An “independent discussion leader” who must provide “connection” between the cabinet and farmers in the increasingly explosive nitrogen problem. The four-line note that ministers Christianne van der Wal (Nature and Nitrogen, VVD) and Henk Staghouwer (Agriculture, ChristenUnie) sent to the House of Representatives on Sunday did not provide much clarity about the precise assignment with which Johan Remkes is charged.
A day later, one side of the discussion table appears to have lost much confidence in it. “Nonsense,” Bart Kemp, leader of farmers’ action group Agractie, called the appointment of Remkes. “He has no confidence in the sector,” he said against the ANP†
Sjaak van der Tak, chairman of the agricultural organization LTO Nederland, was a bit more nuanced to news channel BNR, but also said that he did not expect too much from Remkes: the cabinet’s “unachievable” nitrogen target – a 50 percent reduction by 2030 – must be off the table, he said. , „otherwise there is no point in a conversation†
The farmers have reason to be suspicious. His reputation as a political firefighter (province of Limburg, municipality of The Hague, cabinet formation) is undisputed, but Remkes has one shortcoming for this specific assignment: he wrote the nitrogen policy so controversial among farmers himself. After the far-reaching decision of the Council of State in May 2019, in which the permits for thousands of construction projects were withdrawn, the then minister Carola Schouten (Agriculture, ChristenUnie) asked Remkes to come up with a solution to the lingering nitrogen problem.
In his final report Not everything is possible everywhere (June 2020) his committee came up with two recommendations that are now so difficult for farmers. First of all: a nitrogen reduction ‘from agriculture’ of ‘at least 50 percent by 2030’. And: an ‘active and area-oriented agricultural policy’ with ‘customized placement and relocation of farms around nature areas’ – read: if farmers do not stop voluntarily, expropriation must also be possible.
These are the brackets on which the new cabinet has hung its nitrogen guidelines, including the much-discussed map on which the loud-sounding “directive” nitrogen targets were colored in per area.
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“No chance in advance,” says dairy farmer Henk van der Wind from Maarsbergen. Precisely because the VVD celebrity is the architect of the offending nitrogen policy, he is “not the right person to send to the farmers now”, he believes. “Obviously this has not been well thought out; it points to panic in the coalition.” Van der Wind was one of the dairy farmers who were consulted by the Remkes Committee at the time. Two years later, he saw on the infamous map that his farm with a hundred cows must emit between 47 and 95 percent less nitrogen.
Member of Parliament Laura Bromet (GroenLinks) also finds the appointment of Remkes as ‘discussion leader’ a sign of weakness. “There are already two ministers on this file. Isn’t that weighty enough?” Bromet thinks it makes no sense to let someone from The Hague talk to the agricultural sector again. “The problem has been talked about for years, let’s start with the process itself.”
The only positive thing about his appointment is that Remkes was the chairman of the ‘Still dust problem advisory board’, as his committee was formally called. “He will not want to tamper with his own recommendations.”
That is also what Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) hinted on Friday. “Unfortunately, the objectives must remain in place,” said Rutte in his weekly press conference, “and also the pace at which we have to achieve them”.
That way there is little to talk about, says Marcel Kuijpers of broiler company Kuijpers Kip from Grubbenvorst – he also spoke to the Remkes committee at the time. “As a discussion partner you cannot say in advance: these are our positions and we will not change them. In this way it becomes a dispute, not a dialogue.”
Like LTO chairman Van der Tak, farmers who have no faith in Remkes’ mission would have preferred another former politician to mediate in the nitrogen conflict: former SGP MP Elbert Dijkgraaf. One drawback with that proposal: Dijkgraaf was also a member of the Remkes Committee, so he will also embrace the sharp conclusions and far-reaching recommendations from 2020.
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