How a Marketing Agency Is Using Farmer Protests to Take Over Dutch Politics

The Farmer-Citizen Movement topped last month’s Dutch elections, claiming to stand up for overlooked rural populations. Yet the party is really a creation of a marketing agency — and its political agenda is a call to allow multinationals to go on polluting.

Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging) leader Caroline van der Plas speaks during a brunch at the party office a day after the provincial elections in Colmschate on March 16, 2023. (Sem van der Wal / ANP / AFP via Getty Images)

In last month’s provincial elections, the right-populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) took Dutch politics by storm. It took fifteen seats out of seventy-five, making it the single largest force in the country’s Senate. While the breakthrough had been expected, it was a major blow to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal-conservative coalition government.

The party was established in 2019, following a series of farmer protests. The immediate cause was a ruling by the Dutch Supreme Court that led the government to enforce European Union standards, according to which nitrogen emissions have to be reduced in protected natural areas. The ruling was the consequence of years of campaigning by environmental NGOs, which have filed countless lawsuits against the government for its neglect of ecological matters. Because building work emits nitrogen, construction permits were suspended — a major problem in the ongoing Dutch housing crisis. Yet the agricultural sector is responsible for the highest national emissions. Although the Netherlands is a small country, it is the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products, exporting especially to neighboring EU countries such as Germany. Intensive livestock farming is responsible for the highest nitrogen emissions in Europe, causing, among other things, soil acidification. In order to reduce emissions, livestock numbers need to be halved.

The ruling led, from October 2019, to waves of protests. Farmers headed out with tractors to The Hague (the country’s political capital), blocked highways and supermarket distribution centers, and intimidated politicians. These protests soon became a cause célèbre of the global conservative movement, making it to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. This March, on the brink of the elections, a demonstration was held in The Hague, heavily curtailed by restrictions imposed by city hall (of the announced one hundred thousand protesters, only a quarter as many were allowed to participate). The same day, Extinction Rebellion blocked a major highway.

Though emerging from this farmer revolt, the BBB was in fact launched by a marketing agency. Lead by Caroline van der Plas, a journalist on agricultural issues, the party claims to speak up for the neglected countryside and the “ordinary citizen.” Its purported aims are to reverse the environmental policies of the Dutch government and to safeguard nature. Yet ironically, for all its apparent concern with protecting the countryside, the party in practice defends big multinationals’ right to pollute it.

New Right-Wing Populism

The 1990s saw the consolidation of neoliberalism in the Netherlands, and the final abandonment of the idea of the Keynesian welfare state. Since 2010, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) has been the largest party, making Rutte the longest-sitting premier to date. As a champion of neoliberal reforms, the VVD is characterized by a top-down, highly technocratic approach to politics. Rutte routinely refers to the country he leads as “the Netherlands Corp.”

Once known for its social progressivism, in the last decade the country made a further shift to the right. Far-right populist forces like Geert Wilders’s Islamophobic Freedom Party (PVV) and Thierry Baudet’s elitist Forum for Democracy (FvD) have succeeded in pushing the whole spectrum in this direction. Within this context, the massive victory for the BBB has reshuffled the Right. Whereas the PVV and FvD mainly focused on classic far-right themes such as immigration, Europe, and the culture wars, the farmers’ party seems to address a broader array of concerns of “ordinary citizens.”

Van der Plas, the party leader, embodies the cherished Dutch self-image of “normality”: conservative, unassuming, and above all very reasonable. Compared to Wilders, with his visions of an eschatological struggle with Islam, or Baudet, whose popularity with the electorate has plummeted due to his autocratic party leadership and his open advocacy of conspiracy theories (spanning from the “Great Reset” to the world dominance of malignant “Reptilians”), this represents a major advantage. It enabled the party to draw voters from across the political spectrum: not only from the radical right, but also from the VVD, the Christian Democrats (CDA), and the Socialist Party (SP). The party’s list of candidates also has drawn former members of the VVD and CDA.

Since its entrance into parliament with one seat in 2021, the BBB has voted along with the Right on cultural issues (such as migration) and with the Left on social issues (such as health care and youth policies). But though it describes itself as a “social left wing,” there should be no illusions about the reactionary elements of its program. Until very recently, for instance, it plead for a hotline at schools to report teachers who “spread ideology in the classroom.” And while it does not deny climate change, the party consistently employs a rhetoric that undermines the idea of an ecological crisis. In a parliamentary debate, Van der Plas recounted that a rare species of moss had been spotted in a national park, concluding: “nature is not collapsing.”

