On February 10, Nitrogen Minister Christian van der Waal will send a full package of nitrogen plans to the House of Representatives. It advertises a scheme for peak lifts. Farmers and businesses that emit a lot of nitrogen will receive an offer to become more sustainable, move or stop. This space is used for what are called “PAS detectors”. These are cultivators who did not need a permit in the beginning, but now do because of a decision by the State Council.
It is usual for the European Commission to be informed as well, because Brussels is concerned on all sides. For example, the Netherlands must adhere to European conventions of nature. This falls under the responsibility of the European-Lithuanian Commissioner Sinkevičius (Environment). In addition, Brussels must give permission for, in Van der Waal’s words, “very attractive” buy-out arrangements. The schemes may face objections due to stricter European aid rules. This approval is subject to the Danish European Commissioner Vestager (Competition).
Van der Wal sends a letter to Sinkevius on 14 February with a summary of her plans. The Committee usually tries to respond to communications from member states within six weeks. On Tuesday, March 21, Sinkevičius will digitally sign his reply letter. Then the English message goes to the translation department to reply to each member country in its own language.
Van der Waal in Brussels
On Tuesday, March 28, Minister Van der Waal will be in person in Brussels. Among other things, she had a conversation with the chief civil servant Diederik Samsom, but not with the European Commissioner Sinkevičius. Former PvdA leader Samsom serves as Chief Cabinet Officer for European Commissioner Timmermans (Climate).
In the conversation about nitrogen, van der Waal says additional questions about the buyout arrangement have been received from Vestager officials. Samsom advises placing these concerns on Vestager, as he is not allowed to meddle with state aid and competition due to the strict rules. At the time, Samsum is unaware of Sinkevičius’ letter, which is about to be sent.
The now translated letter from Sinkevičius will be officially sent to the Permanent Dutch Representation in Brussels on 28 March. Late in the evening the letter was sent from Brussels to The Hague. Van der Wal receives the letter from Sinkevičius in her mailbox on March 29 at 11:30 am. She only sees him in the evening because she’s away on business all day.
This message is a strong warning from Brussels to The Hague. The European Commission insists on vigilance: reducing nitrogen is essential, nature must not deteriorate and damaged nature must fully recover. The tone of the letter is solemn, but there can be no ambiguity about the message: The Netherlands must speed up implementation of the nitrogen agreements, not slow down.
The European Commissioner has described it as essential to reduce nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands according to plan, and says the Commission will continue to ensure that the Netherlands takes action.
Legalization of PAS correspondents
Sinkevičius also points out in the letter that using state aid to reduce emissions should not lead to more emissions becoming legal elsewhere. This appears to relate to legislation intended for PAS reporters. It is not yet certain whether Brussels will agree to the arrangement from The Hague.
After van der Waal receives the letter, Sinkevičius’ response is circulated. The letter ends with the various ministries involved and thus with a number of participants in the nitrogen dossier.
RTL Nieuws will receive the letter on Thursday afternoon. “Because of source protection, we never make statements about the source of the message,” says Fons Lambie, head of the political editorial board. “However, our readers and viewers can take the guarantee: we never publish a single letter from a single source. Before publishing, we check whether the message is genuine, whether the content is correct, and we invite the relevant ministries and MPs to clarify matters of political influence.”
And this effect is enormous. On March 30 at 5:09 p.m. RTL Nieuws. It immediately led to unrest in The Hague. That evening, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers—Prime Minister Rutte, the three Deputy Prime Ministers and a number of relevant ministers—arranged a further meeting. The hardest point to discuss: nitrogen.
That afternoon, the atmosphere in The Hague was already tense. People in government parties are worried. The parties do not fully trust each other. Plenty of eyes on Kaag and Hoekstra, whether they can agree on wording about nitrogen.
Anxiety and panic
The publication of the European Commission’s letter escalated the unrest. The letter was then widely circulated in The Hague, among many persons concerned with the nitrogen dossier. In each of the various ministries and government agencies. But not with everyone. Not even at the top of the cupboard.
And doubts immediately fly back and forth. In the VVD and CDA circles, the idea is that proponents of the nitrogen-fast approach are trying to prove themselves right and press for crucial ministerial consultations. Others see the leak as an “anti-EU joke”, an attempt to blame Brussels for Dutch political problems. Pro-European parties such as D66 fear that the nitrogen debate could act as a catalyst for anti-EU sentiment. There is great mistrust between the government parties.
The message causes major irritation at the top of the locker. Is Brussels trying to influence alliance talks here? The Ministry of Agriculture is mainly struggling with the content. The letter is full of tips for quickly reducing nitrogen. Sinkevičius even wrote that the confiscated permits may not be used for other nitrogen emissions and he does not want to exceed the nitrogen values of any nature reserve. This goes further, is the conclusion in The Hague.
In the CDA, there is a slight panic at the beginning of the evening. CDA member asks RTL News for proof of letter. RTL has a self-made image of the message and is uploading the image to the CDA member. Moments later, a journalist from De Telegraaf tweeted a picture of RTL, including the thumbs up of an RTL employee. The thumb in question leads to a scavenger hunt in The Hague: Ministry of Agriculture officials compare each other’s thumbs to see if they can find the leak this way.
Many MPs are suspicious of the leaked letter. “I think it’s a very strange message,” says BBB leader Van der Plas, who wonders if he’s real. In the evening, independent MP Peter Umtzigt submitted a request for information to the European Commission and asked parliamentary questions as to why the letter was not printed on official stationery.
The internet is teeming with conspiracy theories. The authenticity of the message is being questioned on Twitter, Facebook and in Whatsapp groups. Sinkevičius signed the letter on March 21, but the March 28 Dutch translation is the first to be leaked. Statement: Sinkevičius agreed on the 21st and after translation, the letter was sent on the 28th with a digital signature of the European Commissioner
Sinkevičius appears in de Volkskrant on Friday morning. He denied unwanted interference in Dutch politics, trying to quell anger in The Hague.
Around noon, the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) criticized the European Commissioner, Sienkiewicz. CDA is part of the EVP. Weber is as angry as the Dutch Christian Democrats.
Not a useful business
It is now recognized in Brussels that Sinkevičius was wrong. “Very unhappy”, “extremely stupid” and “not a useful measure” were admitted by sources at the European Commission. If an objective letter is sent at such a sensitive time without taking current developments into account, it puts undue pressure on the relationship between The Hague and Brussels. It was agreed with the European Commission that Sinkevičius’ team would henceforth “coordinate better” and “align” before sending messages. Sinkevičius is denied regency, some claim in The Hague.
On Friday evening, the Cabinet devised a temporary nitrogen settlement. For now, the nitrogen policy will continue, but the CDA wants to renegotiate in the long term, once it becomes clear exactly what the provinces want and which agricultural agreement. Minister van der Waal has not yet given a substantive response to the European Commissioner Sinkevičius’ letter.
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