ALSMEER, THE NETHERLANDS – Herman de Boon walks fast.
He is moving across a metal catwalk high above a warehouse of flowers. Roses. Dahlias. Chrysanthemums. Phloxes. Lilies. Every flower. Every color. In every direction. The flowers are moving in buckets stacked on metal carts, pushed by electric scooters. Growers drop off cut flowers on one side of the warehouse. The blooms pass through an auction house in the center, then are sent off to buyers – and end up with traders who supply supermarkets, flower shops and wedding planners across Europe and the world.
Flowers are big business in the Netherlands, a $6.7 billion industry, home to the world’s largest marketplace for flowers and plants. Half of the world’s cut flowers pass through its borders. And no place handles more traffic than this sprawling complex of 21 million square feet just outside Amsterdam, which includes FloraHolland, the world’s biggest flower auction.
On the catwalk, Herman stops. He has been asked about economic sanctions against Russia, a massive trading partner with the Netherlands. He spins around in his gray pinstriped suit and white open-collared dress shirt. He is a powerful man in the flower world. He is chairman of VGB, an umbrella group of Dutch flower traders. His job is to protect the business interests of the middle men, the ones connecting growers and exporters. The floral trade is changing because of disruptive new technology. He has pushed for that change, always considering the interests of his members as the top priority.
But not now.
“I have a feeling from my members that they think, this is enough,” Herman says, standing above a sea of flowers. “This today is going above the economy. This is about morality.”
In Holland, the business community’s mood has changed since a missile brought down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over a disputed region in eastern Ukraine on July 17. The plane had departed from Amsterdam with 298 passengers and crew, including 193 Dutch citizens. Herman, along with many others in this small nation, were shocked when officials were denied access to the crash site by anti-Ukrainian forces – the same ones whom U.S. intelligence officials believe fired the missile, using a weapons system provided by the Russian government. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied any responsibility.
The angry reaction in The Netherlands
– the embrace of the idea of sanctions against Russia – appears to defy global economic trends. The more countries’ economies intertwine, researchers suggest, the less they lash out at one another.
“One of the reasons Europe has been so tentative dealing with Russia is that they’re so connected, trade and flows-wise,” said James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute.
McKinsey research suggests The Netherlands is especially connected to the outside world, economically: It calculates the value of trade flowing in and out of the country is as large as the entire Dutch economy, plus 50 percent. McKinsey also shows that global trade flows are ballooning, up 150 percent in value since 1990, relative to the overall size of the global economy.
Those growing connections appear to be reducing war globally, a pair of Stanford University economists concluded in a study published in June. “Economic benefits from international trade provide incentives to form alliances in ways that restore stability and prevent wars, both by increasing the density of alliances so that countries are less vulnerable and by removing the incentives of countries to attack their allies,” the economists, Matthew O. Jackson and Stephen Nei, wrote after a detailed analysis of war across history.
Trade considerations can also dampen enthusiasm for economic sanctions, at least among business leaders. But today, many Dutch companies seem open to punishing Russia in some way for the Malaysia Airlines disaster. MKB-Netherlands, a group of small and medium-sized companies, issued a statement that it “backs the government’s approach” in dealing with the aftermath of the plane crash.
The Dutch government, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has hinted that it will seek sanctions against Russia as part of a broader European response.
This is not taken lightly. The Netherlands and Russia share deep economic ties. Last year, the two countries celebrated 300 years of trade cooperation.
Herman said the Dutch flower industry would be hurt by sanctions. It would not be a big hit. Maybe 5 percent of flowers here are exported to Russia. Any sanctions imposed by the European Union might not affect flowers directly, but trade tensions could rise. Putin could close his nation’s borders to Dutch goods, like flowers.
Herman said it’s worth the risk.
“I think we also have to contribute to help stop the stupid things that are happening here. We should be united in the business world and say this goes too far,” he said.
Herman knows flowers don’t have the business ties to Russia that the oil and gas industries do. But he is prepared to take the hit.
“So if the sanctions have impact on our business,” he said, “so be it.”
“We know what the problem is,” he added. “There is a guy by the name of Putin and – I’m not a politician – but everybody thinks we have ways of getting back.”
Herman is walking fast again. He is a busy man. Flowers do not wait. Before he leaves, he mentions that he is giving a tour tomorrow to an official from the Russian embassy.
“He is new,” Herman explains. “He likes flowers.”