17 May 2024, 11:28
Milou Dirkx

Farmers’ interests in focus as populists enter Dutch government

BBB party leader Caroline van der Plas. Photo: Sjoerd Luidinga

After months of negotiations, politicians in the Netherlands reached a deal to form a new government that will include populist parties: the nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV) and the agrarian-populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB). The plans they have presented put farmers' interests above environmental action, and emphasise energy security and climate adaptation. The PVV and BBB tend to pit rural areas and farmers against political elites in big cities and the EU. With populist parties coming to power at the national level, it remains to be seen whether their strong rhetoric translates into policy and action, researchers say.

In short

Populist parties in the Netherlands

  • The Netherlands has a long history of populist influence. Two populist parties – the far-right nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV) and the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) – enter the national cabinet for the first time. They are set to govern together with two right-wing parties: the conservative New Social Contract (NSC) and the liberal, pro-business People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) – the party that had led the last four cabinets under the leadership of Mark Rutte. The BBB is currently also part of ten provincial coalitions.

Populists’ impact on climate efforts

  • The PVV and BBB are entering into a national coalition, which means that populist parties get governing power on a national level for the first time in recent years. Their coalition accord, drafted up with NSC and VVD, aims to relax environmental regulations for farmers; supports plans for four new nuclear power plants; aims to expand domestic fossil gas extraction in the North Sea and to strengthen climate change adaptation; and stipulates an increase of the speed limit on motorways. Implementation of these plans is set to face numerous hurdles.

Key climate issues in the 2024 EU election in the Netherlands

  • The PVV is expected to become the largest party in the Netherlands in the European Parliament elections with nine seats out of 31 (of 720 seats in total), an Ipsos poll suggested. In second place is the alliance between the Greens and the Social Democrats (GroenLinks – PvdA), estimated at six seats. Climate action is among the highest priorities for Dutch voters when considering the future of the EU, coming second along with democratic values and after defence and security, according to the latest Eurobarometer survey.

As populist parties are set to enter the national government in the Netherlands, their campaign demands in agriculture, climate and energy policy leave a clear mark on the coalition agreement. While a more restrictive migration policy dominated international headlines in the hours after the deal was struck, the incoming government also puts a clear focus on protecting farmers’ interests, securing domestic nuclear energy and gas supplies, and adapting to the effects of climate change.

On 15 May, election winner PVV, the populist far-right party led by Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders announced a coalition deal with the BBB, the NSC and the VVD.

Wilders's more extreme campaign demands, such as pulling the country out of the Paris Climate Agreement or halting onshore wind power expansion, did not make it into the coalition agreement, and the four parties made it clear that the Netherlands will stick to the internationally agreed climate targets.

However, the incoming government would aim to refrain from introducing more ambitious national goals. The parties support plans for building four new nuclear power plants and expanding domestic fossil gas extraction in the North Sea. They also plan to strengthen climate change adaptation and want to increase the speed limit on motorways. They promise to relax environmental regulations for farmers, reject any “forced” reduction of livestock numbers, and aim to ensure cheaper diesel fuel for farmers. They want to dismiss a CO2 tax proposed by the outgoing climate minister, which would make big polluters pay extra on top of EU-regulated CO2 prices.

Key climate and energy proposals in the coalition agreement

  • At least two new nuclear power plants, with plans to build four in total
  • More domestic gas extraction in the North Sea
  • Stronger focus on climate adaptation by creating more space for rivers and investing in dykes
  • No national carbon tax
  • Abolish outgoing government's plans for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
  • Raising the speed limit on motorways to 130 km/h
  • Scrapping the obligation to install a heat pump when replacing a boiler from 2026


  • Decreasing the number of nature protected areas to provide relief for farmers and other economic actors
  • Widening the maximum amount of manure allowed
  • Offering discounts on diesel for farmers, gardeners and contract workers

Nature and nitrogen

  • Removing from the law the so-called critical deposition value, a standard for the maximum nitrogen runoff allowed in a nature area
  • Activities with low nitrogen emissions should be allowed again
  • Reform and water down certain provisions in the EU Nitrates Directive

“There will be breathing space for our farmers and fishers again,” Wilders said at a press conference presenting the plans. The four parties were “making history” with their coalition, and his own party the PVV was set to enter the cabinet – “the centre of power.” On 22 May, the coalition plans will be discussed in the House of Representatives and an independent intermediary will be chosen. This person, almost always the prospective prime minister, will then start looking for ministers and state secretaries. Who will become prime minister is not clear yet.