Although a European directive concerning nitrogen emissions was laid down as early as 1991, the Dutch government and the powerful agricultural lobby have long tried to downplay and deny the problem. The technocratic way in which the government presented its plans to enforce the regulations in 2019, combined with extreme media exposure, explains the explosive character of the farmer protests. As an antiestablishment party, the BBB presents itself as the mouthpiece of this popular revolt. Yet nothing could be more misleading than its grassroots image, since the movement maintains close ties with the agricultural lobby. The social media platform from which the party emerged was founded by Van der Plas and ReMarkAble communicatie BV, a marketing agency employed by several food giants. This includes the multinationals Vion, SAC, and Bayer. Even more importantly, the agency also funded the entire election campaign. Some of its staff even occupy prominent positions in the party.

Commentators have pointed out how the BBB’s election victory signals a return of agrarian populism. It is reminiscent of the Dutch Farmers’ Party, which achieved success in the mid-1960s through its protest against government interference. At the same time, it is a form of rural populism typical of European countries with a historically large agricultural sector. In terms of program, it has affinities with Scandinavian agrarian centrist parties, such as the Norwegian Senterpartiet, or the Finnish Suomen Keskusta.

The Myth of the Countryside

In his book The Country and the City, Raymond Williams discusses how literary works since antiquity have employed the urban-rural distinction. With the rise of capitalism, an ideological view has appeared that holds that the “innocent” countryside is exploited by the “corrupt” city. It is ideological, not merely because the property relations on the countryside lead to the exploitation of people and nature, but additionally because the city also plays host to the interests of the rural elites. Fiction written about the city and the countryside often served, Williams noted, “to promote superficial comparisons and to prevent real ones.”

The same holds true for the narrative of the BBB. In its election program it talks nostalgically about the threatened “unique landscape” of the Dutch countryside, of which farmers and horticulturalists are said to be the guardians. At the same time, it notes the disappearance of “age-old rural traditions.” It wants to bring back “common sense” and a “healthy countryside.” The party thus builds up the myth of an authentic and idyllic countryside, bravely resisting the technocratic interference of The Hague.

Since the mechanization of the postwar years, the number of workers in the Dutch agricultural sector has steadily dropped. In 2019, around 0.6 percent of the labor force was employed in this sector. Agriculture is heavily subsidized. Contrary to what is suggested by the phrase “No farmers, no food” — a slogan appearing everywhere during the protests — the proposed measures will not so much impact local food provision as agricultural exports (which in any case only account for a small part of Dutch GDP — in 2020, for instance, just 1.4 percent). Therefore, it is not necessarily small farmers but the big multinationals that have the most to lose from the green transition to a more ecological, socially sustainable agriculture.

Agricultural workers only make up a small part of the electorate that voted BBB; a large part of its base consists in the population from peripheral areas and voters from urban centers voicing their protest against the government. The BBB voter is typically working class and over fifty years old. As the Dutch writer Menno ter Braak once remarked, the farmer is often used as the imaginary “other” of civilization. Many Dutch working-class voters perceive the farmer as the opposite to the vegetarian “oat-milk elite”: the self-satisfied urban middle and upper classes.

Looking beyond the clever rhetoric of the farmers’ party, there are two important factors that have contributed to its success. The BBB is capitalizing on the way national politics has neglected many peripheral areas. Characterized by capital flight, and thus a shrinking population, some regions have been in steady decline for decades. With its neoliberal policies supporting the urban centers, the winners of globalization, the Dutch government has neglected to economically invest in these forgotten regions and to provide social services, leading to ever-increasing inequality. Public transport disappears; schools and libraries are closed. Another important factor lies in the failures of the Rutte government across many fields: the childcare scandal, the housing crisis, the gas-extraction crisis, and the way in which it handled the COVID-19 pandemic have all become a breeding ground for popular resentment.

A Laboratory for Right-Wing Populism

The BBB combines a populist appeal with a successful mythologization of the interests of the small famers and the big food multinationals. It has caused the CDA, the traditional representative of the agricultural sector, to plunge into an identity crisis. It also reveals how for years the left-wing flank of Dutch politics — the social democrats, the greens (GroenLinks), and the SP — have structurally failed to address regional concerns. That the social democrats and the greens (despite their recent alliance meant to reestablish a strong left-wing front) have remained more or less the same size can be considered a defeat.

With its apparent moderate tone, the BBB manages to draw both from the far right and right-wing liberals and conservatives. Its victory in the Dutch regional elections marks a significant development. It reveals what could happen when a technocratic government, after decades of denial and dithering, tries to hastily enforce the green transition. The recent farmer protests that have swept across Europe — in France, Germany, and Belgium — originate from a similar discontent. In this sense, the Netherlands might just become a laboratory for further forms of European right-wing populism. For the Left, an important lesson can be learned: if climate measures are perceived as technocratic fixes favoring the middle and upper class, it leaves space open for the Right to capitalize on frustration.