They came from Veenendaal and Emmeloord, from Oldebroek and Wolvega. Dutch farmers took to their tractors on Wednesday in a slow, cacophonous procession that choked the road network like knotweed. Some 20,000 farm vehicles converged on a field in Sloe, a village in the province of Gelderland, to protest against what they called the ‘looting of the countryside’ by a government bent on stripping them of their land, their income and their way of life. At the end of an event that looked more like a rock festival than a pitchfork rally, they crawled back along the motorways, ignoring police warnings not to block the roads, and vowing to do ‘everything possible’ to thwart the government’s plans.
The farmers’ protests of the last three years have been characterised by political paralysis in The Hague and the growing radicalisation of the farming lobby. The catalyst was a binding judgment by the Council of State in 2019 that forced the government to take steps to reduce amount of nitrogen compound emissions by 2035. Since 1992 all EU member states have been obliged to protect the Natura 2000 network of conservation areas, which includes 131 sites in the Netherlands, by limiting pollution. Initially the judgment focused on the construction industry, where 18,000 building projects ground to a halt because their environmental permits were no longer valid. But it quickly became clear that the biggest cuts would have to be within the agriculture sector, which generates more than 40% of nitrogen compound emissions.
The government brought in a few containment measures, such as reducing the speed limit on motorways to 100 km/h in the daytime. But on the crucial issue of agriculture reform, politicians prevaricated and passed the buck. It emboldened the lobbyists, who sent fleets of tractors to The Hague for a series of mass protests. They picketed provincial assemblies that were given the task of producing detailed anti-pollution measures, battering the door of Groningen’s assembly house and prompting four provinces to abandon their plans. The coalition in Noord-Brabant, one of the biggest farming provinces, collapsed when the Christian Democrat (CDA) party withdrew its support for its nitrogen strategy and formed a new administration with the far-right Forum for Democracy (FVD) – which folded within a year.
Three years of stalemate
The coronavirus pandemic, a general election and 10 months of negotiations to form a new government (comprising the same four parties as the old one) meant the issue simmered away on the back burner for three years. A new cabinet minister, Christianne van der Wal, was given the brief of solving what was now known as the ‘nitrogen crisis’ (stikstofcrisis). Civil servants warned during the coalition talks that the government’s plans did not go far enough and intervention, in the form of a ‘cost-efficient buyout strategy’, was unavoidable. Two weeks ago Van der Wal confirmed what had been obvious since the Council of State issued its ruling in May 2019: as many as one in three farms would have to be shut down. The accompanying map showed that in rural areas such as Gelderland, rich in both dairy farms and conservation areas, nitrogen compound levels needed to be cut by 70% before the 2035 deadline. Again, the donkey work was left to the provinces, who have been given 12 months to come up with detailed plans, but this time with the message that some farmers would have to be bought out. There was simply ‘no other choice’, she said.
It is hard to overestimate the cultural significance of the Dutch farming industry. Honest, hard-working tillers of the soil, ingeniously defying the threat of the sea, are integral to the Netherlands’ self-image. One of the country’s most celebrated works of art is Paulus Potter’s giant portrait of a bull. Van Gogh famously painted a family eating potatoes as well as dozens of studies of boerenkoppen (‘farmers’ heads’); Vermeer depicted a kitchen maid serving a meal of bread and milk. The agricultural lobby knew it could count on broad public sympathy and positive media coverage when it marshalled its resources to oppose the cutbacks. Three of the coalition parties – the Christian Democrats (CDA), the Liberals and the Christian Union, have strong bases in rural areas, and the latter two have seen their voters drift away to a party that grew out of the protests, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB). So it was understandable that politicians were wary of taking the farmers on.
But by kicking the can down the road, the coalition parties have handed the initiative to the fanatical elements in the farming lobby. Resistance has hardened into outright denial. The media shorthand ‘nitrogen crisis’ has been twisted to blur the distinction between nitrogen, the gas that makes up 78% of the atmosphere, and nitrogen compounds, which in large concentrations damage natural habitats. Gert-Jan Oplaat, a lobbyist for the poultry industry and former Liberal Party (VVD) MP, declared: ‘We absolutely do not have a nitrogen problem in the Netherlands … nitrogen is what makes grass, trees and everything else grow.’ There are echoes of the anti-vaccine movement in the way radical farmers have spun an elaborate conspiracy theory in which farmers are being persecuted and disenfranchised so the government can steal their land to build houses for migrants. Good, wholesome Dutch land is being stolen by the elite and handed out to scroungers and foreigners.
