The word ‘trust’ is used seven times in the coalition agreement that VVD, D66, CDA and ChristenUnie concluded in 2022, after almost a year of formation. Citizens’ confidence in politics had entered the danger zone. The cabinet had collapsed over the benefits scandal. The ‘position elsewhere’ of critical Member of Parliament Pieter Omtzigt (then still CDA) had revealed the ugly face of politics. The formation became the slowest in parliamentary history. And the major problems that the fallen Rutte III cabinet was supposed to solve—compensation of parental benefits, the nitrogen crisis, stagnant infrastructure and housing—had been postponed time and time again. And well, another Rutte cabinet finally took office, with exactly the same parties, but this time it would be different. Restoring trust would be key. And, as Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) said when he took over his fourth cabinet, that will only happen if the citizens see that the cabinet rules, especially on those difficult files.
Is the government doing what it promised? The coalition deal was ambitious, with a lot of extra money for climate and nitrogen policy in particular. But in practice, little is done about it. The nitrogen crisis not only paralyzes construction and infrastructure projects, but also leads to political stalemate. The cabinet has sunk into the mud in this dossier and seems to see no way out. In fact, the question is whether there is still a cabinet. After the crisis consultations, last Friday, the cabinet came out with a divided message. This week, during a marathon debate, the divide became openly visible. The CDA questions the halving of nitrogen by 2030, as agreed in the coalition agreement. The party wants to renegotiate this. Not now, but in a few months. The differences of opinion are so great that it cannot be ruled out that the cabinet will fall.
Nitrogen politics is deadlocked on all sides. The problem is clear: significantly less nitrogen needs to be produced. As long as that does not happen, nature will be seriously damaged and numerous projects will not be able to continue due to court decisions. It was sensible for the coalition to agree in 2022 to cut nitrogen production in half by 2030. But the CDA, a party in dire straits, has begun to play with that deal. It all started with an interview with party leader Wopke Hoekstra at the ADVERTISEMENT, last summer, in which he called that year “not sacred.” The CDA interpreted the BoerBurgerBeweging coup in the provincial elections as a signal from the voter and a warning of impending political downfall. The output is now to wait. On the Agricultural Agreement, which is still being negotiated. On the formations in the provinces. And about the financial arrangements that have already been put in place. Rutte expressed the hope that this delay tactic would lead to a “speed up” of nitrogen policy, but that is throwing sand in the eyes of voters. The coalition is deeply divided, especially CDA and D66, and nothing is going to happen in this impasse. It is right for the cabinet to be wary of bold statements now that all the provinces are still being formed. Those provinces will ultimately have to implement the policy as they see fit. But what the cabinet is doing now is taking a backseat and seeing what happens. That’s inappropriate. The government must lead the way, set the goals and clearly provide the context within which those goals are to be achieved. The national government is not the last to act, but the first. Dismissing irreconcilable political differences in this way is never a solution.
Nitrogen was one of the main problems that Rutte IV had to solve. It is sad that so little happens in this dossier, difficult as it is. And it is indicative of the Rutte IV cabinet, which already started behind schedule when he took office. After all, one year of training means one less year to govern. Where is the compensation promised by the benefit parents? Where is the handling of the gas file in Groningen? To this is now added the paralysis in the nitrogen file. Decision was needed to restore confidence, Rutte himself said, but that is precisely what is missing. The cabinet decided to postpone so as not to fall. That can be explained politically, but a cabinet is not there for itself. There will have to be a government, difficult decisions should not be put off all the time. Not only nature must be restored, but also trust in politics. The question arises more and more of what is more harmful: a missionary cabinet that does not govern or a cabinet that resigns and calls for new elections.
Also read this review: Neither vital nor undead: Rutte IV lives in the twilight zone
A version of this article also appeared in the April 8, 2023, newspaper.