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Are the Dutch farmers heading for power? The BBB could be a kingmaker in this month's election

Caroline van der Plas of the BBB (ROBIN UTRECHT/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Caroline van der Plas of the BBB (ROBIN UTRECHT/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)


November 14, 2023   5 mins

“Sweet Caroline…” bellows the crowd. “Good times never seemed so good!”

Times are indeed pretty good for Caroline van der Plas. Surrounded by the thousands of blooms that adorn the Royal FloraHolland Trade Fair, the leader of the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB), the Dutch farmer-citizen party, is here to baptise a new pink rose named in her honour. She’s also here to rally support among the nation’s sympathetic flower-growers before this month’s general election.

“Farmers are fighting hard,” she tells them. “Not just to survive — but also for the environment and for the energy transition. We will keep representing the voice of common sense in the years ahead.”

In the splintered political landscape of the Netherlands, this voice of the countryside has spent the past years thrusting itself into the mainstream. In March, as the Dutch government formulated plans to buy out thousands of “peak polluter” farms, the BBB soldiered on, winning the nation’s regional elections and seizing the biggest share of the Dutch Senate.

Since then, some of her supporters have recently switched to another new party, Pieter Omtzigt’s centre-right New Social Contract, wooed by his growing reputation as a corruption-buster and strong showing in the polls. But the BBB is still set to win up to 11 MPs on November 22, a huge gain on its single seat in the last general election. In the Dutch system of proportional representation, there is a high chance that it will be invited to be part of the next coalition government.

To do so, however, the BBB will need to shake off its association with the radical Right groups who joined its farmer protests last year. When I put this to Van der Plas, she downplays the risk. “That’s simply not true and I always get a bit cross about it,” she says. “If you look at our voting behaviour and what we do, we are a centre-right party.”

Today, the BBB has expanded from the single issue of farming. Its representatives frequently talk about a “noaberstaat” (a state based on a traditional sense of community), more power for parliament, pro-business policies and an increased social safety net. It also wants to limit asylum to 15,000 migrants a year and impose housing rules for labour migrants. All form the basis of its election manifesto, which party officials refused to have costed by independent economists. “We don’t speak in woolly words,” Van der Plas explains. “We speak the language of the people on the street. And that appeals to a lot of people.”

Her programme certainly appeals to the crowd watching the “Sweet Caroline” rose being christened. “It’s good that she is here,” Arno Heemskerk, an orchid grower from Zevenhuizen says. “There are some who would rather get rid of the farmers and the growers, and we are made out to be big polluters. Of course, we need to do something for the climate, but if there’s one sector that has been busy for years, it is the horticultural sector. We need to make the transition but we need more time to do it.”

One rose grower, who wishes to stay anonymous, suggests that support for the BBB is also motivated by a fear of the Left. He’s particularly concerned about the return of Frans Timmermans, a former European politician who headed up the European Green Deal and now leads a new GreenLeft-Labour coalition. “We are busy seven days a week producing these roses,” he says. “Anyone but Timmermans. We are afraid of him.”

Steven Van Schilfgaarde, chief executive of Royal FloraHolland, is more optimistic about Van der Plas. “What I see in the BBB is that they want to listen, they have a warm heart for the sector and they understand its economic importance for the Netherlands,” he says.

As the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter, farming has always been a central pillar of Dutch politics. But it also remains a divisive issue. As well as making up some 1.4% of the country’s GDP, it is also responsible for nitrogen-based and phosphate emissions and a major contributor to unlawful levels of damage to protected nature reserves. In response, the BBB does not deny that the farming sector needs to reduce pollution, but instead believes that this must happen more slowly, giving farmers “perspective” on future income rather than just buy-outs to stop.

By doing this, says Bart Koenen, a researcher at Kantar Public, the BBB is attempting to distance itself from its depiction as a radical protest party and brand itself as a voice of common sense. “We have had four [Mark] Rutte governments and the need has grown strongly for a new kind of politics, new faces, a more transparent government,” he says. “It is quite a Left-wing party on social security, access to medical care and affordable transport, and so it’s in a position to speak to a large proportion of the electorate in the cities. But on the other hand, it wants a quota on migration, scoring well with the Dutch public because a lot of people find immigration a big problem that hangs together with a huge housing shortage.”

