The Farmer-Citizen Movement, or BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB), won big in the recent Dutch provincial elections, raking up a whopping 15 of the 75 seats in the Senate. This makes it the strongest party in the Netherlands’ upper chamber, with the ability to undermine the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The BBB was created in 2019, but it gathered popular support after the government decided to cut nitrogen emissions by closing down about a third of Dutch farms.
Last summer, Dutch farmers protested the government’s planned policy by blocking roads and airports, and throwing manure on government officials. The government in The Hague attempts to follow EU guidelines by slashing nitrogen emissions by 50 percent by 2030. Nitrous oxide and methane emissions are byproducts of livestock, for instance, when manure deposes.
The Netherlands — along with Denmark, Ireland and the Flanders region of Belgium — had exemptions on EU manure caps because of their small land areas, but that exemption is set to end for Dutch farmers. Rutte’s government aims to reduce emissions by buying out livestock farmers — even though they have expressed little interest in gift cards.
BBB has faced criticism for its anti-immigration views and hostility toward EU enlargement, but its success in the polls has little to do with a right-wing shift in the Netherlands. In fact, not only did the recent election attract voters who used the provincial election as a poll on the government, but it also was a significant blow to far-right parties who lost big — most severely the Forum for Democracy party.
This leaves the Dutch government with one of two options. Pretend it’s a phase, exploit the fact that this new party will inevitably make errors in communication, and carry on — or change policy. The latter might become inevitable, not merely because the government needs Senate approval for these reduction targets. While Rutte’s coalition can find the votes on the far left, this strategy would come with its own downsides. Green and far-left senators are likely to support the targets but demand even more ambitious goals going forward, which would only aggravate the political climate. Rutte, known as “Teflon Mark” (for his ability to weather multiple political crises), is also confronted with the possibility of members of his own four-party coalition getting cold feet in the process.
The political happenings in the Netherlands are a symptom of what is likely to happen around Europe. Agriculture, a field usually reserved for wonky policy debates and hourlong yawn-inducing committee meetings, is becoming center-stage in Europe’s green ambitions. The farm sector is undeniably responsible for a large part of greenhouse gas emissions, but it has unjustly ended up on the chopping block of simplistic rulemaking.
The Dutch policy of phasing out one-third of farms came from the fact that the only realistic way of cutting emissions reliably would be to severely downsize the aviation and construction sector, neither of which the Netherlands can realistically afford given its economic activity. The decision to target farmers as a last resort is emblematic of the European approach that will create a lot of hostility: It is the perfect story for creating populist movements.
For the past decade, Europe has made far-reaching promises on emissions targets. But now that the EU and its member states face the reality of how those will be achieved, it will likely get ugly.
The “Farm to Fork” strategy of the European Union is experiencing the same fate: the European Commission’s agriculture commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, has said he believes that F2F unfairly puts Eastern European member states at a disadvantage even though he is the person supposed to defend the policies of reducing pesticide, fertilizer and farmland use.
According to an impact assessment conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the strategy would lead to a decline in agricultural production between 7 percent and 12 percent. Meanwhile, the EU’s decline in GDP would represent 76 percent of the decline in the worldwide GDP. This would hit low-income households, which are already suffering from inflation.
The last few years saw the marches of young climate activists who issued ambitious policy wish lists. In the next few years, it will be the marches of those who must pay for them.