De Vogelbescherming, Triodos Bank, the Union of Water Boards, supermarket group Jumbo. After seeing a reconciliation meeting between the cabinet and the farmers fail at the beginning of August, Johan Remkes is now trying to smoothen the tough nitrogen dossier via a different route. Last week, the government’s oil man invited other interested parties to discuss the major nitrogen challenge with an ever-changing cabinet delegation.
Strictly speaking, this is not his job. That was, as ministers Christianne van der Wal (Nitrogen, VVD) and Henk Staghouwer (Agriculture, ChristenUnie) formulated it to the House of Representatives at the beginning of July, to get the conversation between the cabinet and the agricultural sector going again. This should lead to ‘better understanding of each other’s position’, so that ‘a constructive dialogue can be held again about the future of the rural area’.
That mission seemed to have failed on day one, when LTO chairman Sjaak van der Tak stated immediately after the first exploratory meeting that he did not intend to enter into talks with the cabinet again, as long as the nitrogen policy presented in June did not apply. table goes. The more radical farmers’ organisations, which Van der Tak had represented at Remkes, announced new demonstrations the same day. Although “the hardest actions ever” failed to materialize, Farmers Defense Force leader Mark van den Oever said on Thursday to “suspend these until further notice”.
This firm and angry side of the peasantry continues to see Remkes’s role differently from what he was appointed for: not as a ‘neutral discussion leader’, but as a mediator in a negotiation in which concessions from the cabinet can be won.
Then talk to others
Now that the impasse has not been broken, Remkes is meeting with organizations outside the agricultural sector. This Monday with nature and environmental clubs, Wednesday with the lobby of the business and construction sector, Thursday with the financial sector and companies from the food chain and next week with local authorities. All these parties are equally affected by the nitrogen problem, but there is no impasse with the cabinet in their case. They are all willing to contribute ideas about the underlying goal: nature restoration.
Although there is one corner of the business community that has emphatically sided with the angry farmers and Remkes’s invitation declined: several representatives from the large agricultural industry, such as the Vion slaughterhouse, the ForFarmers animal feed company and the Royal A-ware dairy group.
Remkes wants to meet them without the farmers joining the new series of talks, explains his spokesman Jan-Willem Wits. “He does not want the story to be just about measures for agriculture and therefore seeks ideas from other organizations involved that can facilitate the implementation of nitrogen policy.” In addition to the necessary nitrogen reduction, he also wants to discuss the second aspect of the nitrogen challenge: the reform of the agricultural sector towards sustainable, less intensive agriculture. The question Remkes wants to ask his new interlocutors, says spokesman Wits: “How can you help farmers reinvent their business operations?” Can a dairy farmer, after the necessary downsizing of his barn, also earn a living as a nature manager? Or can a farmer play an active role in protecting endangered meadow birds for an appropriate fee?
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New ‘perspective letter’
With the voluntary broadening of his assignment, Remkes is essentially carrying out the homework that is still on the plate of Agriculture Minister Staghouwer. His first attempt to offer a beckoning perspective for the sustainable future of farming was defeated by the House of Representatives at the end of June. The minister was summoned to come up with a new ‘perspective letter’ by the beginning of September at the latest. Next Thursday he will informally – it is still a recess – tell the House of Representatives committee how far he has come with this.
In the meantime, the relations within the coalition factions of the House of Representatives about the nitrogen dossier seem to be affected by this. For a long time, VVD, D66, CDA and ChristenUnie continued to call out fairly unanimously that the nitrogen targets agreed in the coalition agreement must be maintained, but last week the three MPs involved from governing parties VVD, CDA and ChristenUnie asked Minister Van der Wal questions. They want to know whether the necessary reduction in nitrogen emissions in absolute terms (39 kilotonnes per year) is strictly necessary. After all, has the Ministry of Finance not calculated that this reduction can be considerably reduced (30 kilotons), without jeopardizing the ultimate goal for nature restoration in 2030?
D66 MP Tjeerd de Groot sees weak knees in the questions asked by his coalition members. “It is the typical procrastination, of poaching and wet, of not daring to take necessary difficult measures. That is exactly why, after years of pushing forward, we now have the nitrogen problem.”
If the consensus about the nitrogen measures starts to shift, Remkes’ task will not get any easier. Unless the cabinet gives in and suddenly changes the policy presented in June. Then there would have been no need for a neutral moderator at all.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of August 15, 2022