Written by Daemon Ortega Froysa
This past June of 2022 has seen a resurgence in the farmers protests that defined Dutch national politics in late 2019 (“Thousands of Dutch farmers protest”, 2022; “Weer een week vol boerenprotest”, 2019). Thousands of Dutch agricultural workers have once more taken to the streets in protest of government policies they claim threaten their livelihoods (Boztas, 2022a). These are but the continuation of a long string of anti-government protests that have broken out across Europe in the past several years—including but not limited to the ‘yellow vest’ movement and the many COVID protests—highlighting a dissatisfaction certain portions of the population have with how their leaders handle crises (“Global Protest Tracker”, 2022). Each has a similar root, that being a sense of betrayal felt as their governments enact policies detrimental to their livelihoods and day-to-day living (Cigainero, 2018; Fleck, 2021; “Global Protest Tracker”, 2022; Höppner, 2021; “‘Yellow vest’ movement explained”, 2018). The recent farmers protests in the Netherlands are based on similar premises, this time due to an attempt at emissions reductions by the Dutch government that might see thousands of farmers lose their jobs.
Scratching the surface: the measures & their controversy
The policy in question was introduced in 2021, which calls for a steep reduction to nitrogen emissions in Natura 2000 sites—40% by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 74% by 2035 (Official Gazette of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 2021; Pole, 2022). This policy included a stipulation that the government must produce a plan for reducing nitrogen emissions in the designated areas within two years, prompting the government and provincial governments to begin looking into the most effective methods of nitrogen reduction (Official Gazette of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 2021, p.3). On June 10th 2022, the government presented their plan to the country, sparking outrage at the grave measures they plan on employing.
The government proposal consists of a targeted reduction of ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the agricultural industry (Rijksoverheid, 2022; Van der Wal-Zeggelink, 2022). Reductions to emissions vary from 12–70%, and within Natura 2000 areas they can reach upwards of 95% (Van der Hoek, 2022; Van der Wal-Zeggelink, 2022). To achieve this, the current livestock number will need to be reduced by 30%, and farmers will have to radically “modernise” their techniques or accept a buy-out by the government (Boztas, 2021; Rijksoverheid, 2022; Sterling & Perrett, 2022). The government has budgeted €7.5 billion for this buy-out scheme, yet even this is not projected to be enough according to some scientists like Alfons Beldman, who claim that the sum may not be sufficient to buy out even a couple thousand of the 20,000 existing farms in the country (Nijland & Janssen, 2022; Van der Hoek, 2022).
The government has preempted calls for exploring alternative options by making clear that they have already investigated the sources of the country’s emissions, finding that the vast majority is emitted by the agricultural sector (Provincie Gelderland, 2021, pp.32, 87; “Stikstofemissies naar lucht”, n.d.). Based on these numbers it is clear that if the government wants to reach their stipulated 40-50-74% goal they must target the sector most responsible for emissions: agriculture. Alternative sectors see only marginal improvements to the emissions, such as the controversial 2019 regulation capping daytime speeds on roads to 100km/h (Boffey, 2019; “Stikstofemissies naar lucht”, n.d.). In short, the drastic measures announced on June 10th are born out of a lack of other viable options, and the government was doubtless aware of the outrage they would create among farmers and the wider public.
Protests erupted in mid June across the country, driving tractors on highways and causing traffic disruptions (“Thousands of Dutch farmers protest”, 2022). The concern from protesting farmers is primarily that the new measures will threaten their livelihoods, forcing them to accept a buy-out—that is, lose their jobs—or to “modernise their techniques”, which lacks specificity and is something many farmers have already been doing (Pole, 2022; Sterling & Perrett, 2022; “Thousands of Dutch farmers protest”, 2022). Requirements surrounding the reduction of fertiliser and the thinning of livestock numbers have also drawn criticism from protesters, who paint the requirements as unrealistic and damaging to their professions (Pole, 2022). Furthermore, they claim that farmers are being unfairly targeted with the regulations, insisting that other sectors could be targeted as well to spread the burden (Pole, 2022). According to a spokesman for the agricultural organisation LTO, “rural communities will be totally devastated economically” as a result of the measures, putting into sharp focus how dire the situation is for rural communities in the country (Sterling & Perrett, 2022).
Nevertheless, the government will be going ahead with these policies, and no signal has been given that they intend on withdrawing the measures. Their argument remains that this reduction to emissions is necessary to preserve the quality of soil by preventing acidification, thus ensuring the long-term survival of Dutch agriculture (Rijksoverheid, 2022). Prime Minister Mark Rutte also made clear that the country would be wrapped up in legal proceedings if they did not meet the emissions targets, so it bears exploring where those legal difficulties stem from in the first place (Rijksoverheid, 2022).
