‘The timing could not have been worse’

Minister of Agriculture Henk Staghouwer (ChristenUnie) stepped down on Tuesday. Now what?
‘Staghouwer’s performance led to much criticism, including from the coalition.’ Photo ANP Robin Utrecht.

Staghouwer’s resignation did not really surprise governance expert Jeroen Candel. An arduous task now awaits the Politicians in The Hague. ‘The coalition will have to get together to present a comprehensive package.’

There is no telling what Staghouwer has been thinking lately, and there were no indications that he was considering stepping down. He announced his resignation, stating that he is not the right person to take the lead in the challenges ahead. The fact that his announcement coincided with news from Brussels that the Dutch farmers are to be stripped of their exemptions for the European deposition measures is noteworthy.

Staghouwer’s resignation did not really surprise governance expert Jeroen Candel.‘His performance led to much criticism, including from the coalition. The timing of his resignation is, however, remarkable. Particularly as the role of Johan Remkes as the mediator in the nitrogen crisis is drawing to a close. The parties involved were awaiting a letter with new perspectives from Staghouwer. I expected he would have presented it before stepping down. Remkes’ role probably played some part in his decision. Remkes is tasked with bringing the parties closer together and now seems to have been given the additional task of providing suggestions for a new perspective. Staghouwer has been sidelined.’ Although he was considered a good delegate in Groningen, his leadership skills appear to be insufficient now. ‘He is a connector. What is required now is someone with a long-term view of the food system, someone who is not afraid to make difficult decisions.’


Now what? Candel: Farmers demand a new perspective. The letter Staghouwer wrote before the summer was extremely unclear and contained nothing new. The government says farmers must transition and extensify. They must provide more environmental services, but how they are to gain an income from these services is not revealed. Instruments that are available to tackle the nitrogen issue – the European agricultural policy, for example – have not been deployed.’

A comprehensive food policy is needed, but that would almost require breaking open the coalition agreement

Governance expert Jeroen Candel

Former minister of Agriculture Carola Schouten will step in temporarily. Not a positive development, according to Candel. ‘The nitrogen crisis emerged during her tenure. She failed to anticipate the nitrogen issue, while even the European Court of Justice stated the Dutch system was untenable. The ministry failed to formulate a plan B, and she did not manage to formulate effective solutions. Moreover, the nitrogen crisis quickly surpassed her main priority – circular agriculture. The food policy that was launched by previous cabinets disappeared under her leadership, and this week it was revealed that she thwarted efforts to reduce meat consumption. The fact that Schouten, under whom the nitrogen crisis emerged, is back in the saddle is telling.’


The ChristenUnie will have to deliberate who is best suited to succeed Staghouwer. It is a small party with few experienced administrators who have seniority in this domain, Candel states. ‘You want to have someone who can jump right in, but I don’t see someone like that ready within the party. And paradoxically, the nitrogen crisis cannot be solved through agricultural policy alone. The coalition as a whole will have to give it considerable thought. Prime Minister Rutte’s absence on this issue for the past decade is typical. Staghouwer inherited the agricultural policy laid down by previous cabinets who kept delaying the issues of nitrogen, climate and biodiversity. Farmers are rightfully frustrated that so many sacrifices are asked of them while the other players within the chain, including consumers, go scot-free. A comprehensive food policy is needed, but that would almost require breaking open the coalition agreement.’

Candel feels that a Green Deal should be designed for the Netherlands, which fits in with the European Green Deal. ‘A plan that considers how to make the food system and the economy as a whole future-proof while considering equity and sustainability. That, however, is an immense task. The coalition will have to get together to arrive at a new, joint perspective for the future.’

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