Foreign affairs minister Wopke Hoekstra has told parliament he stands behind the coalition’s plans to cut nitrogen pollution, but declined to retract his comments in an interview that triggered an emergency debate on the issue on Tuesday.
In a debate that generated more questions than answers, MPs grilled Hoekstra on his remarks that the 2030 deadline in the coalition to cut nitrogen compound emissions was ‘not sacred’.
Hoekstra said he had made the comments in the AD newspaper in his capacity as leader of the Christian Democrats (CDA), which is under pressure in its rural base over the cabinet’s plans to cut the agriculture sector. He acknowledged that his stance ‘chafed’ with cabinet policy but he believed ‘more time’ was needed to reach some goals.
Prime minister Mark Rutte said earlier on Tuesday that the comments were ‘just within’ the limits of how far coalition party leaders could speak out against cabinet policy, but should ‘remain an exception’.
The debate ended with the cabinet agreeing to wait three weeks for Johan Remkes, who is chairing talks with farmers and other affected parties on the nitrogen plans, to produce his report before commenting further.
Coalition parties, including the CDA, voted down motions tabled by opposition groups that called on the cabinet to adopt Hoekstra’s stance that the 2030 deadline was ‘not sacred’.
The coalition agreement sets a target of cutting nitrogen compound emissions by 50% before 2030, in line with a binding ruling by the Council of State based on a EU-wide agreement to protect vulnerable areas.
Hoekstra, who was called to parliament in his ministerial capacity, acknowledged that his comments were ‘constitutionally sensitive’, but insisted he still supported the consultation process led by Remkes to consult on the nitrogen plans.
‘We as the CDA are fully behind the environmental aims and in by far the majority of cases, 2030 is achievable,’ he said.
‘But I also say that we shouldn’t look at it dogmatically and in some cases it’s conceivable we need more time.’
Opposition MPs pressed Hoekstra to either fall in line behind the coalition or resign and withdraw the CDA from the cabinet, potentially triggering fresh elections.
‘Not listening to science’
Esther Ouwehand, of the animal rights party PvdD, said the CDA had been holding back agricultural reform for decades ‘because it refused to listen to science.’ She said the nitrogen targets ‘really need to be reached in 2025, not 2030 or later.’
Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV party, said the incident showed the coalition parties CDA and D66 no longer trusted each other and Hoekstra should pull the CDA out of the cabinet. ‘You can’t govern a country if you don’t trust each other,’ he said.
Within the coalition there was a clear divide between Rutte’s party, the VVD, and D66, who say the 2030 deadline is non-negotiable, and the CDA and ChristenUnie (CU), who argue there should be room for manoeuvre.
‘Gaps becoming rifts’
D66 parliamentary leader Jan Paternotte said the nitrogen targets needed to be reached ‘not because it’s politically desirable, but because it’s necessary for nature.’ He asked: ‘Can people rely on the administration to keep to its agreements?’
CU leader Gert-Jan Segers said the ‘gaps were threatening to become rifts’ and said the deadlines should not be set in stone while the talks with Remkes were ongoing. ‘That year of 2030 is starting to look like a totem pole. But it’s not the crux,’ he said.
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