The victory of the Dutch farmers’ party is a warning signal to the EU

The victory of the Dutch “farmers’ party” BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) in the Provincial Council elections was even bigger than expected. According to the latest seat projections, from almost nothing, the party would gain 17 of the 75 seats in the Dutch Senate.

We will not know the final composition of the Upper House until the end of May. After all, it is the Provincial Council members who determine its composition then. Sometimes they vote strategically for coalition colleagues in order to maintain majorities, and those majorities will now be formed.

Even though the Senate has less power than the Lower House, and it cannot, for example, amend bills, the institution is still needed to pass laws. The Rutte IV cabinet – consisting of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right VVD, Sigrid Kaag’s center-left D66, the Christian Democratic CDA and the Christian Union – did not have a majority in the Upper House anyway, but with 32 seats it was only six seats short of the required majority of 38. Finding a few opposition votes was not so hard.

The end of Rutte IV?

According to some projections, the cabinet would now fall back to 22 to 23 seats, with the social democratic PVDA and the Greens bringing in 14 to 15 seats. Both parties – soon perhaps to be merged – have already suggested to Rutte to support him – subject to concessions – in the Upper House. As a result, it will be very tight for the government to survive until March 2025, when the next elections to the Lower House are due.

With some political horse-trading with the provincial coalitions, Rutte might still manage to win an extra seat or two, and who knows, he might also take advantage of the two seats of the Euro-federalist party Volt, but having many losers in government is not a healthy situation. Mark Rutte himself expressed doubts before the elections as to whether his coalition will last, and many observers think it is unlikely.

Resistance to technocracy

In any case, it is clear that in the Netherlands “anti-establishment” sentiment has been on the rise for 20 years. In 2002, Pim Fortuyn’s formation scored 17 per cent, Geert Wilders convinced 15 per cent of voters in 2010, and in 2019, more than 20 per cent of Dutch people voted for either Wilders or Thierry Baudet’s party. However, the latter had a more moderate centre-right profile in 2019, and now lost a lot of voters.

If one adds the scores of the latter two parties on 15 March to the scores of the Farmers Party and the centre-right JA21, one sees that in these elections, a third of the electorate voted for anti-establishment parties that radically oppose the kind of technocracy that is often emanating from the EU, with its nitrogen measures, massive subsidies to shut down farms, prohibitively expensive new energy requirements for housing and – not to mention – a particularly restrictive regulatory framework for asylum policy, which is losing more and more popular support.

In an interview, the leader of the Farmers’ Party, former agricultural journalist Caroline van der Plas – also known as “Lientje” – stated that her party had not been elected solely on the basis of opposition to the nitrogen policy, but primarily because of opposition to “technocratic policies” of all stripes, by which she was clearly referring to the aforementioned environmental and migration policies.

Nitrogen discussions at the Brussels policy level

It would be wrong to blame the nitrogen debacle unilaterally on the European Union – a huge number of mistakes were also made nationally – but fundamentally, a turnaround at the EU policy level is the necessary condition to end the overly strict nitrogen rules.

After all, the nature areas designated by member states, an EU requirement, are “definitively and irrevocably” fixed. It is extremely difficult to scrap an area’s Natura 2000 status. The European Court of Justice only allows the removal of nature sites under two conditions: when there has been a scientific error in the allocation of a site or when a site can no longer contribute to achieving the objectives of the Birds and Habitats Directives, because it has been swallowed by the sea, for example.

Already back in 2020, former Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, then chairman of the Dutch construction industry, advocated that Prime Minister Rutte should go to Brussels to talk about Natura 2000 areas, stating, “Natural areas must be more robust and less vulnerable” and “Use your veto”.

‘Nitrogen professor’ Jan Willem Erisman of Leiden University also already suggested something along these lines last summer. He said, “In the short term, you simply have to meet your European obligations to conserve nature, and that includes rigorous nitrogen policy. But for the longer term, you have to enter the discussion in Brussels: which nature is essential? When it comes to the Wadden Sea, no one will doubt. But a small area near Germany, with species that can be found across the border in much greater numbers, do you have to keep that up at all costs?”

Half-hearted attempts by the Dutch government to plead for more flexibility with the European Commission in Brussels were met with a “no” last autumn. However, on top of that, the political reality is that Mark Rutte has no desire at all to start arguing in Brussels, not just because the increasingly left-leaning D66 does not want to, but because the Netherlands will then also need to make concessions to other EU member states on other topics, as they will of course be only too happy to use these Dutch demands in a negotiating game.

It should be a good lesson not to be too quick to say “yes” to EU policy-making in Brussels from now on, and to keep a sharp eye on officials and politicians when agreeing all kinds of things with colleagues from other EU member states, which are then “fixed” in an EU framework for years to come.

A democratic mandate

First and foremost, however, the whole nitrogen issue must now be resolved once and for all, and that can only be done by taking the bull by the horns and, if necessary, provoking a major crisis at EU policy level over it. Both the Netherlands and Belgium, where nitrogen restrictions are also facing massive opposition in the Flemish part, are net contributors to the EU budget, and the cost of nitrogen policy is running extremely high.

To estimate the cost, one should not only look at the already gigantic 25 billion reserved by the Netherlands or the 5 billion euros the Flemish taxpayer will need to foot. According to Algemeen Dagblad, “the ultimate damage will be much higher. This is because the [25 billion euro] Transition Fund is not the only money that can be spent on measures. In addition, the costs for the Dutch economy, for example through delayed housing construction, will continue to increase.” If one does not take action at EU level now, one should never do it.

Turnout at this week’s Dutch elections was at its highest level in 30 years, at more than 60 per cent, so the Dutch voter gave a particularly strong democratic mandate to put things in order. Mark Rutte may of course try to drag himself to the end of his career by finding extra support from leftwing parties, but ultimately, this warning signal from Dutch voters will be very hard to ignore.