Brussels warns Dutch Cabinet to press ahead with nitrogen policy; Minister "shocked"
The Netherlands must continue to speed up its policy approach to nitrogen emissions issues, cautioned the European Commission in a letter to Nature and Nitrogen Minister Christianne van der Wal. The existence of the letter was confirmed by unnamed sources in the national government, following first reports by RTL Nieuws. Minister of Agriculture Piet Adema said he was shocked that the European Commission wants the deterioration of vulnerable nature sites due to nitrogen to stop by 2030.
Due to the BoerBurgerBeweging’s significant victory in the Provincial Council elections, there is growing pressure on the Cabinet to step on the brakes when it comes to tackling the high level of nitrogen emissions from agriculture. The law states that this must be halved by 2035, but the coalition parties have mutually agreed that this target must be achieved by 2030. The government has already drafted a bill to that effect. The right-wing BoerBurgerBeweging, which is popular with the agriculture and farming sector, only has one seat in the Tweede Kamer, but will soon become the largest party in the Eerste Kamer due to the recent election win.
The election results were reportedly not mentioned in the letter written by European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius. But the Lithuanian politician did not mince words, saying clearly that he will hold the Netherlands to prior agreements on the protection and restoration of nature. It is no coincidence that he has chosen this moment to send the letter. A source said it was “a clear signal” from Brussels.
Adema said in response on Friday that he was taken aback by the European Commission's demands, which are more ambitious than the Cabinet's plans. By 2030, the fourth Cabinet of Prime Minister Mark Rutte wants 74 percent of vulnerable nature sites to be below the critical deposition, the limit of the amount of nitrogen deposition that a specific nature reserve is capable of handling. Sinkevičius said it is essential that the critical deposition value not be exceeded in any Natura 2000 area, to ensure that these vulnerable areas are no longer damaged by nitrogen and are able to recover. The Commission said it will see to it that this happens, the commissioner wrote.
"Yes, I was shocked by that, of course," said Adema about this passage of the letter. He also declined to comment on the letter in full. Like Van der Wal, he wants to first let the letter sink in, and ponder its exact meaning before releasing a response.
Sinkevičius also warned that reducing nitrogen emissions through state aid, for example by buying out farmers or helping with sustainability measures, should not lead to more emissions being allowed elsewhere. It is unclear whether he was referring to the group of entrepreneurs who received exemptions from required permits under the Nitrogen Approach Program due to limited nitrogen depositions.
These entrepreneurs are often also farmers. Though they did not need a permit under the old nitrogen policy, the Council of State put an end to this in 2019. They currently do not hold the proper permits and the prospect of enforcement is hanging over their heads. The Cabinet wants to tackle major polluters to free up nitrogen capacity space that can then be reallocated to this group to help them out, because they could wind up in trouble through no fault of their own.
Resistance to the nitrogen policy was the election promise that spearheaded the BBB’s successful campaign. The BBB will not only become the largest political faction in the Senate, they will also become the largest party in all provincial councils. Party leader Caroline van der Plas said soon after the elections that she wanted to hear from Brussels about what is possible to soften the blow for farmers impacted by the nitrogen approach.
European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans then offered to explain the rules to her again. He promised to travel to The Hague earlier this week, after Van der Plas had announced that she did not have time to go to Brussels for a meeting.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality only confirmed on Thursday that a letter from Sinkevičius has been received, but did not want to say anything about the contents. “Brussels is giving such signals more often. We are now studying the content.”
Reporting by ANP