The Dutch Farmers' Uprising
The protests in the Netherlands are about not just nitrogen and farmland, but the very nature of government after Covid.
Farmers in the Netherlands are protesting on a scale unheard of in their country. They are furious about a government proposal that may put many of them out of business. Dutch farmers argue the government’s true aim is to seize their highly valuable farmland. They are protesting under the slogan “No farmers, no food” to warn of the dangers of giving up domestic food-supply independence to rely on imports instead.
The origin of the crisis is a 2019 ruling by the highest administrative court in the Netherlands. It ruled that measures the Dutch government had taken to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and nitrogen ammonia were not in compliance with European Union rules.
In June, the Dutch government responded to the court’s ruling with a proposal that says reducing the number of livestock in the country is the only way to significantly cut nitrogen emissions. Nitrogen ammonia is produced by livestock.
The Netherlands has a large farming sector. The country has roughly the same land area as Maryland but is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products by value, after America.
The farmers started protesting after the court’s ruling in 2019, but the issue mostly went to the back burner when the pandemic hit. The government offered voluntary buyouts of farms but there was little uptake.
The problem came to the forefront again last September, when a leaked government report presented several scenarios, including forced sales of farms. In June, Christianne van der Wal, cabinet minister for nature and nitrogen, said, “That strong measures are needed is a fact. Nitrogen emissions must go down.”
That prompted the farmers to start protesting anew. They deployed tractors to block supermarket distribution centers. This quickly led to empty shelves. Farmers say this gives people a forestate of what will happen when Dutch farms are shut down.
The farmers have also been blocking highways and parking their tractors outside businesses they claim emit more nitrogen oxide and nitrogen ammonia than they do. More is on the way. “We are going to continue protesting, but in a way the Netherlands has never seen before!” said farmer William Schoonhoven at a makeshift press conference in the town of Eerbeek on July 8.
The government has offered talks, but it has already announced that the goal of reducing nitrogen emissions is not open to discussion. Under those conditions, the farmers have refused to come to the table.
Many of the farmers believe the government is using nitrogen emissions as cover for a landgrab. The Netherlands is one of Europe’s most densely populated countries, and the value of the farmland is astronomical. Some of them have pointed to a U.N. agreement called Agenda 2030 which would overhaul the Dutch economy but requires a great deal of land to achieve its goals.
Member of Parliament Gideon van Meijeren of the far-right party Forum for Democracy articulated that view in a speech to the Dutch parliament:
Nitrogen policy is not about nature, it’s about the farmers’ land. The cabinet has committed itself to an international Agenda 2030 and executing this requires lots and lots of land. To reach so-called climate goals, thousands of mega wind turbines need to be built by 2030. They also want to build 1 million residences by 2030, for people who are not even in the Netherlands yet. Land is needed for this…. The state does not have it, but the farmers do. Two thirds of the land in the Netherlands is used by the agricultural sector—land that the cabinet has set its sights on.
Van Meijeren might be going too far. Given the high value of Dutch farmland, however, it is legitimate to ask whether the government has ulterior motives for trying to seize it. Moreover, given how frequently E.U. rules are flouted by member states, it is suspicious to see this one being singled out for draconian enforcement.
When considering the Dutch government’s approach, it is important to understand what a disturbing development this is in Dutch politics. In America, we are used to court orders setting government policy. However, this is alien to the Dutch political tradition. The Netherlands has long been famous for its consensus-based decision-making process, called the “polder model.”
In the polder model, important decisions require a consensus from elected officials and citizens. The Dutch have a multi-party system which invariably requires forming a coalition government. The parties in the governing coalition negotiate policies with each other, but they also need to get a certain degree of buy-in from opposition parties.
This ensures stability. Disruptive mass protests are rare in the Netherlands. The polder model gives citizens the sense that their concerns are taken seriously. The government’s plan for reducing emissions by shutting down the farms is a violation of the tradition of the polder model. There was no serious discussion with the farmers and nothing close to consensus has been reached.
This may well be the first example of what post-Covid-19 governance will look like in the Netherlands. The pandemic allowed the government to do things like impose digital vaccine passports and announce a surprise Christmas lockdown on December 18, 2021. The government is now rolling out its Covid-19 playbook again for nitrogen emissions. This is a “crisis” and, thus, it overrides the need for consensus.
The farmers’ protests also highlight the corrosive impact America’s example has on other countries’ politics. It is well known that America exports our popular culture to rest of the world, but, unfortunately, we also export our unhealthy political discourse. For example, some of the farmers have been protesting outside the houses of government officials.
This would have been unthinkable in the Netherlands a few years ago. But Dutch people watch online videos of Americans protesting at the homes of Supreme Court Justices. They see this is not condemned—and is, in fact, is practically endorsed—by the White House.
Meanwhile, the Dutch media has copied the American media’s practice of trotting out so-called experts to silence dissent. The farmers argue that closing them down is dangerous because the country will lose its food-supply independence. But experts have been informing the Dutch public that it makes no difference whether food is produced domestically or imported.
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If the farmers continue with their protests, they may yet prevail. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy is not in a strong position. At his party’s annual conference in June, a majority of delegates voted for a motion to condemn the government’s plans.
Rutte’s governing coalition consists of four parties. Only of them, D66, strongly supports the current nitrogen emissions policy. D66 is one of the most progressive parties in the Netherlands. They were the driving force behind legalizing euthanasia. Today, D66 has also put climate change at the center of their platform. The two other parties in the coalition, the Christian Democratic Appeal and the Christian Union, have large constituencies in the agricultural sector. They are facing a backlash.
If the governing coalition collapses over these farm protests, it will trigger a new election. Hopefully the farmers stand their ground. There is a great deal more at stake here than farmland.