Opinion | Why Dutch Farmers Turned Their Flag Upside Down

GOUDA, the Netherlands — In the fields around where I live, in the countryside near Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the flags are flying the right way up again.

For months, farmers flew the Dutch tricolor upside down to protest government plans to cut nitrogen emissions in half by 2030 by reducing the number of livestock in the country by a third. The government warned that there could be compulsory buyouts; the farmers lit bales of hay on fire, blocked roads with manure and blockaded government buildings in The Hague with tractors.

The public was irritated by some of the protesters’ tactics, but the movement itself generated widespread support. Enough that a couple of weeks ago, the Farmer Citizen Movement, known by its Dutch acronym BBB, unexpectedly triumphed in provincial elections here, sweeping aside established parties to become the largest party in the Senate. The future of the government’s plan is suddenly uncertain.

In some ways the Netherlands might seem particularly vulnerable to this outcome: It is a small, agriculture-rich country with a fragmented, multiparty system — there are more than 15 parties in parliament — which makes it relatively easy for an outsider to create a new party and get some national attention. Mark Rutte, the center-right prime minister, has been in power since 2010, so it was equally easy to argue that a change was needed.

But in other important ways, the Netherlands looks like a test case. There have been tractor blockades in Dublin, Berlin and Brussels over similar plans. And pledges to get to net-zero emissions by the middle of this century are going to mean enormous changes for farms and farmers almost everywhere.

For some, the Dutch farmers are a portent of the fights to come. For others — those at the sharp end of reforms and some on the far right — they have become a celebrated symbol of resistance.

Farming occupies a particularly important place in the Dutch psyche. Toward the end of World War II the Dutch suffered through the “Hongerwinter” (Hunger Winter), a famine that killed thousands of people and left many more scrabbling to survive. A national postwar effort to build up the agricultural sector was wildly successful: Despite the country’s being about the size of Maryland, the value of its agricultural exports is second only to the United States.

In a country with more than 100 million cows, pigs and chickens — and around 17 million people — nobody lives more than a short train ride from farmland. And for years “Boer Zoekt Vrouw”(“Farmer Seeks Wife”) was a popular reality TV show in which farmers sought wives or husbands to join them in their rural idyll. Windmills and cows featured prominently.

But the Netherlands, despite being a world leader in efficient agriculture, produced around 11 million tonnes of nitrous oxide in 2019, that same year its Supreme Court ruled that the country was in breach of European Union nature laws. The government’s plan — telling farms to reduce their emissions or move, close or be bought out — was the proposed solution.

Food and energy prices here, as in the rest of Europe, have increased since the start of the war in Ukraine. Inflation last year was more than 11 percent. The fight with the farmers was the latest in a series of legal battles that had led the Dutch government to cap the number of flights from the country’s largest airport and reduce speed limits on highways. When the government insisted on making another unpopular environmental policy a priority at a time when many people were struggling to pay their bills, it created a space that the BBB rushed to fill.

For many Dutch farmers, the fight is not ideological, and the BBB cast itself as the voice of rural interests against an urban elite that can’t tell a Hereford from a Holstein. “People in the Netherlands work very hard, want to live affordably, and in the weekend just want to drink a beer together,” the party’s leader, Caroline van der Plas, a former journalist, said in a recent campaign video.

The party has pushed back against being described as far right, but some on the right thought they recognized fellow travelers: Last summer, Donald Trump told a rally in Florida that the farmers were “courageously opposing the climate tyranny of the Dutch government.” Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally, also tweeted her support. Poland’s agriculture minister, a member of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, met with the farmers in Warsaw and endorsed their cause.

After the election Mr. Rutte reportedly canceled a weekly lunch with his deputies to break bread with the BBB. The government spent much of last week in crisis talks debating whether the emissions plans should be watered down or put on hold.

For Europe, the backlash might just be beginning. A few weeks ago, farmers from Belgium’s northern Flanders region blockaded central Brussels with tractors to protest a regional plan to reduce emissions. “Proud to be a farmer,” read one of the signs.

Ben Coates (@bencoates1) is a columnist for Algemeen Dagblad, a Dutch daily newspaper, and the author of “Why the Dutch Are Different.”

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