Foreign affairs minister Wopke Hoekstra has come under fire for dragging his feet over the application of sanctions against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine last February.
Internal e-mails obtained by NRC show officials in the justice ministry complained that the foreign affairs ministry was failing to co-ordinate efforts to identify and seize Russian-owned assets in the Netherlands.
The revelations are likely to lead to further questions about Hoekstra’s suitability for the post of European commissioner, after he was put forward as the replacement for commission vice-president Frans Timmermans.
Timmermans resigned last week after being named as leader of the Labour-Green (PvdA/GroenLinks) list of candidates for the parliamentary elections in November.
The commission set up a working group in March last year known as the “freeze and seize taskforce” to co-ordinate efforts to impose sanctions against Russia across the EU.
Member states were supposed to send senior civil servants to attend the task force’s meetings. But while Hoekstra said in public that his ministry would oversee the process in the Netherlands, the first four meetings were attended by an official from the Dutch justice department specialising in organised crime.
An official wrote on March 14 last year that it would be more appropriate for the foreign affairs department to attend the meetings, since it was the “first signatory” on decisions regarding sanctions.
He complained that his colleagues were being asked to work in an area “that we have no role in, know little about and are not equipped for”.
The finance ministry, headed by D66 minister Sigrid Kaag, was also criticised for not liaising on sanctions. “It seems to have become a hot potato that’s passed on to the next player as soon as possible,” an official commented. “It’s not a good look.”
NRC obtained the documents after submitting a request under freedom of information legislation.
The foreign affairs ministry said in a reply that NRC had published “internal emails intended for individual officials, out of context, which we do not wish to comment on in public”.
Hoekstra came under fire in parliament last March for being unable to answer questions about how the sanctions were being implemented, but denied he was taking a “laissez-faire” approach.
Days earlier, NOS reported that the government had not asked the land registry for details of property owned by wealthy Russians in Amsterdam and elsewhere, more than a month after the invasion of Ukraine began.
Hoekstra is meeting commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday, after which he will be put forward to the European parliament as the Dutch candidate to replace Timmermans.
He was already expected to face some tough questions over his record on the environment, after he called last year for the cabinet to relax its deadline on cutting nitrogen compound emissions.
“It’s not guaranteed that parliament will back him,” Mohammed Chahim, deputy president of the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D), told Politico last week.
There was another intriguing development in the saga after it emerged yesterday that an embargoed letter by Von der Leyen announcing Timmermans’s resignation had included a sentence in which she asked the Netherlands to name two candidates – one man and one woman.
But in the published version, Von der Leyen referred to a single candidate, fuelling speculation that Hoekstra’s name was already pencilled in. Kaag commented last week that her party had better candidates for the role and has a background in international relations herself.
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