Nitrogen crisis deepens rift in Flemish government
With elections less than a year away, the government of Flanders appears more divided than ever. Disagreements over how to cut nitrogen emissions have come to a head after the permit for an ethane cracker in the port of Antwerp was cancelled.
On 20 July, the Flemish Council for Permit Disputes cancelled the environmental permit granted to British chemical company Ineos. Its planned ethane cracker would convert ethane into ethylene, one of the raw materials for producing plastics.
The project, which would create 450 jobs, has a high political profile. Bart De Wever, both mayor of Antwerp and leader of the Flemish governing party N-VA, actively campaigned to bring the plant to the region. The 4 billion euro plan, dubbed Project One, would be the largest chemical investment in Europe in the last 25 years, Ineos said at the groundbreaking ceremony in December last year.
But the future of Project One now looks very shaky, after the Dutch province of North Brabant and 14 organisations successfully challenged its environmental permit. The permit disputes council ruled that the government of Flanders had insufficiently demonstrated that the project's nitrogen emissions would not harm a nature reserve just over the Dutch border.
The cancellation caused a stir in the Flemish government, and not just because of the importance of the project. It inflamed long-standing divisions over how the region should tackle nitrogen emissions more broadly. With the issue having upended the electoral landscape in the Netherlands, tensions are running high.
The European Union requires Flanders to protect its natural areas. Many are in poor condition, in part due to excessive nitrogen emissions from agriculture and industry. These disrupt biodiversity, acidify the soil and pollute surface and groundwater.
The three governing parties in Flanders have sharply differing views on how exactly to cut emissions. Christian democrats CD&V, traditionally the defender of farmers' interests, vehemently oppose what they see as excessive regulation of agriculture. Flemish nationalists N-VA and liberals Open VLD, on the other hand, are more closely aligned with industry interests.
The issue brought the regional government to the brink of collapse in March. After weeks of political deadlock, the parties finally reached an agreement on how to reduce emissions on 20 March. CD&V conceded on two conditions designed to give farmers more prospects: livestock farmers should be allowed to take over emission rights from neighbouring farms, and the region should relax agricultural licensing rules from 2025.
The N-VA accepted CD&V's conditions, provided that an environmental impact study showed that they would not push emissions over the agreed limit. When it came time to translate the political agreement into legislation, the deal threatened to fall apart again. The impact study that would have cleared the way for CD&V's demands had not yet been initiated, prompting CD&V to refuse to sign the decree that would turn the deal into law.
"To decide on the decree now, without offering any prospects to farmers and without knowing the timing of the study, is absolutely unacceptable to us," said Agriculture minister Jo Brouns (CD&V).
For a while, it looked like the issue would be postponed until after the Flemish parliament's summer recess. However, the cancellation of the permit for Project One prompted the N-VA and Open VLD to sideline their coalition partner and push ahead. Without CD&V, the two parties submitted a new nitrogen decree proposal to the Flemish Parliament on 27 July.
The two parties feared that the lack of a timely regulatory framework on nitrogen would be the kiss of death for Project One. Although the delayed adoption of new legislation does not entail a permit freeze, it is unlikely that any issued permits will stand up to scrutiny as long as Flanders' nitrogen guidelines are ambiguous. Meanwhile, the permit disputes council gave Flanders only six months to grant Ineos a new permit.
The parties fear that Ineos will back out of its commitment to Antwerp, which would be disastrous for Flanders' image as a region for investment. Even prime minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) joined an emergency meeting with Ineos CEO Jim Ratcliffe to reassure the company, De Standaard reported.
Submitting a decree to Parliament without CD&V was meant to speed up the process by paving the way for the Council of State to evaluate the draft law over the summer, N-VA and Open VLD said. The Council of State usually takes at least 60 days to consider whether a draft law passes legal scrutiny. But tabling the decree also opens the door to a vote and possible adoption of the law with an alternative majority, effectively sidelining the Christian democrats.
The long-running dispute is taking on added urgency with elections less than a year away. Belgium will hold European, federal and regional elections on 9 June 2024. If the nitrogen agreement cannot be passed into law in time, the next Flemish government will have to renegotiate how it will tackle the issue.
Moreover, the recent Dutch provincial elections showed how electorally explosive the topic can be. A new pro-farmer party swept the elections in March after campaigning hard against the Dutch government's plans to cap nitrogen emissions. The Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB), which didn’t exist four years ago, became the largest party in the Senate with 17 out of 75 seats.
In Flanders, the question is whether the three current governing parties will be able to overcome their differences to potentially form a new government after June 2024. Polls show that the far-right Vlaams Belang is increasingly siphoning votes from the traditional parties, leaving little room for coalition building without the extremist party.
Vlaams Belang also presents itself as a party that defends the interests of farmers, though this doesn’t yet seem to be as pressing an issue for Flemish voters as it has been in the Netherlands. The party has gained popularity mainly because of its tough stance on migration.
But the power struggle over nitrogen emissions between N-VA, CD&V and Open VLD feeds the perception that the Flemish coalition is on its last legs and that the traditional parties are incapable of governing.
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