Disinformation and intimidation
Like the anti-vaxxers, the farm lobbyists have poisoned the debate by injecting their own facts. An organisation called Agractie commissioned figures that showed farmers were responsible for 25% of nitrogen emissions, far lower than the 41% reported by the government’s environmental research agency, the RIVM. The chairman of farming lobby group LTO, Sjaak van der Tak, claimed last week that the RIVM’s figures were based on abstract models: ‘No measurements have been taken outdoors, in the stables or in the Natura 2000 areas’. Not only was this untrue, but a special commission was set up specifically to respond to these claims and found the RIVM’s calculations were broadly reliable, based on readings from 300 measuring stations around the country. Farm lobbyists have made much of the fact that the RIVM revised their initial estimate of the sector’s share of nitrogen emissions downwards from 45%, but omit to mention that the organisation they paid to come up with more favourable figures, Stichting Mesdag Zuivelfonds, also redid its homework. They blamed a ‘bug’ in the methodology for producing the figure of 25% and admitted the true level was 41% – in line with the RIVM’s calculations.
Alongside sowing disinformation, the farm lobbyists have not been slow to resort to intimidation and thuggery. Within hours of Ms Van der Wal announcing the government’s plans, a fleet of tractors had been despatched to her house on a Friday evening to hand over a manifesto. It was roundly denounced by MPs on all sides – including the Farmer-Citizen MP Caroline van der Plas – but not unprecedented. An MP for the D66 coalition party, Rob Jetten, received a surprise visit from members of Farmers Defence Force in 2020 while he was in quarantine recovering from coronavirus. MPs from Jetten’s party and the CDA turned down invitations to attend this week’s protest on the advice of the security services, who said they could not guarantee their safety. An earlier tractor convoy carried a coffin bearing the name of the leader of the Green-Left Alliance party. Farmers Defence Force leader Mark van den Oever was unrepentant about the mob outside Van der Wal’s home and told the Volkskrant newspaper that ministers could expect more visits. Asked how he felt about Van der Wal’s children cowering inside the house, he replied: ‘They’re pussies.’
Van den Oever also compared the plight of Dutch farmers to the Jews in pre-war Germany. ‘Isn’t this an attack on a section of the population?’ he said. ‘Jewish shops were discriminated against in the period before the war. I think farming businesses are being discriminated against now.’ The persecution complex is the most disturbing aspect of the farmers’ protests: a toxic mix of blood-and-soil nationalism and misplaced victimhood whose fingerprints can be found at most of history’s bloodiest scenes. Bart Kemp, chairman of Agractie, shrieked at the start of the gathering in Stroe that ‘the state of the Netherlands is at war with the farmers’ republic. A state of siege has been declared to grab our land and our possessions.’ Anyone voicing similar sentiments in a mosque would most likely have been arrested and put on the next plane out of the country.
A little reality check is in order. As well as being one of the biggest industries in the Netherlands, farming is one of the most lucrative: 18% of farmers are millionaires, a figure that rises to 43% among cattle farmers. And far from conducting a vicious land grab, the state plans to offer farmers who give up their livelihoods 130% of the value of their businesses as compensation. Finally, the Council of State ruling is not an ideological manifesto written by bearded tree-huggers, but a judgment grounded in a law agreed by the Netherlands and 26 other democratic nations.
Genuine persecuted minorities don’t organise knock-off rock festivals or have the gumption to intimidate government officials outside their homes. They’re too busy running for their lives to drive tractors down the motorway. The farmers’ protests may look like a revolt against a historic injustice, a battle between sons of the soil and a repressive elite, but they should be seen for what they are: a campaign of bullying and intimidation orchestrated by radicalised millionaires who see it as their birthright to milk the land for all it’s worth.