The best countries to be a social entrepreneur 2019

OPINION: Rhineland thinking revives Dutch push for business for good policy

by Eppo Bruins

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Eppo Bruins is a member of Parliament for the Christian Union party, the Netherlands.

Dutch politics and society have undergone a major shift in understanding what a social enterprise is over the past decade.

Ten years ago the definition was confined to foundations wishing to start up commercial activities in the semi-public sector. 

About five years ago the definition shifted, singling out entrepreneurs taking over the task of employing disabled people, as a result of budget cuts in government spending.

Only in the last couple of years, a broader definition of social enterprise has emerged, based on a greater awareness that generating money is not the main task of companies.

This shift has led to renewed public and political interest in an age-old Dutch ideology known as the "Rhineland model" – capitalism with its function focusing on societal return as well as financial return.

The Rhineland model is a system of social order, commonly associated with the northwestern European countries bordering the river Rhine, including the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

It is defined as the opposite of the so-called Anglo-Saxon model with its absolute free-market ideology, also called neoliberalism or laissez-faire capitalism.

The Rhineland model is the historical basis for the Catholic and Christian-democratic political movements in the Netherlands, Germany and later in some Scandinavian countries, promoting capitalism with a human face.

The broader definition of social enterprise, and the renewed interest for the Rhineland way of thinking, has opened up the possibility for visibility and recognition of social enterprises in the Netherlands.

Changes in the labour market have also spurred on this change in attitudes.

As a result of decreased government spending, the government and representatives of employers and unions, have agreed to take shared responsibility to enhance the number of workplaces with sheltered employment.

Especially in the private sector, social entrepreneurs have taken up this challenge seriously, leading to an increase of companies dedicated to employing disabled people.

The economic boom in recent years and the subsequent shortage of the labour force, especially in the practical professions, has no doubt helped in the positive development of creating more sheltered employment workplaces.   


In 2016, Jan Vos, member of parliament for the Labour Party, and I announced an initiative for new legislation to promote social entrepreneurship in the Netherlands. The initiative got a positive response from the Ministry for Social Affairs, but the Ministry for Economic Affairs was much more skeptical.

The following year I was able to elevate the issue further, because my party, the Christian Union, became part of the new four-party coalition government following the general election.

As part of the coalition accord, our parties promised to create "suitable regulations and more room for companies with social or societal goals, while maintaining a level playing field".

Spurred on by this accord I submitted a formal white paper to the Dutch parliament advocating the legal recognition of social enterprises. This time, the Ministry of Economic Affairs reacted, although hesitantly, in a more positive manner.

In a letter from both the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Trade, the Dutch government now has come to recognise the importance and the potential of social enterprises and wants to stimulate social entrepreneurship further.

As a result, the Ministry asked the Public Procurement Research Centre of Utrecht University to give advice on which legal instruments can stimulate social enterprises in the Netherlands.

This research shows that a legal form for social enterprises, like the Community Interest Companies (CIC) in Britain, can enhance the recognition of social entrepreneurship.

It also states that more research is needed to determine whether a sufficient number of companies support the adoption of a legal form.

My white paper and the positive reaction of government has sparked new attention for topic of social entrepreneurship in the Netherlands.

Several newspapers have written about our work and with the white paper to be debated in Dutch Parliament on Dec. 2, more media attention is expected.

We are aiming for new legislation next year.

Attention needs to be given to the advantages and disadvantages of having a formal social enterprise. Advantages should be compliant to European rules for competition and the disadvantages – potentially more "red tape" – should be minimised.

In the political debate to come, it is important to maintain a broad view of what social enterprises are. For many companies, social entrepreneurship has become, and will become, part of their everyday business.

I expect that in the long run, more and more customers want to know whether they buy "fair" products in the broadest sense.

The realisation that profit is more than just financial is here to stay, in the private as well as the public sector. 

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