It also remains to be seen whether the populist parties will turn their words into action now that they are set to govern. Researchers say that EU rules make it unlikely that some of the provisions in the coalition agreement are implemented.

From protests to politics – Agrarian populism

Congratulatory messages from far-right parties came from all over Europe after the PVV won the Dutch national elections in November 2023. Party leader Wilders, whose blond hair and far-right ideals have earned him the nickname "Dutch Donald Trump," has since then led the coalition negotiations. Wilders abandoned his bid to become prime minister due to pressure from his coalition partners, which is unusual: the last time the largest party did not provide the prime minister was over 40 years ago. The PVV has a long history of denying climate science and argues that climate measures are unnecessary as well as too expensive for the average citizen. The three other parties are not as extreme in their rejection of climate action, but one partner in particular – the BBB – has farmers’ interests at the top of its agenda.

Protesting farmers driving tractors have become a familiar sight across Europe in recent months, and the Netherlands is no exception. Agricultural workers took to the streets in the country in 2019 when a plan to halve livestock numbers was proposed by the then-cabinet to counter high nitrogen deposition damaging Dutch nature reserves. That same year, a marketing agency that also represents large agribusinesses founded the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB). In 2023, the party achieved a major electoral breakthrough by becoming the first ever to win the majority of votes in every single province during the provincial elections. Currently, it is part of the coalition in ten out of twelve provinces.

Although a small country, the Netherlands is a huge food producer: it is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products. This leads to high nitrogen emissions that pollute land, water and air. Due to these emissions, the Netherlands struggles to meet the EU Nitrates Directive, which aims to reduce water pollution caused by nitrates used in agriculture.

Agricultural reform has long been a polarising issue in the country. There have been many divisive debates about limiting the number of livestock or the buyout of farms by the government. If land gets bought, provinces can decide what happens with it but no new livestock is allowed to be kept there to reduce nitrogen emissions.

The BBB is an agrarian-populist party, explains Sarah de Lange, a professor of political pluralism at the University of Amsterdam. “This means they create an opposition between two groups, a political elite and the common people. For the BBB, this opposition is mainly found between the cosmopolitan cities on the one hand and the more conservative rural and more peripheral areas of the Netherlands on the other,” she told Clean Energy Wire.

In political debates, “the BBB mainly represents the interests of large agribusinesses and less those of small farmers, who want to switch to organic farming,” according to de Lange. “They side with the big farms and defend their interests when it comes to manure emissions, animal living conditions and investments in technology. They claim that there is no need to limit the number of farms and that technological innovations can solve agriculture-induced emissions. They really represent a specific kind of agricultural sector and a specific view of the agricultural sector,” she said.

Agriculture, fisheries and horticulture receive special attention in the coalition agreement. “Our farmers, market gardeners and fishermen should be cherished because they are important for our food supply, and are an inseparable part of our Dutch culture,” the parties write. The coalition accord states that there will be no forced reduction of livestock and that they aim to introduce farm-specific emission targets, allowing farmers to determine for themselves how to meet them. The parties also aim to reform and water down certain provisions in the EU Nitrates Directive – an undertaking with high hurdles, as such a reform would have to be part of a difficult and lengthy EU legislative process. The outgoing cabinet went to Brussels several times to negotiate exceptions to manure and nature rules but were never successful. 

A year after the provincial elections, the BBB's influence in the energy transition is palpable, although it also had to make many compromises. The party opposed the use of agricultural land for solar panels in all ten provinces in which they are part of the coalition. Earlier this year, the outgoing government included this in national policy, making it possible only in very exceptional cases. The BBB also opposes new wind projects on land, but in half of the provinces it governs, plans have been made to install new wind turbines. This to the dismay of local BBB politicians, but they are tied by previously concluded regional agreements.

The incoming coalition now says it will favour offshore wind expansion over onshore wind parks “as much as possible,” seeking “a careful balance” with the needs of the fisheries sector.

