Dutch chipmakers ASML and NXP Semiconductors among those unsettled by rise of populism typified by Geert Wilders

Unilever is a storied name in Dutch business history, and it’s also a harbinger of what the future may hold for what was once continental Europe’s most open economy. 

The consumer goods behemoth, which left its Dutch headquarters to consolidate in the UK four years ago, is considering listing its €17 billion ice cream business in Amsterdam or London. The decision depends on the Dutch business climate being attractive, Chief Executive Officer Hein Schumacher told the Buitenhof TV program on Sunday. But that is far from certain. 

“We have seen some surprises in recent years,” he said. “A predictable government and regulations are very important.”

Recent laws to tax share buybacks and reduce tax benefits for expatriates — alongside a bill that would cap the number of foreign students allowed to study in the country — have set off alarms at firms that rely on international talent. Those concerns have been supercharged as it becomes clear that a country that has long prided itself on its liberal consensus is preparing to clamp down on immigration.

The resounding victory of far-right ideologue Geert Wilders in last November’s election illustrates how far public opinion has shifted among Dutch voters since 2022, when the influx of migrants into the country increased by 60%. Wilders recently abandoned his bid to become prime minister, but still has the power to be a political kingmaker, and all three of the parties likely to have seats in the next government campaigned on anti-migrant platforms. 

The backlash in the Netherlands, home to companies like ASML, Boskalis and NXP Semiconductors NV, highlights a developing threat to businesses across Europe: that rising populist sentiment could endanger access to the overseas labor on which they have come to rely.

“What I’m hearing from business leaders that have bigger operations here is that they are not going to be able to get people — or many won’t be interested in coming,” said Marjella Lecourt-Alma, chief executive officer of Datamaran, a software analytics company that focuses on ESG risks.  

With coalition talks still in progress, the political direction of the European Union’s fifth-largest economy remains uncertain. And corporate heads are now speaking up, with some threatening to leave — or expand overseas, rather than at home.

Dredging and salvage company Boskalis NV’s Chief Executive Officer Peter Berdowski recently told De Telegraaf that the company is deciding whether to relocate its headquarters out of the Netherlands. That puts it with the 16% of Dutch companies considering moving at least part of their operations abroad within the next two years, according to a 2023 report commissioned by the Economic Affairs Ministry. Among organizations that are mainly global, that figure rose to about 33%.

Corporate leaders have  expressed concern about possible restrictions on hiring foreign workers as well as existing regulations that complicate day-to-day business. Kaan Terzioglu, CEO of Amsterdam-listed telecommunications firm Veon Ltd,  singled out the country’s visa schemes. Under the current rules, Terzioglu complained that he’s rarely able to fly Pakistan and Bangladesh-based employees without EU passports over for meetings. “It takes six months to get an appointment for a visa,” he said. 

Among the various firms uneasy with the current state of affairs, tech companies are the most influential. 

Semiconductor equipment manufacturer ASML, which has a €360 billion market capitalization, is so critical to the Dutch economy that Mark Rutte, the outgoing prime minister, set up a task force to ensure it didn’t expand outside of the country. Yet it would be strongly affected by restrictions on hiring non-Dutch nationals. More than 40% of its employees in the Netherlands hail from abroad, as do more than half of new hires at chipmaker NXP. Roughly 70% of the staff in the Amsterdam office of DataSnipper, a company valued at $1 billion that uses AI in auditing software, are foreigners.

Should it become harder to find qualified candidates in the Netherlands, corporate leaders have warned that they’ll follow the talent.

“If the Netherlands shuts down and we cannot get immigrants or foreign students, then fine, you should accept the consequences,” ASML Chief Executive Officer Peter Wennink said at a press conference in January. “We are a global company, we will go where we need to go to make sure the company can grow and service our customers.” 

Although it’s become more apparent since the November election, the anti-immigrant, anti-business mood that’s taken hold of the Netherlands has been brewing for years. Public attitudes towards big corporations began to sour during the financial crisis, according to business leaders, when Dutch taxpayers were forced to spend billions bailing out banks.

Rutte, who started his career as a human resources manager at Unilever and went on to lead the pro-business People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, has fought to keep the Netherlands attractive to businesses. In recent years, he has encouraged CEOs to appear on television shows to improve the Dutch public’s dim view of big businesses, according to people familiar with the matter.

Even so, Rutte was unable to block measures to raise taxes on banks and tax share buybacks — moves he warned would “lead to the departure of banks” — as well as a dividend tax that targets multinationals. Nor could he stop Pieter Omtzigt, whose center-right party is now in coalition negotiations with Wilders, from cutting a tax benefit designed for expats.

Some companies have already acted in response to what they view as the country’s increasingly unfavorable tax measures. In 2021, energy giant Shell Plc opted to move its headquarters to London following the Dutch government’s decision to tax dividends and a court ruling ordering it to speed up emission cuts.

In a recent parliamentary debate, Dutch economic affairs minister Micky Adriaansens expressed concern about the Netherlands’ global image. The shifting regulations are “no longer an irritation,” for companies, but a big issue. “Business owners indicate that the unclear, changing policies are incredibly damaging to investing in the Netherlands.”

With concern mounting, the Dutch finance ministry is currently working on alternative proposals to the bank and share buyback taxes as well as shrinking expatriate tax breaks. Ministry officials expect to present an outline to parliament in coming days, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the meantime, any clarity about what might come next would be welcome. 

“Companies can live with populist governments,” said Corné van Zeijl, a strategist at Cardano Asset Management. 

The main problem is “unpredictability — that they don’t know what the government is going to do.”

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