The populist revolt in the Netherlands has now translated into a stunning political victory at the polls by the Farmer Citizen Movement — known by its Dutch acronym BBB — and has given Prime Minister Mark Rutte a new headache to worry about.
Some votes are still being counted but the shocking results show the BBB with 16 seats in the upper house while the Greens and labor combined have 15. Rutte will either have to work with the radical left or the populist right to get anything done.
“Let’s hope we can find solutions that benefit our natural environment and that give perspective to farmers, especially young farmers, who are looking for a sustainable future,” said European Commission for Climate Action Executive VP Frans Timmermans.
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The Greens have different ideas. Rutte wants to cut nitrogen emissions by 50% by 2030 — a goal that farmers know will result in the government seizing many farms.
The BBB was born out of farmers’ anger at these environmental rules on nitrogen emissions that are threatening to devastate the farming industry.
The stikstofcrisis — or nitrogen crisis — ripped across Dutch industry but it fell hardest on the farmers. Specifically, it has affected those living close to Natura 2000 zones, areas the Netherlands agreed to conserve under European Union law. Crucially for Vollenbroek, the country’s more than 160 protected sites cover 10 percent of its area. Stretching like a latticework across its territory, they often sit cheek-by-jowl with intensive agriculture, the country’s largest producer of nitrogen through animal waste and fertilizer. Next month, the government is due to publish a list of 3,000 of the most polluting farms, which are to be forcibly closed this year and provided with compensation from a €24 billion fund.
The future will not be pretty as farmers push back against arbitrary and damaging rules designed to put most of them out of business. Those 3,000 farms being targeted by the government are among the most productive in the country. And it’s only going to get worse.
In the Netherlands, the nitrogen crisis has featured riots and intimidation of government ministers. On Saturday, a farmers’ protest ahead of provincial elections on March 15, is being promoted as a “revolt” by figures from the far right. It has also spread to next-door Belgium, where Flemish farmers blockaded central Brussels last week with 2,700 tractors in protest of a regional plan to limit emissions. In the self-governing region of Flanders, Environment Minister Zuhal Demir has been placed under police protection after a farmer turned up to an event where she was speaking with a life-sized doll hung from gallows on the front of a tractor.
Across Europe, the pressure is set to grow. The EU has proposed a cluster of new laws that, if they are adopted, would push farmers to do far more to protect nature, potentially offering campaigners new legal weapons. And so — as the collateral damage, measured in wrecked lives and political upheaval in the Netherlands, accrues — what is happening there raises uncomfortable questions about the change needed for societies to live within their earthly means. Does saving nature necessarily mean ripping society apart? And if so, will this green transformation happen at all?
But it was still a shock to see the BBB rout mainstream parties like the Christian Democrats — the traditional protectors of the interests of farmers.
We should note that there was little effort to compromise or look for less radical solutions by the goverment. What the farmers are enraged about is that the government didn’t care what they thought about the changes. So, where mid-term elections in the past saw a poor turnout among farmers, this year’s elections drew a massive increase in the number of rural votes.
One sign of progress was that during the demonstrations and protests, many farmers hung their flag upside down as a sign of distress. Some farmers took to Twitter on Thursday to say that they are now hanging the flag the right way up again following BBB’s victory.