Tuesday 21 March 2023

Hoekstra under fire as cracks grow in coalition over nitrogen policy

Mark Rutte (l) and Wopke Hoekstra at the start of the debate. Photo: ANP/Laurens van Putten

Foreign affairs minister Wopke Hoekstra is expected to come under fire from MPs on all sides over his recent remarks on the government’s plans to cut nitrogen emissions.

Hoekstra drew a sharp rebuke from the prime minister, Mark Rutte, and his colleague responsible for nitrogen policy, Christianne van der Wal, for breaking ranks in an interview with the AD newspaper on Saturday.

The Christian Democrat leader said the deadline of 2030 to achieve a 50% reduction in nitrogen compound emissions – primarily by cutting livestock farming – was ‘not sacred’ and he supported pushing it back to enable farmers to ‘earn a fair living’.

Rutte said Hoekstra’s comments were ‘just within’ the acceptable boundaries of how far coalition party leaders could deviate from government policy, but it ‘should remain an exception’. Van der Wal said the ministerial council had had a ‘searching’ discussion about the nitrogen targets in the wake of the interview.

Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right populist PVV party, requested a debate in parliament with Rutte and Hoekstra, along with finance minister and D66 party leader Sigrid Kaag and social affairs minister Karien van Gennip. Wilders plans to table a no-confidence motion at the end of the debate which is almost certain to be voted down.

Kaag absent

D66, which is the strongest supporter of agricultural reform in the coalition, supported the call for a debate, but on Tuesday morning Kaag withdrew from the debate, citing illlness.

Hoekstra’s party is under pressure in the polls from the Farmer-Citizens Movement (BBB), which is expected to turn his comments against the cabinet during the debate by tabling motions quoting them directly.

The nitrogen plans have also been the subject of widespread, sometimes violent protests in recent months by farmers who are opposed to any move to reduce the size of the sector by forcing them to sell up.

Other coalition party leaders say Hoekstra’s remarks undermine the cabinet’s efforts to curb nitrogen pollution, as required by a Council of State ruling from 2019. Kaag reportedly told the ministerial council on Friday that ‘the trust is gone’ and said on Monday that she viewed Hoekstra’s comments as ‘highly remarkable’.

Grassroots anger

Hoekstra told AD the cabinet should ‘not be dogmatic’ on the 2030 deadline and also said he wanted to dispense with one of the main indicators used to measure nitrogen emissions, the critical deposition value (CDV), calling it a ‘flawed tool’.

Hoekstra was confronted by angry local party activists at a meeting in Nijkerk in July, where he was told to go to Brussels and renegotiate the ‘unrealistic targets’ which had been imposed on the Netherlands. The Council of State ruling is based on an agreement between EU nations to protect hundreds of Natura 2000 conservation zones.

Rutte said at his press conference last week that the nitrogen targets were unchanged, but also implied that there were other ways to achieve them besides forcing farmers to sell up, such as through innovation or switching to less polluting types of farming.

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