How Disgruntled Farmers Uprooted Dutch Politics

What does a flourishing new brand of conservatism mean for the Netherlands, the European Union and the planet?

How Disgruntled Farmers Uprooted Dutch Politics
Dutch farmers in Zwolle protest government plans to cut nitrogen emissions. (Vincent Jannink/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

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When I went to high school in Amsterdam about a decade ago, my friends and I used to pick on a student from Zwolle, in the northeastern part of the Netherlands, by calling him a farmer. We would talk to him in a stereotypical rural accent. It did not matter that Zwolle was, in fact, one of the largest cities in the country. To us, born and raised in the Dutch capital, every place outside was the same: a “boerengat” — hillbilly country, the middle of nowhere.

This sentiment goes a long way to explain the shock win by a small political party composed of farmers in Dutch provincial elections in March, which shook up the country’s political landscape. Taking to the stage after securing the historic victory, Caroline van der Plas, leader of the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB), or Farmer-Citizen Movement, exclaimed, in a mixture of English and Dutch, “What the fuck happened here?” Her amazement was echoed by the Dutch public at large.

But to scholars and journalists who have studied this party’s rise to power, there was little element of surprise.

Since 2019, farmers from the flat Dutch countryside have staged waves of protests, including driving their tractors to the streets of The Hague, creating one of the biggest traffic jams the country has ever seen. Everywhere across the rural parts of the Netherlands, the tricolor Dutch flag is hung upside down in opposition to the state.

Their grievance lies with proposals by the Dutch Parliament to cut harmful nitrogen emissions by reducing livestock numbers, which the farmers see as a direct threat to their livelihoods. Despite its relatively small population of 17.5 million people, the Netherlands is an agricultural powerhouse: It stands behind only the United States in terms of food exports, making it one of Europe’s largest producers of greenhouse gases.

At the forefront of this grassroots uprising was van der Plas, an agricultural journalist-turned-communications manager, whose party utilized the digital infrastructure of protest groups — which operate through Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp — to get demonstrators off the streets and into the voting booths.

But the agricultural sector forms only a fraction of the BBB’s base. In the Dutch system, the results of the provincial elections indirectly help determine the composition of the country’s Senate, made up of 75 members, which will be selected this week. “Even if every farmer in the country voted for them,” said Coen van de Ven, a staff writer at the opinion weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, “it would not be enough to procure roughly two senatorial seats,” he wrote in an email to New Lines, referring to the fact most Dutch agricultural work is mechanized and not carried out by humans.

Given its showing in the provincial elections, the BBB can count on 17 seats, more than any other party, meaning it can block legislation from the major parties.

Like many of my compatriots, I am asking: How did we get here?

Biking through the provinces in the years leading up to the March elections, Karel Smouter, media editor of the newspaper NRC Handelsblad, learned that the protests were about more than veganism, global warming and the fate of commercial agriculture. In his book “Blauw wit rood” — (“Blue white red,” the colors of the Dutch flag but reversed vertically from the top) — released in February, Smouter argues that they are a manifestation of a growing divide between city and country, as well as the people who inhabit these utterly different worlds.

Physically removed from and lacking representation in the country’s centralized bureaucracy, the sparsely populated countryside has found itself subjected to policies it played no part in shaping. “Why do people from the big cities get to decide how I do my job?” one person asked Smouter. “When young farmers took over their parents’ companies they had to expand to survive,” another added. “Now they are ordered to scale down. Clearly, the government has shown it cannot be trusted.”

Feelings of alienation are exacerbated by financial hardship. Earning a living from farming has never been more difficult, and not just in the Netherlands. Like their British compatriots, Dutch farmers can’t understand why politicians are hurting their already ailing businesses when they should be offering assistance. Nor is it only farmers who suffer. As cities grow, towns shrink. Provincial populations age and dwindle. Mom-and-pop shops close. Public services — libraries, hospitals, elementary schools, bus lines and police stations — disappear.

Perhaps the most significant dimension of this divide is sociocultural. The countryside distrusts urban liberalism, globalization and technocratization, preferring to stick with “noaberschap,” an untranslatable Dutch provincial term referring to a sense of security and belonging unique to places where everybody knows everybody. City folk, for their part, see noaberschap as archaic and discriminatory (more on that in a moment) and have developed something of a superiority complex regarding the provinces. “East Netherlands,” a co-worker joked when Smouter jumped on his bike: “Good luck finding something of interest over there.”

