What does political change in the Netherlands mean for Dutch farm protests?

The Dutch government estimates 11,200 farms will have to close, and another 17,600 farmers will have to significantly reduce their livestock numbers - and farmers aren't happy.
What does political change in the Netherlands mean for Dutch farm protests?

Party leader Caroline van der Plas of the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) answers journalists' questions as she arrives in a tractor at the Binnenhof, the venue of Netherlands' parliament, in The Hague,

The Dutch government's proposal to cut nitrogen emissions by 50% by 2030 has triggered a surge of support for a farmers' political party.

The government estimates 11,200 farms will have to close, and another 17,600 farmers will have to significantly reduce their livestock numbers.

There has been a fierce farmer backlash, with protesters blocking roads, factories, and supermarket warehouses, and facilities such as airports.

Now, opinion polls indicate strong political support for the farmers, with BoerBurgerBeweging (the Farmer-Citizen Movement, or BBB), shooting into joint second place nationally.

In a Politico poll, BBB, a centre-right party founded in 2019, would increase its current one seat in parliament to 17, a huge share compared to the less than 2% of the population which works in agriculture.

Led by Dutch-Irish woman Caroline van der Plas, their only MP, BBB would have as many seats as the Party for Freedom (PVV, led by far-right politician Geert Wilders), if an election were held now. Their 17 seats each would be exceeded only the country's most popular party, the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Political instability

The political rise of the farmers further destabilises the multi-party system of The Netherlands, following the election 16 months ago, which saw the far-right achieving its best ever combined result, and the liberal, pro-EU D66 party surging in popularity (but the latest polls would leave D66 with only 15 seats, in fourth place nationally). The election was contested by 37 political parties, with 17 winning at least one of the 150 seats.

Rutte recently became the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands' history, but he had to come back early from a summer recess for a meeting with farmer leaders. However, the most militant farmer groups were unhappy after the meeting and warned their protests will escalate.

Political pressure on Rutte is increasing, with polls indicating a new all-time low in the popularity of his VVD party, which would cause them to lose 13 of their 34 seats if a vote were held now.

Polls also indicate the other parties of the four-party ruling coalition are losing support.

D66, the left-wing party which joined the governing coalition in January on the condition that the government would reduce the country's livestock, would lose 11 of its 24 seats if an election were held now.

The other two coalition parties are the centre-right Christian Democrats, which historically had the strongest rural base, and the conservative Christen Unie.

In polls, seven out of 10 voters say they are dissatisfied with the Rutte Cabinet.

"The government has to start talking to the farmers, not just talking, but listening, and really hearing them, or things will get worse," said Caroline van der Plas, the only BBB MP.

Death threats

She expressed concern about the increasingly toxic nature of rows over the government's nitrogen proposal.

She has herself been a victim, withdrawing from all public appearances at the end of July because of death threats and hate mail. She said, "The anti-farmer or anti-BBB lobby is working flat out at the moment."

Describing herself as "not a fire-starter", she has condemned the farmers’ hugely disruptive protests on motorways. 

I support all action which is within the law. I understand farmers’ emotions, and I support their battle.

Her party wants the nitrogen policy and plans put on hold, and other solutions explored. BBB has called for leaders and MPs to cut short their summer holiday and return for an emergency debate, as farmers' protests escalate.

Formerly a journalist specialising in agriculture news, Caroline van der Plas isn't surprised at the surge in BBB's popularity since she won their single seat 16 months ago.

BBB was founded only two years earlier.

Van der Plas told DutchNews.nl: "I’ve seen for a long time how much anger there is outside the four big cities at the way The Hague leaves the countryside in the lurch."

Protests by farmers escalated in October 2019, sparked by the government’s first proposals to cut nitrogen pollution, in accordance with EU rules to protect conservation zones.

Farmers disputed government research findings blaming the agriculture sector for 46% of nitrogen pollution.

Van der Plas grew up in Deventer, 88km east of Amsterdam. Her father, Wil, was a sports journalist, and her mother, Nuala, who emigrated from Ireland in 1961, was a councillor for the Christian Democrat party (CDA). Caroline was also a CDA member, but left in 2019, to start the BBB.

Sadly, this coincided with the loss of her husband, Jan Gruben, just nine weeks after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Efficient farming

Caroline says lots of Dutch farmers don’t have successors, and she wants a focus on innovation to make farming more efficient, while farmer numbers naturally reduce.

"If we downsize farming here in the Netherlands, it’ll just move to other countries that are less sustainable than we are.

Every cow we lose here will be replaced by two or three somewhere else in the world. So if we need to reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen, ammonia, let farmers here come up with innovations to make production cleaner. 

It remains to be seen how influential the rise of the BBB will be, but its leader's appeals to farmers not to make the mistake of overstepping the mark in protests is already a commendable stance, as protests get out of hand.

Threatened with a reduction of up to 30% of their dairy and beef cattle, farmers stepped over the mark in their protests. In Groningen, a tractor forced open the main door of the assembly building, causing €10,000 of damage.

In July, police made eight arrests after a demonstration by farmers at the home of nature minister Christianne van der Wal.

At road protests, farmers dumped asbestos, in addition to burning straw bales and car tyres, and manure barricading several highways.

A Dutch police officer fired shots at a 16-year-old boy driving a tractor, but no one was injured.

'Terrorists'

Prime Minister Mark Rutte accused farmers of “unacceptable” and "life-threatening" behaviours.

D66 leader Jan Paternotte called the protesters "terrorists".

Gideon van Meijeren, an MP for the Forum for Democracy, has been reported to the police for allegedly inciting violence in a speech to farmers Farmers have also been egged on by some of the world's best-known far right politicians.

"Farmers in the Netherlands of all places are courageously opposing the climate tyranny of the Dutch government," Donald Trump told a rally in Florida in July.

Poland's Agriculture Minister Henryk Kowalczyk, of the right-wing Law and Justice Party-led populist government, said: "I will support the position of Dutch farmers in maintaining production.

The best-known Dutch right-wing leader, Geert Wilders, along with France's Marine Le Pen, also backed the Dutch farmers.

Per square mile, The Netherlands has 238 cows, compared to 100 in the UK or 80 in Germany.

The country is the largest exporter of meat in Europe and the second largest exporter of food overall after the US. Food exports are worth more than €100 billion a year.

But farmers have worked hard to reduce pollution. Since the early 1960s, they doubled yields while using the same amount of fertilizer. Ammonia pollution from manure has been falling. Yet the government comes back each time with ever more stringent environmental demands of farmers.

Opinion poll results indicate sympathy for farmers, in the face of the Government's nitrogen ultimatum. Perhaps members of the public believe, like many farmers, that the government wants to reduce farmland so more housing can be built.

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