New nitrogen agreement 'the best that can be achieved'
On Wednesday, the Flemish parliament approved the amended nitrogen agreement. However, there was no democratic majority for the most difficult dossier that the Flemish government has had to deal with in this legislative period. The various sectors involved also reacted with mixed feelings.
The nitrogen agreement regulates how farmers and companies can obtain permits in the future. These rules are changing because nitrogen emissions in Flanders need to be reduced to protect sensitive nature.
The new amended agreement was approved by a majority against the opposition, with Tinne Rombouts (CD&V) abstaining. Bart Dochy (CD&V) and Bart Van Hulle (Open VLD) did not show up. Both have been critical of the decree in the past.
The draft nitrogen decree presented in the summer by the N-VA and Open VLD, without their coalition partner CD&V, was also heavily criticised by the Council of State last October. The texts were rewritten, adapted and presented again in November, with CD&V on board. The majority wanted to adopt the text before the Christmas break, but the Council of State was again asked for a new opinion at the opposition's request.
The Council's opinion was published on Monday and again criticised the use of the impact score - which expresses a project's contribution to the amount of nitrogen a nature reserve can absorb - and the threshold approach. These thresholds, which are different for industry and agriculture, determine whether a company or farmer can be exempted from a thorough environmental assessment.
Nevertheless, the governing parties in Wednesday's plenary session said the impact assessment was based on sound science. At the same time, it recognised that the current text is a compromise with shortcomings. "We haven't been able to take on board all the suggestions from the Council of State," said Wilfried Vandaele, leader of the N-VA parliamentary group.
"There is no democratic majority for a stricter decree and no majority for a less strict one"
"As with any decree, what we have before us is not just a legal document, but the result of a political compromise, a balance between points of view. It is the best that can be achieved, as there is no democratic majority for a stricter decree and no majority for a less strict one," Vandaele said.
"The road has not been easy, and now there are doubts about the legal robustness of the decree, despite the enormous efforts expected from people in the field," said Tinne Rombouts (CD&V). "All this means that, after consultation with my group, I will not vote for this regulation."
The nitrogen issue has not yet been resolved, said Robrecht Bothuyne, a member of the Flemish parliament and deputy leader of CD&V. He expects a renegotiation in Europe. In this context, the Christian Democrats hope for a relaxation of nature protection in densely populated areas such as Flanders.
"Maybe the priorities need to be rearranged? More focus on climate and a little less on the environment," said Bothuyne. He concluded a new nitrogen agreement will undoubtedly be the subject of negotiations in the CD&V when the next government is formed.
The idea is that the next Flemish government will develop a new system based on emissions rather than deposition. "But this means that farmers only have certainty until 2030. After that, we'll see," said Mieke Schauvliege of opposition party Groen.
No legal certainty
The Farmers' Union and its youth organisation, Groene Kring, are disappointed with the nitrogen decree approval. Despite 20,000 objections, dozens of actions and two highly critical opinions from the Council of State, the agricultural organisations feel unheard. They argue that the approved decree gives them "no legal certainty and therefore no future".
Lode Ceyssens, president of the Farmers' Union, describes the announcement of a shift from a deposit to an emission system as "a ray of hope", but the agricultural organisations wonder why this will only be implemented in 2030.
"Preparations for an emissions policy must begin immediately"
"Preparations for an emissions policy must begin immediately. We can't wait until after 2030. Young farmers deserve a future," said Maarten Moermans, deputy chair of Groene Kring.
The farmers' organisation is now "making the necessary preparations for legal action against the approved decree". Groene Kring had previously announced that it would appeal to the Constitutional Court if the nitrogen decree were approved in its current form.
Employers' organisation VOKA speaks of "immense relief" now that the Flemish Parliament has given the green light. "Investors and entrepreneurs can once again look forward to predictability and a sufficient degree of legal certainty. This legal solution to the nitrogen problem will not win any beauty prizes. But it is the best that can be achieved today," said CEO Hans Maertens in a press release.
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