By Matt Steinglass, the FT’s Netherlands correspondent
The last thing Eelco Blok, chief executive of KPN, needed this week was an unforced error.
The Dutch telecom company has been struggling for over a year with customers’ shift from voice and messaging to data; it announced yesterday it is seeking to unload its Base subsidiary in Belgium; and in the run-up to its first quarter results announcement next week, analysts have been predicting it will have to scale back its generous dividends policy, putting further downward pressure on shares.
So Mr Blok can’t have been happy to learn on Tuesday that Emine Bozkurt, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, was demanding KPN stop offering a discount mobile phone subscription plan because it was apparently available for Dutch citizens only. Or to find that his company was being accused in the Dutch press (falsely, it turned out) of having run a “50% off for 100% Dutch” advertising campaign.
According to KPN, the whole affair was a misunderstanding: the application software for its “Hi” mobile phone plan had mistakenly been programmed to accept only Dutch passport numbers as a means of identification, rather than a Dutch passport number or resident visa number, the usual policy.
Ms Bozkurt says Mr Blok called her on Tuesday to apologise, promising to suspend the “Hi” plan until the application was reprogrammed to allow resident foreigners, and to investigate what had gone wrong. On Wednesday the company put out a press release emphatically denying it had designed any special deals for Dutch citizens.
Ms Bozkurt says the affair got started when several French citizens living in Holland complained to French members of the European Parliament that they had been told the “Hi” messaging plan was available only to holders of Dutch passports.
The French EMPs approached Ms Bozkurt, who had her staff call the KPN sales line and apply for the plan themselves. They were told that the deal was only for Dutch citizens. Staff who visited a KPN store to apply received the same answer.
“I contacted KPN to say, what is this?” Ms Bozkurt told the Financial Times. “We’re living in Europe, we have a single market. Normally everybody living in a country, it doesn’t matter what nationality you have, should be able to get a subscription for a mobile phone.”
KPN’s Dutch passport requirement may have been an error, but foreign residents of the Netherlands recognise the syndrome.
Dutch government and commercial institutions, including banks and utilities, frequently demand identification and qualifications such as a “BSN” (citizens’ service number) which Dutch citizens all possess but which require foreigners to jump through bureaucratic hoops. All countries have bureaucratic idiosyncrasies, but the Netherlands seems to be strangely above trend for a country with a longstanding reputation for internationalism.
The affair plays right into heightened European sensitivities over recent outbreaks of Dutch anti-immigrant sentiment, and the country’s obstinately self-interested diplomatic stances in the EU.
The European Parliament spent last month furiously condemning the anti-immigrant, anti-European stances of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, after it created a website soliciting complaints about central and eastern European citizens living in Holland.
Meanwhile the Dutch have lobbied fruitlessly in Brussels for the past year and a half to have European migration rules tightened. The Netherlands is the only country in the EU blocking the bids of new members Rumania and Bulgaria to enter the Schengen open-border club.
Ms Bozkurt says she is satisfied with KPN’s response. But in the meantime, one of the French citizens who initiated the complaint posted a Photoshopped image online purporting to show a KPN “50% off for 100% Dutch” ad campaign.
The image fooled Dutch media into thinking the campaign had been real; by the time corrections were issued, the slogan had already elicited outraged reactions on Twitter and Facebook.
Now KPN, which has enough troubles, has spent two days working to prevent a sales-department mishap from associating the company with the growing Dutch reputation for national chauvinism.
It’s enough to make you think anti-European populism might be bad for business.