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20 March 2023

Why the Dutch are revolting

After over a decade in power, is Mark Rutte about to be brought down by a movement of angry farmers?

By Senay Boztas

Along the motorways of the Netherlands, Dutch flags are once again flying the right way up. But in the political world, where these flags have become a symbol of anti-establishment protest, elections last week turned things upside down.

As the head of one left wing party put it in her post-election speech, the Dutch have given a “big, fat middle finger” to the establishment by voting in a protest group, the Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB) as the largest party in all 12 provincial assemblies. The BBB have also won the Senate, with 19 per cent of the vote. “This is just not normal – I didn’t expect this at all,” said the party’s leader, Caroline van der Plas, looking stunned as exit polls rolled in.

The Dutch are used to an element of protest in these mid-term elections, which don’t hit voters in the pocket in the same way as general elections. But even in the context of a splintering multi-party system, the BBB win is being viewed as a wake-up call to The Hague and the four-party coalition of Mark Rutte, the prime minister, who is leading his fourth administration.

Turnout was the highest for these elections in decades, and the result has been described as a “pounding” for the government, particularly the farmer-friendly coalition party the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). “This is a landslide we haven’t seen for years… an extraordinarily bitter pill,” said its leader, Wopke Hoekstra. The province of Groningen is used to earthquakes, but this groundswell of protest has shaken the country.

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At the BBB annual general meeting announcing its lead provincial party candidates in November there were clues that this movement was about to explode. The room was packed, the atmosphere festive, and the party surprisingly well organised. In the weeks before the election Dutch roads filled with the pale-green clovers of BBB posters and the upside down flag, a sign of solidarity with farmer protests (which, after the election results were announced, have been righted).

The Netherlands has a huge agricultural export industry; the country’s 17.8 million people are outnumbered by more than 112 million farmed animals. It is also at the sharp end of climate change action – a battle, if you like, between pale green and dark green.

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For years, Dutch farms had an exemption to produce more manure than the rest of Europe. As a result the Netherlands has exceeded its own legal “critical deposit value” of nitrogen-based emissions in EU-designated nature reserves known as Natura 2000 areas. A series of recent court cases from environmentalists meant that nitrogen exemptions for farmers and construction were ruled unlawful – effectively making thousands of dairy farmers illegal and shutting down much-needed house building.

Last summer Rutte’s coalition, led by his centre-right VVD, announced a bill to reduce nitrogen-based deposits from farming, industry and transport by half by 2030 – with a €24.3bn buy-out fund but also the threat of expropriation, and a plan to reduce livestock by 30 per cent. Farmer protests bloomed everywhere from ministers’ homes to provincial assemblies, using tractors, manure, burning torches, hay bales and even asbestos. Opposing this bill is the main aim of the BBB, which has pledged to block its passage through the Senate.

The election result showed a clear division between light green and dark green, between the farmers and the environmentalist community, both of whom say they want to protect the land. The GreenLeft party looks to have maintained its last strong showing of eight seats in the Senate, while the Party for the Animals should go from three to four seats. Against them is the BBB, which prefers technological improvements and a natural decline in the number of farmers to reduce pollution emissions by the current legal deadline of 2035.

[See also: Going Dutch could help break Europe’s addiction to Russian gas]

While the side-issue of nitrogen has assumed a centre-stage role in Dutch politics, another battle is being fought around political trust. Traditionally, the Netherlands has been an extremely high trust society where voting was mandatory and corruption perceived to be low.

A series of scandals under “Teflon Mark” Rutte’s leadership have eroded this faith. According to the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, only half of the Dutch now have confidence in government and parliament. Two recent parliamentary inquiries have given a brutal verdict on government failures, describing technocrats unwilling to listen, apparent arrogance at the top, and a culture of brushing the government’s own mistakes under the carpet while penalising citizens for the tiniest fault.

Scandal has become a dominant theme in Dutch politics. Gas exploitation in Groningen was done at the expense of citizen safety. Tens of thousands of innocent (often dual-national) citizens were ruthlessly punished for “childcare benefit fraud”; the tax office had been, admitted the finance minister, “institutionally racist”. Missteps leading to extra Covid lockdowns generated widespread protest. There seems to be less tolerance in Dutch society for yet more mandatory action from The Hague, such as forcibly shutting down farmers, while companies like Tata Steel and Schiphol airport go their merry, polluting way.

Despite a shift in voting patterns in the last general election, in 2021, politicians took nine months to form exactly the same coalition. Rutte, a consummate politician who always has a rehearsed and coherent-sounding answer, delivered with a smile, repeatedly gets away with having “no active memory” of tricky issues such as deleting his telephone messages or considering finding a “job elsewhere” for troublesome MPs who stand up for citizens’ rights.

Van der Plas has cleverly taken advantage of this breakdown in trust. She has steered the BBB away from far-right extremism, and apparently convinced many voters when she said she stands up for neglected citizens. “People feel unseen, unheard and that they’re not being listened to,” Van der Plas claimed on election night. “They thought: it’s our turn now, and they’ve done that by turning out at the ballot box en masse.”

The BBB leader also made much of regional concerns about the location of asylum centres, calling for caution on taking immigrants without a job and a home – a traditional hunting-ground for the far-right PVV, Forum for Democracy, and JA21. In a country where the supermarket chain Ahold Delhaize has record profits but almost a million people live under the poverty line and struggle to pay for their shopping, where regional buses are cut, where homeowners have doubled their money in the last decade but young people are shut out of the property market, the charismatic but down to earth Van der Plas and her story of listening to “the people” have struck a chord.

The result means that the BBB, which says it wants to work with other parties, is likely to be part of the leading coalition in every province. This, says Bas Knoop, a political reporter for Financieele Dagblad, is a problem because the government has asked these 12 provinces to work out detailed plans of how they will reduce nitrogen-based pollution in their area. If the provinces revolt – or simply drag their feet over the plans – the national government will be stuck.

In the Senate, Rutte does not have a majority anyway, and has been relying on the support of GreenLeft and Labour – which are formally allying – to get many bills through. Ironically this means the dark greens could use the threat of the BBB as a negotiating tool to turn more of their wishes into parliamentary legislation.

Following the election, Rutte was quick to assure the country that there was no threat to government stability – and, although coalition parties will probably lose ten Senate seats, Rutte’s VVD is still the second largest party. At the same time, there are clearly worries in the corridors of The Hague about what the result means: on Friday, for example, the government hustled out a half-baked announcement that it would be doing more to increase “access” to facilities such as sports clubs across the country. 

There remain persistent rumours that Rutte – arguably one of the world’s most skilful politicians, and the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history, having been in office since 2010 – is looking for a job in the EU. But while that chatter has never gone away, Rutte has stayed in his post, carried on cycling, and continued teaching his sociology class at a local school. 

It remains to be seen whether the BBB will flesh out its policies and become more than a single-issue party, but people who dismissed it as “populist” without listening to the (largely) reasonable tone of its leadership have got it wrong. Whatever the fate of Rutte, and however the BBB now chooses to play its winning hand, conflict over agriculture is not going to disappear any time soon. Radical change may well be unavoidable in this small, heavily-populated and intensively-farmed country. But perhaps if farmers feel that their voices are being heard, they may be more willing to consider a different agricultural future.

[See also: How Patrick Nasmyth brought Dutch mastery to Scottish art]

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