Minister's nitrogen comments cause Cabinet rift; MP's to return from recess for debate
The minister in charge of the Cabinet's nitrogen emissions policy, Christianne van der Wal, was not at all happy with the statements her colleague, Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra, said in an interview with AD about the policy. The interview stirred up controversy in the political arena in The Hague throughout Friday.
Hoekstra said that he does not consider the government's stated goal to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030 as something sacred. His remarks were particularly surprising, because the Cabinet is supposed to speak with one voice. The Constitution even states that the Council of Ministers must promote unity of policy. Hoekstra is simultaneously minister, deputy prime minister, and the CDA party leader. He emphasized that he made the statements as leader of his party.
"It naturally touches you as a person if you are so committed to an issue that you then read such an interview," said Van der Wal after the first Council of Ministers to follow the summer vacation period. She called the timing of the interview "unfortunate," because Johan Remkes is still working on an attempt to mediate the issue with multiple parties on behalf of the Cabinet. "It doesn't sit well."
Van der Wal said that she discussed the matter with Hoekstra, who informed her of the newspaper article in advance. "We have jointly established that the coalition agreement is in place," said the minister about that conversation. "It's okay now."
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday afternoon that Hoekstra's comments will be set aside for the time being. The Cabinet has decided to "focus on the budget and also to ensure that the talks that Johan Remkes is currently supervising are as successful as possible," said Rutte. Remkes should be given the space he needs to break the impasse over the issue.
There has not been a request from any of the coalition parties to adjust the coalition agreement, Rutte affirmed. The 2030 deadline is set in that agreement. Rutte does not want to deviate from that.
Prior to the weekly meeting of ministers, Rutte already said he had "constitutional question marks" about Hoekstra's interview. Speaking out in that way is understandable as a party leader, but it "should not become a habit," said Rutte. After all, Hoekstra is also a minister, and the Cabinet generally has to show support for coalition policies. Rutte previously fired Mona Keijzer from her role as state secretary when she voiced criticism for the coronavirus access passes, though that was in the run-up to an election and she was not the leader of her party.
Keijzer is also a member of the CDA. Rutte, Van der Wal and Remkes are all members of the VVD. Finance Minister Sigrid Kaag, from D66, said the nitrogen emissions targets should remain in place. Hoekstra's statements were "extremely remarkable," she stated.
"It is important that we as a Cabinet stick to the agreements," Kaag said. "That's the trustworthiness of the government." The agreement to reduce the emissions by 2030 to protect the environment was discussed extensively. "Pace and goals are inextricably linked. Nature can't wait."
Members of the Tweede Kamer will return from recess on Tuesday to debate Hoekstra's statements, confirmed a spokesperson for the lower house leader, Vera Bergkamp. PVV leader Geert Wilders called for an emergency debate, with support from a parliamentary majority.
The leader of the VVD in the Tweede Kamer, Sophie Hermans, said Hoekstra's comments were "extensively discussed" on Friday morning.
Reporting by ANP