The movement started in May 2019, when the animal rights group Meat the Victims occupied a pig farm in the town of Boxtel. The second event occurred in September that year, when Parliament introduced the first of several proposals to cut nitrogen emissions. Feeling threatened, farmers responded with mass protests organized through ad hoc advocacy groups like Agractie and Farmers Defense Force. In October of that year, a procession of 2,200 tractors crept along the highway to The Hague, causing chaos for thousands of commuters. Near Zwolle, farmers barricaded a distribution center of the supermarket chain Albert Heijn, preventing 230 locations from restocking their shelves. In Hilversum, just southeast of Amsterdam, they demanded airtime on the national evening news.

“Now it’s our turn,” a BBB candidate told Smouter on the eve of their victory. Still, it’s difficult to tell what the future of the Netherlands will look like, partly because the party that will shape that future is still in the process of inventing itself.

The BBB’s official website paints a rather pleasant picture, not unlike the meadows and windmills that adorn the overpriced tins of filled waffle cookies (stroopwafels) sold at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. The expected items are there, including the need to secure adequate farmland and maintain current levels of food production. But so are tentative plans to create a national care fund, invest in food banks and provide free menstrual hygiene products.

Yet campaign promises can be deceiving and, although the BBB presents itself as moderately conservative — the party of “normal” or “ordinary” people who, as van der Plas puts it, “don’t ask many questions, like to drink beer during the weekend, drive their caravan to France and pay their taxes on time” — it has on occasion flirted with far-right extremism. Its website refers to immigrants as “fortune seekers” who should be “sent back to their own country as quickly as possible” and voted in favor of a motion to “stop accommodating refugees leeching off our welfare state,” introduced by member of Parliament Gidi Markuszower of the PVV, a party headed by the openly anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders. Echoing U.S. Republicans, the BBB wants to prohibit “teachers from spreading their ideologies,” whatever they may be, and set up hotlines so students and parents can report them if they do. Additionally, universities should go back to reinstate Dutch as the official language of higher education in the country and limit their number of international students who study in English.

Aside from revealing the dark, exclusionary side of noaberschap (in which community is contingent on conformity), this nationalist sentiment spells trouble for a world where Russian and, to a lesser extent, Chinese aggression requires a united and interconnected Europe. In May, van der Plas refused to join the rest of the Dutch government in welcoming Volodymyr Zelenskyy because the Ukrainian president’s visit coincided with the Dutch Remembrance of the Dead, a day, she tweeted, in which “we commemorate OUR war victims. THAT is what #May 4 is about! Not Zelenskyy. I don’t understand why this visit must happen NOW.”

The decision attracted a wave of criticism. The liberal opinion writer Sander Schimmelpenninck, a longtime critic of the BBB and its values, called van der Plas and her supporters “exasperatingly spoiled. Everything has to revolve around you, your reversed flag, your rancor and your meatball.”

More than anything, the BBB has the potential to seriously obstruct the country’s battle against climate change. Even if the party proves willing and able to engage in productive conversation with the political establishment, this won’t change the fact that, ultimately, you cannot fight global warming without also cutting down on agriculture. While extensive and structured government aid can help Dutch farmers reform their business operations and even change career paths, this effort will only go so far because, for many of them, farming is not just a profession but a way of life, a core part of their identity they won’t give up easily, especially now that they are finally being represented in The Hague.

“Nitrogen targets from Brussels must be met,” Van de Ven concludes. “It’s as simple as that. However, there is a chance the timeline will be pushed around a bit,” he says, referring to European Union targets, the deadlines of which are imposed by individual countries.

The rise of the BBB has led parties previously committed to meeting the current deadline of 2030 — including Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD — to question the date or avoid the issue altogether so as not to alienate voters.

Although the BBB is now the biggest party in the Netherlands, it won’t be in complete control. As several studies have already pointed out, the country didn’t bear witness to a surge in conservatism so much as a rearrangement of conservatism itself, with the BBB luring voters away from other, older right-leaning parties like the PVV, VVD and Forum for Democracy, or FVD. Such rearrangements are not uncommon. The FVD, populist and Euroskeptic, scored a comparably astounding victory in the provincial elections of 2019, but gradually lost influence as the years went by. The same was true of the Pim Fortuyn List, also populist and Euroskeptic, at the start of the millennium. Maybe the BBB, unable to harness rural discontent, will meet a similar fate. Maybe it won’t. For the time being, however, the Dutch flags they display will have blue on top, followed by white and red, instead of the actual red, white and blue configuration.

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