Between a rock and a hard place: court rulings on nitrogen emissions
In 2019 the Dutch Administrative Court of the Council of State decreed that the government had not been sufficiently doing their duty to reduce nitrogen emissions, making clear that the prior Nitrogen Action Program (PAS) was inadequate (Wedzerai, 2021). Whether or not the government had a deep-seeded concern for the environment, this court ruling forced them to abandon their prior strategy, and begin forming alternatives, directly leading to the later measures we are familiar with today.
PAS itself was an attempt by the government at promoting economic development within the scope of nitrogen emissions limits (“Nitrogen”, n.d.). It required the government to appropriately measure the impact of those new emissions on Natura 2000 sites as stipulated under the Birds and Habitats Directive, only allowing new projects if their nitrogen impact was within the emissions limit for the sites (“Vogel- en Habitatrichtlijn”, 2022). With the court’s ruling in 2019, the government had to find alternative options, as PAS was simply not doing its job of protecting Natural 2000 areas, which the Netherlands is legally required to preserve according to European Union (EU) law.
Digging deeper: Natura 2000, EU law, and pollutants
Natura 2000 consists of a network of nature preserves across the EU where animals and fauna are preserved for the sake of protecting biodiversity (“Nitrogen”, n.d.; “The Natura 2000 protected areas network”, 2021). Protecting these sites in accordance with the EU program includes ensuring that nitrogen levels in the designated regions do not exceed a certain limit, as they pollute the area and do harm to the wildlife in the sites. Unlike carbon dioxide, which disperses into the general atmosphere and contributes to the Greenhouse Effect, nitrogen oxide emissions pollute the surrounding area, creating respiratory problems, smog, acid rain, ground-level ozone, and a host of other health-threatening issues (“Understanding the Difference Between CO2 and NOx”, 2018). Therefore, when a region is designated a Natura 2000 site, the government of that country must agree to limit such dangerous levels of nitrogen.
That being said, an essential aspect of note about the Natura 2000 program is that member states voluntarily submit regions of their choosing, and do not have regions of their country submitted without their consent (“Natura 2000 sites designation”, n.d.). This is to say, Natura 2000 is a voluntary program which member states enter into of their own volition—nothing is imposed on them. Furthermore, member states are compensated via EU funding available with the program (Kettunen et al., 2014). With this full context the situation in the Netherlands takes on a different light. That is, the Dutch government apparently bit off more than they could chew as far as Natura 2000 sites go, lacking a realistic plan of how they would go about following through with those site designations.
Reflecting on EU voluntary programs
From the perspective of the European Union, the situation with Dutch farmers and Natura 2000 sites could represent a danger. Without careful consideration of the law at play, it may appear that the EU is enforcing socially and financially damaging environmental regulations onto its member states, causing the loss of jobs and the destruction of livelihoods. Beyond mere Euroscepticism, it also generates broad instability, which has been capitalised on by populist movements across Europe (Boztas, 2022b; “Dutch farmer protests reap popular support”, 2022; Gijs & Brzezinski, 2022).
From the national government’s perspective, this situation allows for a convenient “out” that can be blamed for the developing difficulties: the European Union itself. It is a well-known fact that politicians—whether explicitly Eurosceptic or not—often blame the EU when issues arise at the national level (Heinkelmann-Wild, 2020). The Union is simply too distant from the people compared to national governments to offer a compelling and well-heard counter-narrative. In the case of the Dutch farmers protests the Dutch government has a ripe opportunity to subtly shift blame to the EU for the current difficulties, assuming that the layman would not dig deep enough into the policies to know that Natura 2000 site designation is voluntary.
This raises the question of whether EU-level voluntary programs are fundamentally flawed. To borrow a principle from economics, such programs assume that member states are ‘rational actors’—that they will only submit sites for which they have a realistic plan of managing emissions. As seen in the Netherlands, this assumption is not necessarily true, and can even backfire quite spectacularly. Beyond creating difficulties for overzealous member states, it has the possibility of allowing those same members to shift blame on the EU for their own mistakes. This merely gives ammunition to Eurosceptics and populists—as is being increasingly seen with the farmers protests—who will use these opportunities to lambast the Union (Gijs & Brzezinski, 2022; Heinkelmann-Wild, 2020).
Assuming that EU-level voluntary programs are flawed in this manner, it may be in the EU’s interest to reform such programs so that they are not self-undermining. Alternatively, the EU could invest in developing its own method of direct communication with European citizens to offer counter-narratives to ones proposed by Eurosceptic populists and/or member states. The assumption of rationality in member states has led to a difficult situation for the EU to deal with, as more and more protests have risen up across the continent (Gijs & Brzezinski, 2022). It will be up to the EU to either accept this instability as an unfortunate byproduct of their voluntary programs, or to enact reform to pre-empt such vulnerability.
Image credits: “Farmer’s protest in The Hague 1 October 2019. The sign reads in Dutch: “Use your common sense, keep the farmers in our land”” Kees torn / (CC BY-SA 4.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en