The Dutch Farmers’ Revolt Isn’t Brexit or MAGA
Liberal democracy looks likely to defeat populist demagogues
This summer brought all-too-familiar news of a popular revolt in Europe, but this time from an unlikely place: the Netherlands. Since June, Dutch farmers have blocked the nation’s highways and railroads, protested outside Parliament and in force in the countryside, and threatened politicians and first responders. These protests were triggered by the publication of government plans, designed to comply with an earlier court order, to cut the country’s nitrogen emissions in half by 2030 to curb pollution. The plans would threaten the livelihood of significant numbers of Dutch farmers, given the large amounts of nitrogen in the animal manure used and produced in animal agriculture, particularly dairy farming.
The farmer protests have placed formerly obscure environmental regulations at the heart of Dutch political discourse, despite intense competition from the war in Ukraine, inflation, COVID, and the European energy crisis. In this sense, the current crisis fits in with other narratives around populism in Europe. Headlines about farmers protesting environmental policy evoke images of a popular movement rising up against edicts issued by climate change-obsessed technocrats of the European Union’s administrative state. One might expect such protests to complement seamlessly the anti-EU, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration impulses that have animated European populism over the past two decades.
But while there are elements of truth to all of that, the full story is both different and more complicated. Reducing nitrogen emissions has more to do with protecting local habitats than with global warming, and although EU environmental law played a role in the judicial ruling that set off the current wave of discontent, there is strong domestic support for stringent environmental regulations as well. Moreover, the narratives of far-right populists, who have, perhaps predictably, blamed immigrants and foreign institutions for the crisis, have not caught on.
A Very Dutch Crisis
Farming matters to the Dutch. While the Netherlands is a dense and heavily urbanized country, its agricultural sector punches above its weight. More than half of the country’s land remains dedicated to farming, and it is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter after the United States, with a particular specialization in floriculture.
But all that is gold does not glitter, and Dutch farmers have been expressing their rage about public policy with varying but increasing levels of intensity for three years now. The current political dispute over nitrogen emissions was triggered by a plan announced by the Dutch government in June to achieve a 50 percent reduction in those emissions countrywide by 2030. The plan’s mandated nitrogen reductions differ considerably throughout the country depending on each area’s calculated environmental impact on the country’s protected natural regions.
The government’s plan comes in response to two 2019 judicial decisions arising from environmental lawsuits. The decisions were based on a 1990s EU directive concerning the preservation of Europe’s endangered natural habitats, but the underlying conflict is much older, and the current legal framework—a mix of Dutch and EU law—is a direct descendant of a national law passed in 1967 to conserve areas designated as important national nature preserves. While technological progress has made a real difference in nitrogen emission rates since then, agricultural nitrogen emissions have risen slightly in recent years, and there is an inevitable and long-recognized tension between high-intensity agricultural land uses and the preservation of biodiversity in areas near many of the nation’s farms.
The current tension thus predates EU involvement in environmental regulation—in fact, the Working Group Preserve the Peel, one of the litigants in the 2019 lawsuits that triggered the recent political dispute, has been active since the 1970s. Indeed, there are large numbers of Dutch voters and activists on the environmentalist side of this issue, not just distant, faceless, unelected bureaucrats.
And a Very Dutch Political System
Of course, the usual suspects have tried to appropriate the farmer protests.
Take Geert Wilders, the leader of the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant Party for Freedom, the third-largest party in the Dutch parliament. He has attempted to blame the need for emission reductions on immigration, suggesting that the farms closed due to the government’s plans will be replaced by temporary housing for asylum seekers.
But that narrative hasn’t really caught on, and his Party for Freedom appears stuck at around 10% of the vote, where it has been for years.
Or look at Thierry Baudet, who represents the very online flavor of Dutch right-wing populism. His Forum for Democracy was briefly the largest party in the Dutch Senate before fights over antivax nuttery, antisemitism and white nationalism tore the party apart. His party has, besides echoing Wilders’ claims, argued that the emission regulations are part of a conspiracy led by the World Economic Forum to control the global populace through food shortages and hunger.
Yet the Forum for Democracy, too, remains stuck in the polls, at around 3% of the vote.
