This is apparent from a letter from the new agriculture minister Henk Staghouwer (CU) and Nature and Nitrogen Minister Christianne van der Wal (VVD). The ministers write that water quality in the Netherlands has deteriorated in recent years, partly because fertilizers leach into ground and surface water. An ‘action program for the Nitrates Directive’ has already been launched to turn the tide, but the actions described therein appear to be insufficient.
That is why the European Commission threatens to intervene. The Netherlands has an exceptional position in Europe – the so-called derogation – which means that more manure can be spread on the land here than elsewhere in Europe. Brussels threatens to put a stop to this if the water quality does not improve quickly. The announcement of the letter follows an introduction to the responsible European Commissioners in Brussels. That is where patience with the Netherlands is over. The Netherlands has been given homework for years. In order to convince the European Commission, the new cabinet must now come up with plans for the future with stronger guarantees for change.
“At the moment there is therefore a major task in arriving at additional measures that will enable us to achieve the water quality targets and thus also provide the European Commission with the justification for granting derogation from the Nitrates Directive to the Netherlands,” according to Staghouwer and Van der Wal.
LTO Nederland says it is unpleasantly surprised that the European Commission has not yet taken a step towards derogation. The farmers’ organization emphasizes that it is very important that there is quickly clarity about the exceptional position for Dutch farmers and warns against panic football.
“The agricultural sector and rural areas are facing an unprecedented transition,” said LTO chairman Sjaak van der Tak. “The government is right to set aside many billions for this. That should give the Brussels officials the confidence that we are serious about making more sustainable efforts. Consistency and maintaining or improving earning capacity are of great importance to entrepreneurs.”
The coalition agreement of VVD, D66, CDA and CU already includes an ‘area-oriented approach’ in which per area (and together with the provinces) not only water quality, but also nitrogen, biodiversity and soil condition will be examined. But for the European Commission, ‘certainty is needed that this integrated approach will actually lead to results and that the target for the water quality task will be achieved in time’, according to the ministers.
What additional measures they are now taking in the short term remains shrouded in mystery. But it is clear that a lot will change for farmers. For example, extensification (fewer animals), innovations, buy-out and relocation of farmers are ‘important instruments for achieving the targets’.
It can also be ‘legally guaranteed’ that cultivation can no longer take place on certain grounds (where a lot of leaching of fertilizers takes place). If cattle farmers are bought up or bought out, the production rights for phosphate and nitrogen can also be taken off. “This will reduce the livestock and with it the production of (phosphate and nitrogen from) animal manure will also decrease.”
According to Staghouwer and Van der Wal, the measures to be taken for the agricultural sector are ‘drastic’. “But we also consider this necessary to prevent us from ending up in a situation in which the European Commission intervenes because the Netherlands is not meeting its obligations. In addition, a situation in which the Netherlands is not granted a derogation is undesirable, because this will lead to a further deterioration of the water quality, which means that we may have to take even more drastic measures.”
Staghouwer and Van der Wal hope to offer the additional package of measures in Brussels ‘mid-February’. In doing so, they must take into account that the European Commission’s patience with the Netherlands is running out. For years now, the Netherlands has been given homework and it has to come up with better guarantees for improvement.
LTO is convinced that by investing billions in investments in innovation, extensification and voluntary purchase and relocation, the Netherlands will make a major step towards sustainability. “It is up to our ministers to convince the Commission of this,” says Tineke de Vries, portfolio holder Soil and Water at LTO. “The ministry should not offer Brussels the space to halt the derogation process or to rush to impose extreme requirements on the nitrate directive action programme.”