Dutch Royal visit in Indonesia: The Opportunity for the Dutch to Commit Against the EU Palm Oil Ban

This week, Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima will visit Indonesia from 10th to 13th March, following the invitation of President Joko Widodo.

Ahead of the visit, Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Stef Blok has spoken publicly about palm oil, claiming that the Dutch Government is not in favour of a ban on Indonesian palm oil. It is well-documented that there are many EU efforts underway to ban and restrict palm oil, and we can’t remember too many Dutch statements opposing those efforts over recent years.

With that in mind, there are only two possible explanations for the Dutch Foreign Minister statement:

  1. The Netherlands is seriously committed to helping Indonesia oppose any EU ban or discriminatory measure against palm oil; or
  2. The comments from the Foreign Affairs Minister are simply empty words to appease Indonesia, and no serious actions will follow to back up this statement.

Palm oil producing countries have experienced plenty of the latter – countries claiming to be ‘against a ban’ but then supporting the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) and other EU plans that amount to an effective ban.

Perhaps we should give Minister Blok the benefit of the doubt: perhaps he is serious about opposing EU attacks on palm oil. If he were serious, what would the Netherlands actually need to do, in terms of actions (not just words) to show Indonesia they were genuine – and not just empty words?

There are a number of concrete actions the Dutch Government would need to take. First, at the EU level, the Dutch Government has multiple concrete opportunities to oppose and prevent discriminatory EU measures against palm oil.

  • In the European Parliament, Dutch MEPs can oppose in Committees or Plenary, by tabling amendments that remove anti-palm oil discrimination; and by voting against current and future regulations that are negative towards palm oil.
  • In the Council of the EU, the Dutch Ministers, and their officials, can advocate against, and eventually vote against, any anti-palm oil measures

If the Dutch Foreign Minister means what he says, will the Dutch Government then take those formal steps?

What regulatory elements should be the target of the Dutch Government’s amendments and votes in Brussels (if the Foreign Minister is really serious about supporting Indonesia)?

  • First, the Netherlands should support a revision of the Renewable Energy Directive Delegated Act (RED II DA) that commits not to exclude palm oil compared to other vegetable oils. As of now, the current text of the RED includes a gradual phase out of palm oil ending with a full de facto ban in 2030.
  • Second, the Dutch Government should instruct its MEPs are to vote against any efforts to attack palm oil under the EU Green Deal, and the EU Action Plan to Protect and Restore the World’s Forests. There are several Reports currently being drafted in the EU Parliament, on these issues, so we will know soon if the Dutch are serious about supporting Indonesian Palm Oil, or not/
  • Third, the Dutch Government should publicly commit to including palm oil as a part of the EU-Indonesia CEPA trade deal, and that palm oil will be given full access to the EU market.

These are concrete actions that would demonstrate that Foreign Minister Blok really means what he says about supporting Indonesian Palm Oil, and opposing a ban.

The Dutch Government may argue – as they have done in the past – that supporting ‘sustainable’ palm oil is what they prefer.  The problem is that many of the initiatives the Dutch have supported, have ended up excluding small farmers. And an exclusion is a de facto ban. The Foreign Affairs Minister must reflect on how that looks to producers in Indonesia. Dutch Ministers trumpeting their support for initiatives that impoverish and disenfranchise Indonesian producers is not a good look.

Some of the initiatives supported by the Dutch Government that have not yielded the expected results for palm oil producing countries would include:

  • The Amsterdam Declaration, which aims for a ‘sustainable palm oil supply chain’ by 2020: this was a poorly-disguised government support programme for RSPO, and it hasn’t made much progress. It also ran the risk of disenfranchising small farmers and national sustainability schemes, such as ISPO and MSPO
  • The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) has programs in place, yet it represents the demand side in Europe – not the producers – and therefore has neglected to take into account the needs of small farmers who do not have the riches needed to afford IDH’s expensive criteria.

The Dutch Royal visit will be about far more than just palm oil, of course. As with every royal visit, though, the follow-up work will be undertaken by Ministers and officials. It is in this follow-up period when Indonesians will discover if, once again, they have simply fallen for the well-chosen, but empty, words from European leaders – or if this time is different, and we really will see a concrete effort from the Dutch to support Indonesia against the proposed EU bans on palm oil.

It is unlikely that most in Jakarta are holding their breath: they’ve seen this movie before.