Political ineptitude is one reason Wilders and Baudet have failed to exploit the crisis. But a second reason is the Dutch political system itself. A defining characteristic of this system is its reliance on a pure version of proportional representation in Parliament, with low barriers to a new party’s entry. All a party needs to secure one of the lower (and main) chamber’s 150 seats is one of every 150 votes in a parliamentary election—just 0.67% of the popular vote. This allows a wide variety of political parties to proliferate and permits a relatively straightforward analysis of various political cleavages.
As a result, it’s not entirely surprising that the only party that has benefited from the protests this year is a purpose-built one: the Farmer-Citizen Movement. It secured just one seat in Parliament (out of 150) in the 2021 election, but it is now polling at around 17 seats, which might make it the country’s second-largest party if a new election were held. Led by Caroline van der Plas, a former journalist and communications specialist with close ties to the agricultural industry, the party has managed to balance support for the demands of farmers with an appeal to traditional centrist and center-right voters.
Aside from the easy entry and growth of new parties under the Dutch system of proportional representation, perhaps the most straightforward explanation for why a dedicated special-interest party has succeeded where more unhinged populists have not is that the issue at hand involves genuine, longstanding disagreements over specific questions of policy—rather than cultural identity—that have long been championed by, and associated with, large groups of the Netherlands’ own voters.
In the political realm, the farmers’ opposition is represented by not just one, but two explicitly environmentalist parties in Parliament. GreenLeft, which wants to move on from the kind of intensive animal farming sometimes referred to as “factory farming,” is a more left-wing and less electorally successful version of the German Greens. The Party for the Animals is more narrowly focused and is, as the name suggests, particularly concerned with animal rights. It envisions a dramatic downscaling and complete reorganization of animal husbandry. Together these two parties typically outpoll the Farmer-Citizen Movement, despite the latter’s recent rise, and both parties hailed the 2019 court decisions as well.
The environmental movement looms large outside electoral politics as well. The Dutch chapter of GreenPeace receives donations from hundreds of thousands of households each year, and one of its former activists led the Dutch Labor Party for much of the 2010s. The two largest environmental organizations in the country, the Society for Preservation of Nature Monuments in the Netherlands and the Dutch branch of the World Wildlife Fund, have close to a million members each out of a total population of just over 17.7 million.
As a result, the citizens who side with the farmers are not expressing widespread rage at the European Union or pushing for Nexit; indeed, leaving the European Union, a fringe position in the Netherlands to start with, became inconceivable due to the disaster that is Brexit even before this current period of farmer discontent. Instead, the conflict, while certainly heated, is very much a domestic one, and it’s not surprising that Wilders and Baudet’s efforts to highjack the nitrogen emissions debate with anti-Muslim and anti-EU narratives strikes most of the Dutch, including most of the farmers themselves, as detached from reality.
Of course, Dutch populists might have found it easier to portray “foreigners” and “foreign influence” as the enemy if strong feelings of Dutch identity were involved—if, for instance, there were an unmet desire to “make the Netherlands great again” by championing farmers and preserving the country’s agricultural heritage, much as there was to restore American manufacturing and mining among Donald Trump’s supporters. But Dutch farmers represent less than 1 percent of the population, making them a hard sell as the epitome of Dutch identity.
And a broader populist appeal to rural voters, who make up much of the Farmer-Citizen Movement’s support, would have fewer resentments to work with than one might assume. True, there is some precedent for the formation of a full-on populist rural party in the Netherlands: The first postwar parliamentary manifestation of right-wing populism in the Netherlands was the 1960s-’70s Farmers’ Party. And while that party’s ties to former Nazi collaborators ultimately kept it from playing a significant role in Dutch politics, the urban-rural cultural cleavage remains a natural one.
Still, that cleavage isn’t, at present, culturally explosive. In part, this is geographical. Compared to, say, the U.S., the Netherlands’ urban and rural “inhabitants” are often neighbors; indeed, American visitors can be surprised by how sudden the transition from urban activity to farmland often is in the Netherlands. Moreover, conservationist and environmentalist views are relatively broadly shared throughout Dutch society—a prominent member of Wilders’ party is an animal rights activist, for instance, while a member of Parliament for the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy declared last week, upon resigning his seat, that “factory farming must be brought to an end.” And of course, due to the Netherlands’ low elevation, water management has long been a key function of Dutch government, accustoming Dutch farmers to government environmental controls over a basic aspect of their livelihood.