Another hot potato is whether government buyouts of farms to reduce nitrogen emissions should be mandatory or voluntary. One of the BBB's main campaign issues was that this should never be mandatory, and this is now enshrined in the newly adopted coalition agreement. However, the province of South Holland, where the BBB is part of the coalition, has agreed to allow this as a last resort to create and connect nature reserves.

A spat with the European Commission also arose over this issue last year. BBB leader Caroline van der Plas criticised Diederik Samsom, then head of the cabinet of European commissioner Wopke Hoekstra, when he recommended mandatory farm buyouts. Van der Plas said that Samsom was not a “representative of the people” and that “we keep hearing that Brussels is angry, and that is why we are not allowed to do anything anymore.” However, it is up to the member states how they implement European directives, such as the one limiting nitrogen emissions to reduce water pollution.

Farmers' protests in the Netherlands. Picture: Hans Splinter

EU targets will keep the Netherlands in check – researcher

To make the new coalition government work, Wilders's PVV was forced to abandon its most extreme campaign demands on climate policy, such as abolishing the country's climate law, pulling it out of the Paris Agreement, and halting wind power expansion.

The populists entering the government “will not mean to abolish climate policy,” energy researcher and author Remco de Boer told Clean Energy Wire. He does not expect the country to breach its international promises or European targets. When Wilders and the PVV cooperated with Rutte's first minority cabinet from 2010 to 2012, the government set quite ambitious decarbonisation targets for 2020, allowing the country to fulfil EU requirements, de Boer recalled. "The Netherlands has its European commitments, and regardless of which parties will govern in what form or composition, there is no reason to believe that the government will not see these European targets as binding. The real question is whether they decide to be more ambitious as they have been in the past.”

According to the coalition agreement, the parties decided against upping their ambitions. The text says that they will stick to the existing climate agreements. However, “only if we fail to meet the targets will we make alternative policies,” the parties write, adding that the Netherlands would not introduce more ambitious targets than those adopted at the EU level.

Climate and energy future with many questions

Researchers say that populists tend to come up with simplistic, non-plausible policy proposals. Now that two populist parties are coming to power, their proposals must be upgraded from political slogans to implemented measures. The PVV, the BBB and their coalition partners all want to invest in building new nuclear power plants and make use of domestic natural gas reserves in the North Sea. Implementing these plans is set to face many hurdles though.

The outgoing cabinet already made plans for building two new nuclear power plants and the coalition accord envisions two additional ones, though their costs and feasibility remain unclear. During the negotiations it became clear that the two new plants would be almost three times more expensive than originally estimated. Moreover, grid operator TenneT has warned of power cuts, saying that more than one new nuclear power plant could overload the grid.

The future of domestic gas extraction is likewise uncertain. After 60 years, gas extraction in Groningen, one of the most densely populated extraction areas in the world, the Dutch government decided to end gas extraction in 2023 due to induced earthquakes and damage to houses. The incoming coalition intends to keep the field closed. However, since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing energy crisis, the country's domestic gas reserves have gained in importance to secure supply. The four coalition parties thus say that “gas extraction in the North Sea will be scaled up.”

Still, a recent court case threw a spanner in the expansion plans. The installation of a gas extraction platform had to be stopped because marine mammals would be insufficiently protected from noise pollution, the court said. It added that the proposed nitrogen compensation method – the purchase of nitrogen rights from three farms to compensate for nitrogen emissions released from the installation of a new platform – was “incorrect”.

Another issue facing the new cabinet is fossil fuel subsidies, which the outgoing government had promised to phase out after years of protests by the Extinction Rebellion activist group. The coalition agreement says that the new government will follow the EU’s lead, which does not surprise researcher de Boer. “This government is unlikely to abolish subsidies sooner and will fall in line with European or international standards.” This is likely to lead to new protests.

What the new government in the Netherlands means for the EU’s climate efforts could soon become clear, when the member states open the discussion about the union's 2040 climate target in earnest. The PVV, BBB and NSC have recently spoken out against an ambitious target because, according to the PVV, there are already “enough climate targets.” BBB lawmaker Henk Vermeer said that “Dutch people want to keep flying, eat meat and don't want wind farms nearby.”

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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