Smoldering hay bales and tractor-ravaged police cars foreshadow a civil war. In the week in which the farmers’ protests turned into brutal violence for the first time in years, speculating about this was no longer taboo in the House of Representatives. The Netherlands is “like a volcano that is about to erupt,” said PVV leader Geert Wilders on Thursday. Caroline van der Plas of the BoerBurgerBeweging taught as an accomplished historian that revolutions usually started with a peasant revolt. “I have warned about it before,” said Van der Plas. “There is a lot of sleep.”
Last week, understanding of the peasant anger gave way to a sharp condemnation of violence and intimidation among parties from left to right. Politicians want to set a clear boundary now that visiting ministers and MPs at home is the order of the day, police vans are being worked with demolition hammers, and angry farmers wanted to take the law into their own hands by freeing arrested colleagues from prison in Apeldoorn. At the same time, The Hague is grappling with the dilemma between taking tougher action and de-escalating.
The character of the farmers’ protests changed this week, says Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, professor of social change and conflict at the VU University Amsterdam. The farmers’ organizations still joined forces at the big manifestation in Stroe last week. “That was a positively pitched action, with a strong undertone,” says Van Stekelenburg. When the nitrogen plans did not change substantially a day later in the parliamentary debate, the farmers’ coalition fell apart. “The feeling became: nice such a moderate sound, but we are not listened to that way. Then the radical flanks came into action.”
Professor of law and society Jan Brouwer (University of Groningen) also sees radicalisation. “What is very worrying is that the degree of organization is decreasing. Agricultural organizations such as LTO are no longer able or hardly able to manage and farmers incite each other in online groups to increasingly extreme actions.” Van Stekelenburg sees that radical anti-government demonstrators, who previously demonstrated against the corona policy, are joining the farmers. “They see in what happens to the farmers the proof for the idea: the government puts a noose around our neck, we are curtailed in our freedom.”
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Politicians always emphasize: it is only a very small part of the farmers that causes the riots. “Certainly not all farmers are rioters,” emphasized SGP party chairman Kees van der Staaij in the House. Right and left have changed tone in the peasant debate: where it is often left-wing parties who want to understand the underlying causes of riots, they now show much less understanding. In the parliamentary debate, PvdA leader Attje Kuiken rejected talks with “scum” that should be “tackled” hard.
Local action is already being taken more vigorously. The municipality of Harderwijk instituted an emergency ordinance on two occasions this week around the home of Minister Christianne van der Wal (VVD). The police made more than ten arrests this week, the Public Prosecution Service is using speedy justice where possible. There are concrete concerns about next Monday, the day that farmers would like to ‘flatten’ the country by, among other things, going to airports and the port of Rotterdam. Is more display of power by the state necessary to put an end to the disruption?
Large-scale violence on the part of the police can be better prevented, thinks Otto Adang, lecturer in Public Order & Hazard Management at the Police Academy. “Farmers can then say that they are not only victims of nitrogen policy, but also of police brutality. That has a huge mobilizing effect and is exactly the effect you don’t want to have.”
Not by itself
The cabinet can hope that the actions will naturally decrease and the support of the population will dwindle, as was the case at the beginning of 2020 after the previous wave of farmers’ protests. Then the corona crisis suddenly attracted all the attention, now nitrogen promises to remain the political theme for months to come, with the Provincial Council elections coming up in March next year.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Rutte (VVD) went along with the House’s suggestion to investigate the appointment of an independent mediator, who should remove the tensions between the government and farmers. The cabinet is open to dialogue, Rutte said, but subject to conditions: it does not want to sit down with rioters and the target agreed in the coalition to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030 cannot be tampered with. While the activist farmers want the entire nitrogen plan off the table.
These are two so different positions that the question in advance is whether a mediator, no matter how skilled, can bring government and farmers back together. Even if that succeeds, the radical peasant flank is unlikely to accept a compromise just like that.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of 2 July 2022
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