Dutch government under fire in debate over emissions cuts

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FILE - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte talks with the press after an extraordinary meeting of EU leaders to discuss Ukraine, energy and food security at the Europa building in Brussels, Monday, May 30, 2022. Dutch lawmakers broke into their summer vacations Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022 to debate the government's contentious plans to slash nitrogen emissions that have sparked angry protests by farmers, after a senior minister cast doubt on the proposed timeline for cuts. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

THE HAGUE – Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Tuesday that members of his Cabinet have enough confidence in each other to keep working together as lawmakers broke into their summer vacations to debate the government's contentious plans to slash nitrogen emissions that have sparked angry protests by farmers.

The debate was called after Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said in a newspaper interview that the goal of reducing emissions by 50% by 2030 wasn't set in stone. Hoekstra's Christian Democrats party, which traditionally wins votes among farmers and in rural communities, has been losing support in polls since the government published its nitrogen targets.

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Hoekstra's comments caused tensions among members of Prime Minister Mark Rutte's four-party ruling Cabinet and led to lawmakers backing a call for a debate that will be the first major test of unity since the coalition took office in January after the country's longest-ever government formation negotiations.

Rutte conceded that Hoekstra's interview “caused friction with” the government's plans, but he added: “My conviction is that all members of the Cabinet have enough confidence in one another to continue working together.”

He said the government was awaiting the outcome of a series of discussions between a mediator and ministers, representatives of the agriculture industry and environmentalists that are intended to ease tensions in the heated public debate.

Lawmaker Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom is the largest opposition group in parliament and who called for the debate, also used it to criticize the government for not doing enough to tackle a cost-of-living crisis that is hitting the Netherlands and many other European nations amid soaring energy costs and inflation.

“This Cabinet is totally detached from reality,” Wilders said as the debate began. He said he would file a motion of no confidence in the government later in the debate, which was expected to last into the evening.

The leader of the centrist D66 party, Sigrid Kaag, did not attend the debate because she was ill. Her party has pushed hard for the emission reduction targets and Dutch media reported that she said during a Cabinet meeting that she had lost confidence in Hoekstra after his interview. Rutte declined to comment on the reports.

The government says emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia, which livestock produce, must be drastically reduced close to nature areas that are part of a network of protected habitats for endangered plants and wildlife stretching across the 27-nation European Union.

Rutte's administration has given local authorities a year to draw up plans for how to achieve the reductions.

Farmers argue that will force many of them out of business and destroy rural communities reliant on agriculture. To protest the measures, they have dumped manure and garbage, including asbestos, on highways over the summer and blockaded supermarket distribution centers to halt the flow of food to stores.

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