Natuurmonumenten and twelve provincial landscapes may have to repay hundreds of millions of euros in subsidies they received between 1993 and 2012. They received this money for the purchase of nature reserves.
Private landowners, including foundations and managers of estates, could not claim these subsidies. They considered that this was unfair and therefore, together with the Association for the Equal Treatment of Landowners (Vereniging Gelijkberechtiging Grondbezitters, VGG), lodged a complaint with the European Commission in 2008.
“As private landowners, we have really suffered a great deal as a result of the subsidy policy. Those organisations were offered subsidised land for nothing,” says Oene Gorter, chairman of VGG. “I would have wanted that land for nothing. It is purely unfair competition. After all, if someone is offered land for nothing and he has income from it, that means a direct loss for the party that doesn’t have that land”
In 2015, the European Commission recognised the existence of prohibited state aid, but approved the subsidies at the same time. In 2018, the private landowners were still proven right by the General Court of the European Union.
Subsequently, the organisations that had received subsidies went to the European Court of Justice, but that has now ruled in favour of the private parties. The private landowners want the Dutch government to reclaim the subsidies. Gorter estimates that the organisations will have to repay 1 billion euros, he said earlier. “Then they have to sell part of their property.”
In a written response, Natuurmonumenten states that “the European Court of Justice does not rule on the substance of the former subsidy scheme”, but “has only ruled that there is a procedural defect in the Commission decision of 2015”.
The organisation hopes that this time-consuming procedure will soon be over and, together with the twelve provincial authorities, trusts that “a new procedure by the European Commission will once again result in the old subsidy scheme being approved”.