Mirjam Sterk (CDA) returned from America earlier this year to become a deputy in Utrecht. She can immediately sink her teeth into the nitrogen problem. “I am happy to have agriculture, nature, soil and water in my portfolio. Those things are very related. It’s not an easy file, but politics is not for the faint of heart either.
On 6 January Mirjam Sterk from Washington DC became Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations in the Rutte IV cabinet. On 9 February he was appointed a deputy in Utrecht. “It went fast. I rolled into it. I had four weeks to organize everything. For example, how best to leave my family in America? My husband got a job in America and we emigrated at the end of 2017.’
It’s not an easy file, but politics isn’t for the faint of heart either
Mirjam Sterk, Deputy of the Province of Utrecht
There are certainly differences, but there are similarities between the Netherlands and the United States, Sterk says. “People in the U.S. feel abandoned by politics because they don’t feel heard. And so does a group of farmers here in the Netherlands.
You have been the Vice Chancellor for over half a year now. How do you like it?
‘From the very first moment, I have loved my role as a Member of Parliament. I have been a Member of Parliament for over ten years. It’s very political. You ask others to adjust the policy, to free up some money.
‘As a commissioner you are closer to implementation and you can control. What I like is that the province is an intermediate layer between the central government and the municipalities. That means you always have to work together. A good example of this is the area-based approach.’
What did you bring from America that could help you as a provincial administrator?
‘I’ve seen what happens in America when people stop talking to each other. Democrats and Republicans don’t talk to each other anymore. The country has not progressed. People die.
‘The differences between urban and rural areas are huge. There is a lot of misunderstanding. I used to live in Washington. You have a lot of Democrats. In South Louisiana, where I had to be for my Red Cross volunteer work, there are many Republicans. Their world is very different.
I wanted to get back into politics because I saw the polarization increasing. Because in the Netherlands there is tension in many areas, not just agriculture. Although my role as a commissioner is small, I want to solve this together with others. Better to sand later. But you have to keep looking each other in the eye, keep talking, dare to find solutions together.’
We are at a significant impasse with nitrogen.
‘That’s right. The fact that we’re at an impasse now feels like a failure to me. Farmers and the government are not only at odds with each other, but are also legally entangled. I count all of us. That is why finding support to get out of this is also a task. Frankly, I think farmers and the government are closer to each other than they appear to outsiders. Like the government, farmers also see nature as being restored. They have no doubt about it. Discussion is more about implementation.’
What is the nitrogen target in the province of Utrecht?
‘We are surprised by the high reduction targets because we don’t have a high nitrogen sensitivity. It is not very clear, because it seems that we have to work not only in the Natura 2000 areas, but also in the Nature Network Netherlands areas.
I have sent a letter to Ministers Christian van der Wall and Henk Stakuer about this. But their answer is still unclear to me, so there will be another separate conversation. We have agreed with the farmers’ parties that we will not do anything for now and wait for the clarity of the hack. There is no point in continuing discussions when we don’t know where we stand.’
The provinces sat down with Johan Remkes, the nitrogen mediator, this week. What did you insist on?
‘We asked him what exactly was being asked of us and how we were going to achieve the targets. We are awaiting the outcome of the Remcase. Using a mediator is a very difficult tool. Remkes is very autonomous. I have a feeling that he is really looking for a solution. Once we get it, we will continue in the province.’
Do you think you will get enough support for this?
‘Relations in Utrecht are very good. Even if it’s hard, we know where to find each other. This is due to my predecessor Hanke Bruins slot. I think it’s valuable that we have to talk to farmers and nature organizations.
How will the Utrecht region approach the processes?
‘It starts at the Boulder level. All residents of the working area have a say under the direction of an independent chairman.
‘We have sweet next to sour, so it is a good income model for farmers. We focus on permanent farmers. We want to help them transition. As a province, we are not going to come up with plans for regional processes. Partners in the area are doing just that. We provide facilities where necessary.’
Do you agree with your party colleague Wopke Hoekstra that 2030 is not sacred for meeting the nitrogen targets?
‘I think it’s more important to start early than to worry about when we’ll finally be ready. July 1, 2023 is my first priority. Then, we have to submit proposals to the government for an area-based approach. My hands are itching to start.’
Board Assistant Van der Tak
Mirjam Sterk (49) has been deputy in charge of agriculture, nature, soil, water, sport and governance in the province of Utrecht since February 9. He studied theology and was, among other things, a religion teacher and teacher at IKON. Sterk was an administrative assistant to Szak van der Dag in Rotterdam when he was alderman. From 2002 to 2012, Sterk was a member of the House of Representatives. In 2016, he became the director of MEE NL, a national cooperative supporting people with disabilities. At the end of 2017, he and his family left for Washington DC. There he worked as a writer/columnist/commentator and volunteered for the American Red Cross.
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