the residences of these countries. Everybody knew about it’.  

The whole pathetic media show by Renze, Cameron, Rutte and Dijsselbloem was worth four Oscar’s for best leading and supporting performances.

It was all barkin’ and no bitin’ by these four government leaders’ and it was totally meant for domestic purposes, at the political stage and in the local media: 

Look fellows. We battled for you and we did our utmost to prevent our country from having to pay this money, but well uhm… contract is contract, y’know. We can’t help but paying it. Always the same ol’ same ol’ with those darn commissioners in that darn European Union.” 

Because that is what will happen eventually, when the gunsmoke has drifted away: these countries will have to pay their dues!

Commissioner Jacek Dominik was totally right, when he countered that the government leaders had been informed in advance, at least one week earlier. 

In the meantime since this Volkskrant article, this has already been admitted by Dutch Finance Minister and Chairman of the Euro-group Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Although he did not admit to have known these data himself one week earlier, he stated that his officials had indeed heard these numbers before.

As far as Dutch PM Mark Rutte himself is concerned and especially what and when he knew about this after-tax and the amounts mentioned in it, I happily quote former US minister of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld:”There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know”.

I dare to add to this legendary quote, that I strongly believe that PM Mark Rutte did know these after-tax data in advance, but he didn’t want to spoil his Oscar-worthy performance in the Second Chamber of Dutch Parliament. Can I be wrong? I can be wrong!

What bothers me even more about this pathetic after-tax show of the last two weeks, however, is that all countries are still treating the European Union as a big slot machine: everybody wants to get more money out of it, than they have thrown in.

The events of the last weeks show that the EU countries still keep their mouths shut, when they receive substantial rebates from the EU, but immediately start to whine and jawbone, when they have to pay more money for it; even when this is justified by their own financial/economic data. 

This sheds a very stinging light on the impopularity of these very necessary – and probably well-spent – EU payments and especially on the abuse of European politicians, with respect to these payments, when this is in their political interests.

You can’t see the EU and the European Commission as the aforementioned slot machine: the EU does not deserve that. Most things that the EU does are in the interest of all European countries and help to make the European Union as a whole a better and more stable place. Such contributions are a necessary means to let the EU survive as a political and executive apparatus.

Of course, the EU is far from perfect in many aspects, but frankly, I have been more annoyed by local politics and local government in The Netherlands lately than by the European apparatchiks.

And the European Commission does especially not deserve to be treated in the cowardish and offensive way, that it has been by British PM David Cameron of the BUTP (i.e. "the British UKIP and Tory Party") and his peers in Italy and The Netherlands.

These four clowns Cameron, Renzi, Rutte and Dijsselbloem should stop with their cowardish stance in this matter and should quickly develop into real leaders, who take their own country and the whole European Union by the hand. 

You must realize, that these are the same leaders who have failed time and time again, in finding a solution for the fierce and enduring economic problems of the European Union. 

When the European economy has indeed started to improve more structurally since 2014, this fortunate development cannot be written on the accounts of messrs Cameron, Renzi, Rutte and Dijsselbloem. That is for sure!