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Shell and Unilever, two icons of Dutch business moving away from their native country?

Shell and Unilever, two icons of Dutch business moving away from their native country?

Translation of an article published today by the Dutch version of the Financial Times, the FD. 


“Companies will scratch their heads: will I still come to the Netherlands?”

By Bas Knoop and Job Woudt

In the past months, departing Secretary-General for Economic Affairs and Climate Policy Maarten Camps saw Unilever leave for London at his post and Shell is preparing to do the same. The climate for multinationals seems to have changed. “It indicates that we need to nurture our business climate and continue to welcome companies.”

Maarten Camps will leave on 1 September as Secretary-General of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate. Photo: Tammy van Nerum for the FD

It can be wrong. Secretary General Maarten Camps (55) of Economic Affairs and Climate announced at the beginning of February his transfer to benefits agency UWV. At that time there seemed to be no problem in the air for the BV Netherlands.

Now his farewell has been eclipsed by the corona crisis, which forced the senior official to extend his employment in the department for three months until September 1. Much more painful for the appearance of the Dutch economy was Unilever’s decision in June to remove its headquarters from the Netherlands. The food group opts for the United Kingdom, partly because this country has no dividend tax, unlike the Netherlands. Less than a month later, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden in the FD said he was considering the same with his company.

Not one, but possibly two icons of Dutch business away from their native country. And that during the period that Camps holds his position at the ministry in injury time. When asked how to draw up the balance after seven years of Economic Affairs, he answers with a sense of irony. ‘2019 was a record year for foreign investments and branches in the Netherlands. Maybe I should just leave it there. ”

But the top official sees an important signal in the departure of Unilever and possibly Shell. ‘It indicates that it is not self-evident that companies choose the Netherlands. That we should continue to watch our case. That we should cherish our business climate and continue to welcome companies. ”

How bad is Unilever’s departure?

“It is no surprise, but at the same time it is unfortunate that Unilever is going. It has no direct impact on the Netherlands, because the company remains here with important components, such as research & development. But it is important that the Netherlands has head offices, which is important for our position to be able to talk to, also from an international perspective. And it is important because headquarters – I make it more general – create jobs, contribute to research and development and that we can attract talent. In this way they simply contribute to economic growth. ”

Were you ‘not surprised’ by Shell’s announcement?

Camps sighs. ‘We hope that companies naturally opt for the Netherlands, as does Shell. And we hope that it stays that way. Shell has also been mentioned in the context of the discussion about dividend tax. But many companies have also come to the Netherlands in recent years. Thanks to the good business climate and the appeal of the Netherlands: a good quality of life, good infrastructure and international connections, availability of talent and the research climate. We work on that every day. ”

Shouldn’t the Netherlands still consider abolishing dividend tax to keep Shell?

‘It is clear what we think about this from the Ministry of Economic Affairs. (Minister Wiebes was in favor of the abolition of this measure, ed.) But the discussion went the way it did. I’m not going to repeat it again. ”

The hassle around dividend tax marks a tipping point in the multinational’s political standing. In 2017, the house in the Netherlands was still too small when Unilever and Akzo were attacked by hostile takeover candidates. In no time there were structures on the table that ‘our’ concerns had to keep out of the hands of the ‘Anglo-Saxon robber knights’.

A year later, the image turned completely. Completely unexpectedly, the third cabinet committed Rutte to abolish dividend tax: a € 2 billion intervention that no coalition party had in its election program and which seemed to be intended only to please Shell and Unilever. For the opposition – with GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver at the forefront of the battle – it was free shooting. After Unilever revoked its previous choice of Rotterdam as its headquarters location, Prime Minister Mark Rutte immediately withdrew his proposal.

The treatment of multinationals in the House of Representatives has not changed since the dividend debacle, as evidenced by the positive reactions to the recent GroenLinks proposal to impose an additional tax of € 10 billion on departure for London to London. A number of coalition parties also showed sympathy for this plan.

What do you think of the social sentiment towards multinationals?

“I do worry about that every now and then. Discussions about companies often focus on one aspect. The point is that so much CO2 is emitted or that tax is paid at a certain level. Regardless of what you think of those specific points – and whether it is justified what they say – these are always fairly one-dimensional discussions. For example, with CO2 emissions, we also have to look at it on a global scale. Then of course it makes no sense if companies move. We have strict conditions in the Netherlands. This also attracts companies, such as the juice maker Innocent. They have built their first CO2-neutral factory in Rotterdam, and have consciously opted for the Netherlands because we have a strategy for sustainability. You will not hear me say that there is nothing wrong with companies. If a company doesn’t do something right, like Tata Steel does with graphite emissions, they need to be called to account and the government is doing that. ”

How do you explain that one-dimensional view?

‘What doesn’t help is that reporting and information about the business community is often only about negative incidents that are happening. While the positive contributions made by the business community are much less visible. That is also what the business community can do about it. I have said a lot during working visits in recent years: participate in the public debate about the role you play. Rutte’s appeal to CEOs at the time to join De Wereld Draait Door and Jinek fits in very well with that. ‘

Wasn’t the bond between the government and Shell, for example, too close in the past?

“The government and companies need each other. Companies also contribute to public goals and provide work and income. Conversely, companies need the government to facilitate them. Then it is good if both parties also understand and know each other. At the same time, we should not be naive, companies have more interests than the goals of the government alone. It is therefore important that we are alert to and respect each other’s roles. My experience is that it generally happens. ”

What do you think of the GroenLinks proposal to file a tax claim on groups that leave the Netherlands?

“Well, that doesn’t help with stability. It is an illustration of the sentiment I see towards companies. It is remarkably widely shared, yes. But the proposal is not there yet, we will see how it goes. If you are talking about a reliable government, companies will scratch their heads and wonder if they still want to invest here. Shouldn’t I be away quickly. Or will I come at all. ”

Chairman Hans de Boer of VNO-NCW calls the political sentiment irresponsible and dangerous. Do you recognize those words?

“I would put it my way. That is that we all have to realize that the presence of companies in the Netherlands, the investments they make and the employment that goes with it cannot be taken for granted. ”

The same policy calls on the cabinet to retain KLM and the Hoogovens for the Netherlands.

“There is a paradox. You hear: that is a beautiful Dutch company that must be preserved. And at the same time you hear that the company is emitting too much or taking up too much space and we don’t want that. ”

Isn’t that just political expediency?

‘There you see that one-dimensionality again. The position is taken depending on the dimension one is looking at. But what strikes me is the predominantly critical attitude and therefore the obviousness that companies will remain. So we can ask questions and demands endlessly and then those companies will remain. Or if companies did not invest here, that employment would still be there. That is not true. That requires a welcoming and inviting policy towards companies. ”


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