The Drentse Aa catchment area is one of the Natura 2000 areas that the Netherlands have designated.  Image Harry Cock / de Volkskrant

The Drentse Aa catchment area is one of the Natura 2000 areas that the Netherlands have designated.Image Harry Cock / de Volkskrant

‘Brussels’ had done it again in The Hague. Insane, this is how the deputy Derk Boswijk (CDA) described the letter with which the European commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius reminded the minister Christianne van der Wal of the European regulations on nitrogen. Boswijk’s colleague Pieter Omtzigt (Omtzigt group) demanded all correspondence on this matter from the European Commission. Van der Wal himself was “shocked”. BBB leader Van der Plas doubted the letter was genuine.

The tenor of the reactions: what does Brussels think to put us under such pressure? However, Sinkevicius did not do anything extraordinary. In response to a letter from Van der Wal, he once again explained the nitrogen rules that the Netherlands itself once agreed upon. But in matters like this, ‘Brussels’ is often portrayed as a deus ex machina, a force completely unrelated to Dutch politics, as if the ‘unelected technocrats’ of the European Commission are imposing their own rules on us. Brussels ‘must’ things. Or they are not allowed, like the Schiphol reduction.

However, the European Union and Dutch politics are not separate circuits. The main lines of European policy are set by the heads of government in the European Council. They decide by consensus, so that the Netherlands can oppose measures with which it cannot live. Laws and regulations are drawn up by the European Commission (with a Dutch European Commissioner), adopted by the competent councils of ministers (with a Dutch minister) and approved by the European Parliament (with a Dutch representative). “Brussels is often seen as far removed from us, but the EU and the member states are intertwined,” says Armin Cuyvers, a professor of European law at Leiden University.

nature protection

The Netherlands shares the view that nature conservation is a fundamental European value. On that basis, he himself designated the Natura 2000 areas that are now affected by nitrogen. The fact that the European rules on nitrogen hurt the Netherlands more than other member states has a simple reason: The Netherlands is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world, after the United States, which has 250 times more land. In the Netherlands, an extremely large amount of nitrogen is produced on a small area.

For example, the Netherlands have painted themselves in a corner. European standards make it more difficult to get out of there. Most of the Natura 2000 areas were designated in 2003. At the time, the Netherlands was governed by the interim cabinet Balkenende I, a coalition of CDA, VVD and LPF. Why can’t the Netherlands now, at a different time with different political relationships, go back on their promises, for example by significantly reducing the number of Natura 2000 areas?

That’s very difficult, says Cuyvers. EU member states are sovereign, but they are bound by the agreements they have made with each other. “That tension is very fundamental to all forms of international cooperation,” he says. ‘Member states make promises to each other. That does mean that a government is bound by the agreements made by its predecessors.’ It is the price of an effective European Union, she says. The EU would become completely unworkable if all 27 member states wanted to break the Europe agreements after each national election.

brexit sentiment

Whoever accepts European standards gives up part of their political room for maneuver and, therefore, their sovereignty. This generates more and more tensions, notes Cuyvers. ‘From a national perspective, the question can be asked: do we then have nothing more to say? That’s where the Brexit sentiment came from. That tension is increasing. On the one hand, the need for international cooperation is growing. The relationship with China, the war in Ukraine, climate policy – all these are problems that member states cannot solve on their own. On the other hand, politics within member states is becoming more nationalist and populist,” says Cuyvers.

By the way, European laws are not set in stone. The Netherlands may try to change the nitrogen rules. To do so, it must find a qualified majority in Brussels, which normally means at least fifteen Member States representing at least sixty-five percent of the European population. The chance of that is almost nil. Other Member States see no reason to question nature protection. Furthermore, the EU has shown leniency in the field of manure for years: Dutch farmers were allowed to spread more than allowed by European rules.


The Netherlands is often the first to criticize other Member States if they do not comply with the rules. He denounced the French who allowed their national debt to rise, the Hungarians who flouted the rule of law. It blocks Bulgaria’s access to the Schengen zone because the country would not comply with the rules. But when the Netherlands itself is reprimanded by the EU, they often react delicately and offended.

When Italy asked for economic support after the corona, Minister Wopke Hoekstra said the country should have built up more buffers in good times. Now the Netherlands itself finds itself in a similar position, as a country that has to ‘reform’ because it has let its problems go. Cuyvers: ‘The EU perspective is: guys, you’ve seen this coming for years, you’ve done nothing and now you’re going to be very pathetic.’