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Possible impact of Dutch provincial council elections on nitrogen plans

These might be ‘just’ provincial council elections in the Netherlands, but the outcome on 15 March could have serious consequences for how the country is governed. Conflicts between the government in The Hague and the provinces, and tension within the Dutch cabinet, might be looming. On 1 July, every province must submit to the cabinet its own plans on how it will reduce nitrogen emissions.

This is a sensitive matter, certainly considering the upcoming provincial council elections and the ensuing coalition negotiations. Policy on nitrogen, the climate, and nature are important issues for Dutch voters, according to recent research. Members of provincial councils who think that after 15 March little will change in their plans, are being slightly naive, says Rogier Kegge, Assistant Professor in administrative law and environmental and planning law at Leiden University. ‘If the political wind in a province shifts, it’s bound to have an impact.’

Many provinces have said that the version of the nitrogen plans they submit on 1 July is only a ‘first step’ because the government is still far from providing all the information and measures the provinces need. This creates the necessary room to manoeuvre for the newly-elected members in the provincial councils. Suppose political party the BoerBurgerBeweging (known as BBB, the Farmer-Citizen Movement) joins a coalition in a provincial council. ‘That party will certainly make an effort to adjust the work already done before 1 July,’ Kegge suspects.

Ultimately, though, the cabinet – and not the provinces – decides on the nitrogen strategy, which in turn is bound by European laws and regulations. The provinces cannot just do whatever they want, Kegge warns. ‘They must propose and implement measures to ensure that European targets are met. The minister will have to monitor that and can intervene if the plans do not go far enough.’

Kegge also fears that relations between the cabinet and certain new provincial governments could become difficult. ‘If a province doesn’t want to implement national policies and regulations, very difficult discussions will arise. In extreme cases, the central government can intervene in a province. But of course that’s something you want to avoid. So there’s a lot at stake on 15 March,’ Kegge told Dutch newspaper Parool.

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