Two and a half months after the first publication of the case concerning former MP Hermann Freien (CDA), we await a series of investigations into the exact case in the Gouvernement aan de Maas, the county house of Limburg. A report from the county monitor, which the regional council dealt with on Thursday, has already shown how successful the CDA and the Limburg Agriculture and Horticultural Society (LLTB) have been attracting power and money around nature and the landscape.
Coöperatie Natuurrijk Limburg, founded by the federation and its family member staff, received a subsidy of around €68.5 million (partly from European money) and a loan of nearly one million across the province in just under ten years. Vrehen became a member of the board of directors of Natuurrijk Limburg and not much later a director of the landscape organization Conservation Small Landscape Elements (IKL), which he handled and the remaining funds were partly directed to his own companies.
The latter became apparent in March through a post in the language Norwegian Refugee Council, which also showed how the county supplied and leased Vrehen with several other hats as discussion leader on all sorts of spatial issues: around Maastricht Aachen Airport, VDL Nedcar Expansion and A2 Expansion. Shortly after the article was published, two Christian Democrats, Geir Koopmans and Hubert Makos, resigned. A little later, the rest of the members of the regional executive, including the king’s commissioner, left.
The emergence of Natuurrijk Limburg as a kind of umbrella organization for LLTB and CDA was made possible thanks to Foreign Minister Henk Bleker (Agriculture) in the Rutte I government (2010-2012). With nature in his bag, the (then) Christian Democrat ensured a massive reorganization (more than half the budget) and landscape policy reform. This had to be done through the new land purchases of the Environmental Network (EHS) and also with the power of large organizations such as Natuurmonumenten and Staatsbustainheer. In Bleecker’s eyes, this provided an “elite nature”. Decentralization had to place more responsibility on the provinces and put implementation largely on the shoulders of people who knew the landscape, as follows: the farmers.
When a number of provinces (North Brabant and Northern Provinces) became obstructed, Geir Koopmans, a member of the House of Representatives at the time, put forward a motion to ensure continued implementation of Bleecker’s policy on nature. Those who say yes in the provinces should not be victims of the resistance. So Natural Limburg was able to get to work.
According to the observer, no rules were violated when grants and assignments were awarded to Vrehen. In his opinion, the observed deviations are within an acceptable margin of error. However, the investigation of actions related to contracts awarded to Vrehen organizations and companies is full of questions: wrong bidding, cession of Vrehen incorporated only two months later, subsidy awarded “out of leniency” despite not achieving goals, years not obligated to the mandatory provision of information to the county after receiving support, maintaining Vrehen as an intermediary around the airport despite the official objection and free secondment of a senior official from the county to one of the Vrehen companies without the county having any interest in.
The role of former MPs
Klaartje Peters, Professor of Local and Regional Governance at Maastricht University, puts the importance of observer research into perspective: “The research question of whether spending is legal is irrelevant in this case. You want to know what? [CDA-gedeputeerden] Koopmans and Mackus did exactly that or failed to do so and not whether all receipts and resolutions were found.”
Indeed, it remains unclear what the role of the Koopmans and Mackus, as well as former MPs Patrick Van der Broek (CDA) and Joost van den Akker (VVD, as an economy portfolio holder, among others involved in the expansion of VDL Nedcar and Airport) played In the functions of preference and assignment to Vrehen.
Immediately after publication in NRC in March, Bovins announced a board integrity investigation, but he did not receive any assignment prior to his resignation. Then this task passed to the Integrity Committee of the Provincial Council, which she also neglected. Now Acting Governor Johan Remix is in charge. Promises to order soon. Peters finds it “bad and disappointing” that this investigation has taken so long. “Provincial councils that don’t know exactly what happened cannot actually discuss integrity and the culture of governance in a meaningful way or form a new coalition.”
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of June 4, 2021
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