Anyone who drives from the border near Emmerich on the Dutch A12 motorway in the direction of the North Sea coast will inevitably notice it: upside down flags, sometimes as banners dozens of meters long next to each other, are standing on the fields - some with slogans like "No farmer, no fodder". or "Proud to be a farmer". In the Netherlands, the flag has become the ultimate symbol of farmers' anger at disagreement with the government's environmental policies.
Although still strongly associated with the peasantry, the upside-down Dutch flag has now become a symbol of outrage across the country - directed against a university-educated urban elite and representing the "common man in the street". “. A culture war in the Netherlands has emerged from the nitrogen crisis. One that created a new party that could emerge as a big winner in the upcoming provincial elections on March 15.
The BauerBurgerMovement (BBB), founded in 2019 by marketers from the agricultural sector, is led by the charismatic former journalist Caroline van der Plas (55). The BBB campaigns for farmers' rights, which they see as 'among the best in the world', for a 'great' Dutch food industry and for farmers to play an important role in nature management.
Van der Plas won a seat in Parliament in the 2021 election and has since increased her awareness through debates and social media posts. More than 11,000 people have already joined the BBB. If parliamentary elections were held now, the BBB could even become the second largest party in the country.
Farmer anger exploded in the autumn of 2019, when a member of parliament for the ruling D66 party, Tjeerd de Groot, said that if the Netherlands were to cut nitrogen emissions sufficiently, Dutch livestock numbers would have to be halved. The main sources of nitrogen in the soil are artificial fertilizers and liquid manure from factory farming.
De Groot's comments shocked the Netherlands, but did not come out of the blue. In May of the same year, nature and environmental organizations won a court case before the highest Dutch administrative court. This ruled that the government's approach to reducing high levels of nitrogen emissions at the time was flawed and in breach of European regulations - and that something had to change.
The European Court of Justice had previously come to the same conclusion. In order to live up to the judgements, nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands had to be reduced significantly. By 2030, 50 percent less nitrogen will have to be emitted nationwide than in 2022. In sensitive natural areas, the prescribed reduction is sometimes as much as 70 percent.
The peasants were outraged. On October 1st, 2019, they marched with 2200 tractors in a mass protest in The Hague, causing the longest morning traffic jam in the history of the Netherlands. Other actions followed later: most were peaceful, but a listed door was knocked out of a provincial house, hay bales were set on fire on highways and several ministers were visited at home by angry farmers.
For years the agricultural sector had been admired both inside and outside the Netherlands. For several years, the small country was the second largest agricultural exporter in the world after the United States, with Germany as the main market. The Netherlands has had a large agricultural sector for decades, but the fact that it has been able to grow so large globally is partly due to the fact that for many years farmers have been encouraged with subsidies to raise livestock and dairy as intensively and on a large scale as possible .
Such “mega barns” naturally emit large amounts of nitrogen: the Netherlands produces by far the largest amount of nitrogen per hectare in Europe, followed by Belgium and Germany. The fact that the farmers are now being identified as the culprits seems logical in view of the numbers, but seems like a betrayal.
A small group felt betrayed to the point of comparing the treatment of farmers to the persecution of Jews during World War II. The radical group Farmers Defense Force (FDF) is behind many tractor protests. The FDF leader branded organizations that continued to negotiate with politicians as traitors and defended a farmer who brought a coffin bearing the name of Green Left leader Jesse Klaver to a demonstration.
Many mainstream parties were unsure how to balance compliance with environmental policies on the one hand and angering farmers on the other. You want to meet the climate policy commitments, but also to satisfy all sectors. Buy-out schemes were set up to compensate farmers, although many farmers refused to accept them. In the future, the government could opt for expropriation, a controversial and thorny option.
The BBB should bring further inflow. On Wednesday, it is also likely to take away a few votes from the previous star of the provincial elections, Thierry Baudet's now far-right Forum for Democracy. Two other right-wing populist parties, the JA21 and the PVV, are in the fast lane, as is the BBB. The BBB also has right-wing populist views and opposes European interference in Dutch agricultural policy. She also advocates a strict migration policy, although, unlike the other Dutch right-wing populist parties, this is not her main issue.
In addition, Caroline van der Plas personally scores with her "ordinary" image of a normal woman trying to use human language - in a political arena where other party leaders are more like robots with media training. This will also score points with citizens who want to see normal people in Dutch politics again.
On Wednesday, the Dutch will elect the people's representatives of the provinces. These then elect the members of the Senate, which examines and approves or rejects the laws – including those on nitrogen. The government does not currently have a majority in the Senate and is unlikely to have one again after March 15. It will then have to rely on the opposition parties to gain a majority, while the BBB and right-wing JA21 and Geert Wilders' PVV are on the winning side in the polls.
The BBB's emerging electoral success cannot be explained solely by the high level of support from farmers. Although Mark Rutte (VVD) has been Prime Minister for almost 13 years, trust in him has fallen sharply: in 2022 it was only 30 percent in a survey. Trust in his cabinet was even lower, at just 20 percent. Many BBB voters and also many participants in the farmer protests are not farmers themselves, but merely "sympathizers". And they are constantly increasing.