in the Centre of Den Haag
A trip to Europe is always a pleasure. A devoted Englishman I may be, but I still love travelling on the Continent, if only to be reminded how different it is from the UK. Just as idiot politicians have their mantras about Europe, I am perfectly happy to own to the one which goes ‘Love Europe, Hate the EU’.
I have just done a quick trip on business to The Hague which is one of my favourite continental cities. Though it is the seat of government of the Netherlands, it has evolved in such a way that it retains large green spaces within its cartilage which contribute to the sense of living in a series of villages that have become joined up.
Much of the main part of the city is made up of residential buildings (some now offices) which are, at most, a maximum of ground floor plus three upper storeys high, so that nowhere does one have the sense of being overwhelmed by the city itself. There is an absence of large supermarkets à la Tesco so all over the city one finds delightful shopping streets such as Frederik Hendriklaan in the Statenkwartier filled with individual and individualistic enterprises: cheese shops whose shelves groan with wheels of the finest Dutch cheeses (if you thought Dutch cheese was just Edam and Gouda, you have been missing one of the best kept secrets of the cheese world); grocers, wine shops, delis, bookshops, stationers and a host of others.
Here people still shop as we once did: fresh food for today, on foot and armed only with a single, though ample, basket: no place here for a dozen free plastic bags. And then there is the tram system which has lately been augmented by some of its lines being converted to Light Rail, a system which serves the system efficiently and reasonably cheaply, a circumstance which contributes to traffic congestion being a minimal inconvenience.
Yet I was struck, not having been there for a couple of years, by an odd sense that things may not be going economically too well in The Netherlands, for this delightful old lady is looking, shall we say, a little frayed around the edges. Like a favourite maiden aunt, she is still wearing that same twin-set and pearls she has had for donkey’s years, but it is suddenly noticeable that it is looking ever so slightly threadbare and if you get close to her there is the merest hint that she has been at the gin.
So with The Hague. It looked, in places, frankly rather scruffy and as I pottered about the tram system I had a sense that in some of the smarter areas were looking a little tired and distinctly in need of a coat of paint. It was just an impression, but a forceful one and one just wonders if perhaps people are finding that, economically, things are just a bit tight and so that bit of essential maintenance is collectively being put off.
It is also a very expensive place for us Brits just now. Nominally the £/€ exchange rate is £1=€1.28 or so, but changing cash yesterday produced a rate of €1.16. The rate has declined by some 14% in a year and thus produced the shock of a small coffee costing £2. Which leads me to my next thought, unscientific though it is. I sat on the ferry last night watching all the trucks being loaded and my attention was drawn to the fact that not one of them was being operated by a British-based haulage operator. No sign whatever of an ‘Eddie Stobart’ or a ‘Prestons of Potto’ or anyone driving a UK registered vehicle. This was odd as many of the truck drivers were quite obviously British. I duly made enquiries and the explanation I got from the Transport manager on the ship was brutally simple.
Several years ago Gordon Brown elected to raise the duty on diesel so that today a litre of diesel costs a lot more than one of four-star unleaded. Now we have one of the highest prices for diesel anywhere in the EU. The road hauliers voted with their feet. The simply upped sticks and moved to the Netherlands, by all accounts, from where their trucks are now operated for the UK market. So their directors, drivers and staff all now pay taxes in The Netherlands and their haulage companies pay corporation tax to the Dutch. The excise duty and the VAT likewise go to the Dutch Taxman. Gordon Brown has thus managed single-handedly to export an sizeable chunk of an entire industry. How utterly stupid is that?
Meanwhile those of us in the UK who run diesel-engined vehicles cannot simply up sticks and leave but have to pay this impost come what may. So Gordon Brown claims to have created all these new jobs over the years and we actually find that most of them have been filled by non-UK nationals and at the same time has cheerfully been exporting thousands of productive jobs done by UK citizens that would otherwise be contributing greatly to the UK Tax Take and economy. What a fool he is for a supposedly intelligent man.
But there was another puzzle in the trucks which I cannot fathom. In theory a weak pound versus a strong Euro ought to see cheap British exports streaming to the Continent and very little coming the other way. Instead most of the trucks seemed to be carrying Dutch goods to the UK, in particular all those lovely Dutch flowers. Flowers are, some might think, a luxury item, but we seem still to be buying them like mad, so perhaps people are not yet really tightening their belts. But watching the converse loading the night before I had not seen hordes of UK trucks delivering our cheap goods to the continent. If, as Gordon Brown is fond of telling us, three million jobs ‘depend’ on us being members of the EU, it does not seem, on the admittedly unscientific basis me making a couple of ferry trips, to be in the realm of manufacturing that this dependence arises.
I stand to be corrected, of course, by someone with the figures at their fingertips. But I remain puzzled and uneasy.
Still, there was one pleasure to be had: an hour’s train trip which cost me the princely sum of £6.50 for the return trip. A day return from Kettering to London (an hour’s train ride away) these days would set you back £35. Not exactly conducive to getting us to use public transport over the car, is it?
Finally I went past the new home of Europol, destined to be the heart of a new EU police force. It is but a hole in the ground next to the Nederlands Congressgebouw, a sort of small version of the NEC. Quite why they chose this site is unclear as t is miles from the main administrative/government area. One wonders, though, if they have half an eye on the building housing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia whose mandate is supposed to end shortly and whose activities are slowly being wound down. Soon enough the former insurance company building which houses three courtrooms and has accommodation for an entire prosecutions and investigation branch (it even has cells and interview rooms in its voluminous basement) will fall vacant: what do you do with an ex-courthouse?
Perhaps Europol will take it over and where once the likes of Milosevic slugged it out with his accusers we shall see the first trials of Eurosceptics for treason against the State, the EU state that is……..It would certainly be convenient, being just one hundred yards away.