Picture credit: VINCENT JANNINK/ANP/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Dutch courage

Why is the Farmer Citizen Movement succeeding?

The Netherlands has a reputation as a pleasant, dullish country with a highly competent economy –  unruffled by anything bar omni-present Britishers over for a stag-do. All the same, Dutch voters recently reminded their country’s rulers that politics aren’t over and the liberal end of history is as elusive as ever.

Elections to the country’s provincial councils provided a bounteous harvest for the Boer Burger Beweging (BBB), the “Farmer Citizen Movement” which has taken shape in the wake of widescale rural discord over government plans to radically reduce livestock farming in the country. Though non-existent when the last such elections were held, the BBB managed to come first place this time round with 19 per cent of the vote, giving them 138 seats on provincial councils — more than double the next highest: 63 seats won by Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling VVD party. Because the upper house of the national parliament is elected by the twelve provincial councils, this is likely to give the Farmers’ fifteen out of seventy-five seats in the First Chamber.

It all began in October 2019 when Mark Rutte’s coalition government announced that it was seeking to introduce unprecedented reductions in the Netherlands’ nitrogen emissions by seeking a drastic reduction in the numbers of livestock in the country. We tend to think of the Dutch as mercantile seagoers — and they are — but they are also incredibly agile farmers. So skilled are they at reclaiming land from the sea that they are the only European country to have created an entirely new province, Flevoland, ex nihilo. “God made the world,” Hollanders somewhat hubristically proclaim, “but the Dutch made the Netherlands.”

As farmers, the Dutch combine intensity with sustainability

As farmers, the Dutch combine intensity with sustainability. Their extreme efficiency at making use of every bit of available land means they don’t have enough space to make use of the immense amount of rich and fertile waste product created by over 100 million animals. They export what they can to neighbouring countries, but not enough to balance out the emissions statistics modern environmentalists fret over. Ministers suggested the only way to reach the nitrogen levels their obsession with eco-friendly status would require is to radically reduce livestock farming in the Netherlands, cutting the number of pigs, cattle, and chickens by nearly a third just to begin with.

Farmers were understandably incensed, and took their tractors to the country’s motorways in a series of ongoing protests that resulted in one policeman discharging a weapon at a farmer’s teenage son. The agricultural sector maintains it is being hit hard because it is an easier target, while bigger industries haven’t been asked to make sacrifices. Many livestock farmers are small, family-owned enterprises with dairy herds often numbering just a hundred or so cows. (In the United States, herds are often in the thousands.) Meanwhile, farmers perceive industry and commerce as more closely connected to politicians and thus better skilled at influencing the course of government.

Within a month of the proposals the Boer Burger Beweging was formed by rural activists and led by the earthy Caroline van der Plas, a meat industry journalist who pivoted into public relations working for agricultural unions and trade groups. They put candidates up for the 2021 lower house election but only managed one per cent of the vote — still enough to earn van der Plas the party’s single seat in the Second Chamber.

Why the massive swing to them in these elections? The “Farmer Citizen Movement” has begun to live up to its name, with sympathetic citizens from outside of the rural sector lending their votes to it. It may be that the farmers’ plight has struck a chord in Dutch society, which is traditionally reliant on consensus and letting people do their own thing. Abraham Kuyper’s concepts of sphere sovereignty and “pillarisation” have been phased out, but the Dutch still tend towards an understanding of not upsetting any one sector or subculture of their society too much. Such an understanding has helped maintain some level of harmony in a country that peacefully combines its own “Bible Belt” with the most socially liberal urban societies in Europe.

The Netherlands has also thrived for centuries on a sense of noaberschap — neighbourship — that literally helped build the country, or at least keep it from being reclaimed by the sea. Half the country sits on reclaimed land maintained by local water boards, the eldest of which dates from the 1240s. Communities would elect local dike-wardens who coordinated villagers and townspeople in making sure the dikes and polders were maintained in good working order, and organising emergency efforts during bad storms to prevent flooding. Tavern enemies and mating rivals would have to put their tensions aside to prevent their common homes being flooded, and this legacy is claimed to have influenced the Dutch in how they handle everything from national social policy to the funeral of the old widow around the corner.

Mark Rutte has been premier since 2010, managing a sometimes testy coalition of his own right-liberal VVD, the socially liberal D66, the once dominant but downwards-spiralling Christian Democratic Appeal, and the evangelical ChristenUnie.

The jump in support for the BBB is the first scratch in Rutte’s Teflon status, but what effect will the provincial and senate elections actually have? The ruling coalition maintains its majority in the more important lower chamber until 2025 at the latest, but in the upper house it will need the backing of the Labour/GreenLeft joint list of senators — possible on environmental legislation — or the BBB itself which has formed itself in opposition to Rutte. Unless the PM changes tack from climate alarmism towards farmer-friendly policies, the BBB’s stunning performance may be too little too late to save many family farms.

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