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Holland Park Press

The Tulip Agreement

2 May 2012 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

During the past few weeks I’ve frequently been reminded of the 1634–1637 tulip mania. In the early seventeenth century, French ladies at court would pay hundreds of guilders for a tulip flower, which they wore in their décolleté at gala evenings; a wonderful image.

The tulips came from the Netherlands and this actually started off the Dutch flower trade. Well, they originated from the Ottoman Empire, present-day Turkey, but were traded in the Netherlands.

In the end a tulip could occasionally be worth as much as a gabled house on an Amsterdam canal. People speculated on tulip bulbs that were still in the ground or even on non-existent tulips.

The tulip market in Haarlem collapsed on a dark February evening in 1637. Suddenly people became aware they were dealing with a scam. It was the first well reported boom and bust in the history of economics. They called it tulip mania.

Charles Mackay featured it in his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1841.

Last week, Barcelona and Real Madrid were defeated in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Both clubs have debts of more than 600 million euros, equivalent to 600 gabled canal houses. Maybe the players are just a bit too expensive; it’s like tulip mania.

This brings to mind Ruud Gullit, who was once dubbed ‘The Black Tulip’. Of course, he acquired this nickname for another reason, but he was a player just at the time when their salaries went through the roof. In 1987 he was sold for about eight gabled houses to AC Milan.

Today, as I write this, it’s Queen’s Day and the Dutch Google doodle is a bunch of orange tulips. In the meantime, on the telly the Royal family have arrived in Rhenen, where they are treated to the traditional toilet-bowl-throwing championship. I catch the Crown Prince tossing an orange toilet bowl and the Queen painting a tulip. Someone with an inflatable orange windmill on his head passes underneath my balcony.

Last week, five Dutch political parties, some in government and others in opposition, came to an agreement over budget cuts. The Netherlands had almost defaulted on the EU requirement to keep the budget deficit within three per cent. The same wide-ranging coalition that had made the decision to send a police training task force to Kunduz in Afghanistan sorted out a budget deal within two days.

That’s why people talk about the ‘Kunduz coalition’, or the ‘spring agreement’, the ‘lobby agreement’ and the ‘pressure cooker agreement’.

I prefer to call it the Tulip Agreement: it sounds much nicer, and besides, you can’t fail to notice how many tulips have appeared in the city centre. They’re just in full bloom today. The Dutch feel very strongly about tulips; they have even been known to eat the bulbs in times of famine and war.

Whether the tulip agreement will stick is very much the question, but at least it’s acknowledged that the government was operating in a bubble.

Dutch politicians are prone to say that people have finally jumped over their own shadow. I would rather say that they have taken the bull by the horns.

I’ve wasted quite a bit of time this week trying to jump over my own shadow. You could say I have a substantial shadow: judging from my shadow I look quite fat. This proverb originates in a Yiddish one, which with the usual Yiddish common sense states: ‘A man cannot jump over his own shadow.’

I had a dream last night: Europe is one huge tulip bulb and worth a good deal less than it thinks it is. Because that’s the problem: Europe is right in the middle of a worldwide devaluation.

I also dreamed about the Mayor of London elections: The Blond Tulip (Boris Johnson) – his great-grandfather came from Turkey – versus Forget-Me-Not (Ken Livingstone). I saw the second round of the French presidential elections on the horizon, too: Nicolas Sarkozy, a dejected tulip, against François Hollande. Look, there’s Carla Bruni with a tulip in her décolleté.

© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press

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