Last Friday, the Dutch cabinet and farmers’ organizations failed to reconcile. Dutch farmers are irate with their government over its plans to half all nitrogen emissions by 2030—a move that would severely impact their businesses. Feelings of hostility thus remain, and are expected to be accompanied by more acts of protest, the AD reports.
And swiftly they came. Around midnight that same Friday, bundles of straw and hay were set alight next to the A28 highway in Gelderland province. These were quickly put out by the local fire department. Earlier, in the province of Friesland, a small convoy of about 15 tractors drove on the A7 in protest. Since they failed to notify the police of this, law enforcement briefly blockaded the highway, forcing the tractors into driving back while in the wrong lane. No arrests were made, nor fines given out however.
Going into Friday’s “exploratory” talks, all parties hoped that the needle would have moved more significantly once these concluded. Instead, at the headquarters of the farmers’ main representative, the LTO (Land- en Tuinbouw Organisatie Nederland)—one of the few willing to attend—various organizations, such as Farmers Defense Force and Agractie, expressed disappointment. “The trust which was broken has not been restored, farmers are fed up,” they said in a joint statement. Farmers Defense Force leader Mark van den Oever announced “the hardest actions to date,” adding that he believed “it is going to escalate.”
Yet, in the provincial government house in Utrecht, where the meeting was held, some strides, at least initially, seemed to be made. Prime Minister Mark Rutte made an apology on behalf of his cabinet for the infamous “nitrogen card” with which Minister for Nature and Nitrogen Christianne van der Wal (VVD) launched the plans in June.
This card, which said that in some regions up to 95 % less nitrogen must be emitted, had “led to great confusion and tension,” Rutte said. Van der Wal conceded her ill-conceived communication on this, saying that she “should have explained the card much better.” Then the cabinet promised to improve their communication on the dossier.
Yet tensions were already elevated to such an extent, that all this proved to be of no avail. A mistake made by a spokesperson for Johan Remkes, the controversial mediator appointed to lead the proceedings, made matters even worse. Around 1 p.m., he informed the press that the conversation was running late “because the atmosphere is so good.” On Twitter, the LTO immediately distanced itself from the statement. “It is indicative of the actions of the government in recent times; one-sided and without coordination,” it read.
Four more hours of talks followed. Afterwards, it appeared that the parties involved did not agree on what had been decided indoors. On Twitter, LTO leader Sjaak van der Tak released a statement, saying that although there has been some “movement” by the cabinet during the “firm and heavy conversation,” for LTO the promises are “not enough.” He added that “we are done” and cannot “continue the conversation at this moment. To restore confidence, the ball is now in the cabinet’s court.”
“I couldn’t have done better than Sjaak,” FDF leader Van den Oever said about Van der Tak’s position, while emphasizing that the cabinet thus far remains “our common enemy,” and that their front will remain united.
In the aftermath, Remkes held a press conference. He called the atmosphere during the talks “extremely constructive,” and said that plenty of criticisms were made, which he urged all parties to do. Remkes correctly arrived at the conclusion that “there was and still is a serious crisis of confidence” between farmers and the cabinet, which, according to him, goes deeper than the current discussion around nitrogen.
In his preparatory talks, Remkes also said to have heard complaints about rambling policy, an accumulation of regulations, and a misrecognition of the fact that the agricultural sector has already achieved a substantial nitrogen reduction in recent decades.
Now follow-up discussions on a number of issues will be taking place, for which the cabinet will do its “homework.” Minister Van der Wal will look at whether farms that have officially lost their license since a 2019 court decision, which takes away permits if they are in breach of its rules, can be legalized again faster. The high-profile ruling by the Council of State was a rigorous step towards reducing nitrogen emissions.
The cabinet also wants to take a serious look at innovations to reduce nitrogen and move towards the dream of a so-called ‘circular agriculture,’ but this must involve “proven technologies that are legally tenable,” Remkes emphasized.
In addition, the cabinet wants to look more closely at the emissions by individual farmers instead of the total sediment of nitrogen in designated nature areas.
Yet the Dutch government remains unswayed in its commitment to halving nitrogen emissions by 2030. It is with this point that farmers’ organizations have taken issue. They want lower targets for agriculture, as well as a later deadline.
But Prime Minister Rutte repeated that the plan is “really necessary” for nature’s restoration and the restart of permits for, for example, construction projects. Speed is also important, the government believes. For the time being, he said, his cabinet has only agreed “to explain [to farmers] once again why 2030 is needed.”
Only days ago, Rutte became The Netherlands’ longest serving prime minister. He is an ‘agenda contributor’ for the World Economic Forum, and has been criticized for dutifully implementing its agenda—more specifically in this context, its vision for future agriculture as well as diet.
A second meeting between farmers and his cabinet is expected at the end of August.