Paul van Gerven

7 March

The headlong instigation of a government task force to woo ASML is indicative of a political era in which lack of long-term vision is a virtue.

For matters of vision, go to the eye doctor, longest-serving Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte famously said. By now, we know the result: a country that’s stuck. Dysfunctional healthcare and government agencies, an overheated housing market, stagnation in climate change and environmental policies, an overloaded power grid – that’s what you get when your interpretation of liberalism is that things should be left to run their course and the job of politicians is to put out fires.

ASML’s concerns about the Dutch business climate have now become such a ‘Ruttian’ fire. The government has set up a task force to prevent “the impending exit” of the equipment manufacturer, De Telegraaf reported on Wednesday. It won’t come to that. In fact, even just an expansion abroad rather than in Veldhoven would be fraught with challenges, but it’s not unthinkable either.

It’s sad that a bit of bluff was needed to grab the attention of policymakers. Only when an international loss of face was at stake, did politicians spring into action.

Compartmentalized

Hardball geopolitics isn’t Dutch nature. When US President Trump started tinkering with the world order, it took some time to adjust. But eight years and a handful of export restrictions later, it’s painfully clear that free trade as we knew it has been sidelined. ASML is the main Dutch trump card in the geopolitical power play that has emerged.

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One would hope that such a company, which is in the process of doubling if not tripling its production capacity, deserves special consideration from the government. ASML CEO Peter Wennink recently mentioned that he’d spoken for an hour with the president of South Korea, who proved to know the ropes when it comes to semiconductors. In the Netherlands, Wennink’s company is being treated to fiscal expat regime cuts, a tax on share buybacks and possibly cuts on R&D incentives.

These measures can’t be blamed on Rutte. The House of Representatives bypassed his cabinet, without the support of Rutte’s party, the VVD. Nor should these measures be off-limits. The issue is that they’re not weighed within a much broader framework. And that is symptomatic of a country with fragmented and compartmentalized policy-making, a country where a lack of vision is a virtue.