As a result, the rural supporters of the Farmer-Citizen Movement are unlikely to cause, as a populist party might, serious damage to the traditional mores and mechanisms of the liberal polity. Instead, even if the Farmer-Citizen Movement does not implode (as upstart parties are wont to do), they and their political opponents will likely work out their concerns mostly through the mechanisms and machinations of normal politics.
The Seeds of a Classically Liberal Solution
Normal politics can be messy, of course. Or even boring.
The primary contours of a path to compromise are visible. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy has appointed former Deputy Prime Minister Johan Remkes, a fellow party member who has long been involved with the nitrogen issue to carry out a listening tour. Remkes has over the past few weeks held meetings with cabinet members, trade associations, environmentalist groups, financial institutions and other stakeholders. Even the most radical farmers group, the Farmers Defense Force, initially reluctant, finally agreed to participate in these conversations. Remkes has attempted to lower the temperature by playing up the various ways in which dramatic reductions in the size of the agricultural industry can be avoided through technological innovation, farm relocation, diversification and deintensification of production. He is expected to propose a more specific path forward later this month.
Prime Minister Rutte himself has gone out of his way to show empathy in his comments and meetings with farmers. Deputy Prime Minister Wopke Hoekstra, who is also the leader of the Christian Democratic Alliance, has gone even further. Hoekstra, whose party has long been associated with rural interests, landed himself in hot water by suggesting that the government might in fact change its nitrogen commitments—that, in brief, “2030 is not sacred.”
The difficulties raised by his comments were twofold. First, altering the proposed nitrogen regime could run counter to the government’s legal obligations—though one suspects some room for maneuvering exists, since regardless of the court rulings, the relevant EU legal framework gives national governments leeway in deciding how to meet their environmental obligations. Second, such a change would run counter to the current government’s coalition agreement. These interparty coalition agreements are the sanctified heart of Dutch governance, and in this case, Democrats 66—the second-largest governing party and a heavily urban, socially liberal party—resists policy changes in this area.
But here again, compromise can perhaps be found by broadening the playing field and offering up concessions on other issues, such as immigration, where Democrats 66 has positioned itself significantly to the left of both the Christian Democratic Alliance and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, the other major parties of the governing coalition. Broadly speaking, the Democrats 66 seek more generous treatment of asylum seekers and higher immigration levels for refugees. A modified coalition agreement that eased the burdens on farmers and immigrants might prove acceptable to the various parties of the coalition government, especially the coalition’s fourth member—the pro-farmer, pro-immigrant Christian Union.
Of course, a compromise along these lines might not be particularly satisfying to anyone involved, and settling the details won’t be easy; the minister of agriculture recently resigned, saying he felt unequal to the demands of the job. Still, a political compromise is the most likely endgame for the great Dutch farmer revolt of 2022. The four governing parties currently have weak poll numbers, giving them strong incentives to find common ground, rather than falling out and being forced to call early elections.
The Nuisance of Dutch Populism
This outcome is not quite the doomsday scenario that elements of the EU-skeptical Anglosphere paint whenever a sign of popular discontent reaches them from the continent. Happily, the Netherlands’ homegrown populists haven’t managed to yoke the farmers’ cause to their own. It is also incredibly unlikely that foreign putschists like former U.S. President Donald Trump or former Trump advisor Michael Flynn, who have both praised the Dutch farmers, will somehow get the people of the Netherlands to rise up against their government.
That said, there is some downside risk to the potential populist appeal provided by the Dutch farmers’ protests. A further narrowing of the nonpopulist segment of the Dutch political spectrum could make it more difficult for real electoral competition to take place. As long as the center-right Christian Democratic Alliance or the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy continues to be the largest party in Parliament, as has been the case in every 21st century election, governing coalitions will likely be formed by them and one or two centrist, or perhaps center-left, parties. In a future government, one of those additional parties could well be the Farmer-Citizen Movement—if it maintains roughly its current character. But if the party turns to populist radicalism, it would become politically unpalatable as a coalition partner, narrowing the segment of the political spectrum in which government coalitions can realistically form.
For now, however, the Farmer-Citizen Movement’s becoming a resurgent right-wing populist “Farmers’ Party,” while not impossible, remains speculative, as does a successful co-opting of the farmers’ sympathies by the Netherlands’ populist right. Instead, now appears to be the hour of meetings and debates and concessions and roundtables—the mundane machinery of the liberal polity.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.