Interview conducted by Nadira-Begim Nadyrbekova from the “Becoming Bruxellois from Afar” project

This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by a group of Groningen students as part of their Eurocompetence II project. The interviewees all work in Brussels institutions and were asked questions related to the Euroculture’s 2020 IP topic: “A sustainability Europe? Society, politics and culture in the anthropocene”. Here, Nadira-Begim Nadyrbekova asked Miss Hagar Ligtvoet, working at the Permanent Representation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the European Union to give her perspective on ecological sustainability in the EU and in the Netherlands and the effects of the corona crisis on sustainability in Europe in the future.

Nadira-Begim Nadyrbekova: Could you please briefly tell us about the Permanent Representation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the European Union? What is your position and responsibility within?

Hagar Ligtvoet: The Permanent Representation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the European Union represents and promotes the Dutch interests in the European Union (EU). All ministries are represented at our office in Brussels. I am head of the unit that deals with all issues related to infrastructure, climate and the environment. There are six of us in the unit and we deal with many things, such as the circular economy, air quality, water, land transport, aviation, maritime issues, and more. If there is new legislation on such issues in the EU, we negotiate on behalf of the Netherlands and represent the Netherlands in meetings with other Member States, the European Commission or the European Parliament. We do so based on instructions we receive from The Hague, where the Dutch position is decided in consultation with parliament. Our job is to try to make sure that the Netherlands can be happy with the final outcome of the legislation.

NBN: How does your career path lead to your current position?

HL: I work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before being posted in Brussels, I worked on different issues in the ministry in the Hague, such as EU enlargement, Afghanistan, and post-conflict reconstruction. I have also been posted to our embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Just before coming here, I was the head of EU external policy at the ministry and dealt with issues such as EU development cooperation, trade, neighborhood policy and enlargement, and EU sanctions. 

NBN: Could you tell us how you cooperate with other representatives to the EU who deal with environmental issues?

HL: When the Commission proposes new legislation, me and my colleagues from the 26 other Member States negotiate our common position on such a file. These 26 member states have different opinions and positions and our work partially consists of many official roundtable meetings and discussions. A lot of the work also takes place outside the meeting room; I communicate with people directly and try to convince them of a certain direction. Our starting position gets decided by the colleagues back home in the ministries and we have to try to reach that result. We need to get as many countries on board on a certain point as possible, because to have a file agreed between Member States, you need a qualified majority. That majority is calculated by a certain percentage of inhabitants and overall weight of other countries in the EU. So to get a certain point into the legislation you need to create a bigger group, and everybody has to compromise a little bit to get there. We also discuss with our colleagues in The Hague, about what looks reachable given the positions of the rest and what isn’t. It is a constant discussion of what is realistic, desired, and needed. 

NBN: What can you tell us about environmental sustainability specifically in the Netherlands? What challenges does it face today and what are the solutions? How the EU helps the Netherlands deal with environmental issues / what are the benefits that the Netherlands gets from the EU?

HL: As a general point, it is clear that the environment does not stop at the border. For instance when we talk about air quality; this is a struggle in all EU countries, and pollution in the Netherlands also contributes to pollution in Belgium and vice versa. In that sense, environment and climate issues cannot be solved by one country alone; you need to work together in an international context. The European Green Deal launched by the European Commission is an economic growth strategy for the EU focused on sustainability. It addresses how to stimulate green and sustainable economic growth. This includes issues such as climate, biodiversity, circular economy, reducing pollution in water and air and from chemicals, and so on. Each EU country faces all these challenges individually, but we can solve them only if we work together.

NBN: What can you tell us about the impact of climate change on infrastructure? How sustainable infrastructure can help us fight climate change?

HL: There are many different aspects. One is that everything we produce and use in infrastructure, whether it is cement, steel, or other materials, is currently made and created by using a lot of energy. But if the energy we use comes from renewable sources and if the products are produced in a circular way, we are contributing to CO2 reduction and helping to fight climate change. We also need to make sure that the infrastructure we build today is truly adaptive to climate change. As a result of climate change, we will have longer dry-spells, more heat waves, and more frequent and bigger rain showers. Infrastructure must be able to withstand these challenges. Also, temperature increases even more in a city with a lot of concrete. So planting trees, for example, will create a more pleasant environment and make the city cooler. There are also a lot of things to be done in infrastructure for the transport sector, for instance to support zero-emission vehicles. It needs a comprehensive approach.

NBN: How is the current coronavirus pandemic affecting the climate? What lessons can be learned from this situation? Do you think that corona-crisis helps people rethink their role in climate change and their attitude to the environment as a whole?

HL: There is less movement and economic activity, and you can see emissions going down. At the same time, as soon as the pandemic is over, we will see that air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions will increase again. About the next steps, you hear two views: one side says that we need to stop dealing with climate change and wait for the full recovery of the economy. While others say that economic growth in the future is going to be green, and that we should take this opportunity to start the move to a more sustainable economic model. The Netherlands is pushing for the latter.

NBN: Do you believe then that ecology and economics can go hand in hand after the crisis?

HL: Absolutely! We don’t need to choose. This can go hand in hand. Economic growth can be green – this is the future, and we should strive for it. 

NBN: And the last question: could you tell us about the projects your department is working on and plans for the future? How do you see the future of the EU in 5 years?

HL: It is very hard to predict, especially now, because so many things are uncertain. In the next couple of years, a lot of legislation will come out to make sure that we are moving towards a circular economy, reducing environmental pollution, developing sustainable transport and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These are the issues that my colleagues and I will keep working on over the next five years. And we will hopefully achieve good and ambitious legislation on many of these topics.

Picture credits: personal file

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