He points out the BBB’s approach to scrapping nitrogen pollution rules — which currently restrain speeds on motorways and house-building — plays well in solving the country’s lack of an estimated 390,000 homes. “The BBB says that the nitrogen pollution problem isn’t important: we need to build houses.”

In the hope of making this happen, Van der Plas has spoken openly about a potential coalition with Omtzigt’s New Social Contract, which is campaigning primarily around better governance after a series of expensive government scandals over childcare benefits, the Groningen gas wars and unpopular Covid lockdowns. Sarah de Lange, professor of political pluralism at the University of Amsterdam, sees new voices on the centre-right thriving following the total collapse of traditional government parties. “The far-Right in itself is not doing that great, contrary to popular narrative,” she says. “But that is because other parties are doing so well. The core message of the BBB is about the good people in the countryside or provinces who have common sense, against the cosmopolitan elite that is neglecting part of the country. It is agrarian populist with far-Right leanings on some issues [such as immigration].”

But Van der Plas, a charismatic and straight-talking figure, is working hard to appeal in the cities too. After the flower presentation, a swig of fizz and a mint, she will be whisked off to a photoshoot outside the massive trade fair. Later, she will take off her Doc Martens to have tea in her socks in a caravan with a community of travelling people in Amsterdam.

Joining her out campaigning, Claudia van Zanten, a former councillor for the liberal VVD in Amsterdam and seventh on the BBB candidate list, says it is a party of business that does not just appeal in the countryside. “BBB is a party of the community that is committed to all residents of the Netherlands, farmers and citizens,” she says. “We want a smaller government with fewer civil servants and impossible rules… that pays attention to the human dimension again.” It’s a message, she points out, that did well earlier this year in parts of Amsterdam Municipality such as Weesp. And it appears to have established a stable level of support elsewhere; Van der Plas in particular won public admiration over summer, when she claimed she had no desire to be prime minister, tottering around and abroad “in high heels”.

“I’d never have thought that this would have happened when I was a little girl,” she tells the crowd as she pours pink fizz over a bunch of “Sweet Caroline” blooms intended for her Irish mother. “I am going to tell her: ‘Your daughter has her own rose!’” And when election results are in and coalition negotiations start, she may well find she is coming up roses too.


Senay Boztas is a journalist living in Amsterdam.


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Peter B
PB
Peter B
5 months ago

This sounds like healthy democracy to me where new parties emerge to represent groups of people who’ve felt neglected.
But the “professor of political pluralism” says the BBB has “far right leanings”. And yet I see nothing in this article to support that view.

Hugh Bryant
HB
Hugh Bryant
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

For the average academic ‘far right’ equates to moderate social democrat.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Just to mention the ‘I’ word is far right, silly.

Last edited 5 months ago by Mike Downing
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago

They are dead right about Timmermans. The last thing we need is a politician that looks up to Greta Thunberg.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Actually, Rutte seemed eager to emulate her too, considering his disastrous proposal to quash Dutch agriculture.

Mrs R
Mrs R
5 months ago
Reply to  Wim de Vriend

Rutte is committed to WEF and UN. That is where he gets his anti- agriculture fervour from.
About time there was more discussion regarding the WEF and the UN’s Agendas 21 and 50.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

The Netherlands is almost completely run by the WEF agenda. ‘You will own nothing and be happy’: this completely describes what’s going on in Holland; the Dutch are nice people, but very naive and sheltered. I was (pleasantly) surprised that the BBB has become so popular. I guess some of them, especially those who live in the provinces, are waking up to what’s going on around them.

Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
5 months ago

I think the Unherd writers should give a sabbatical to the term “hard-right.” It is impugning a large and growing swath of the population in the West. It is LazyThink by left-wing scribblers.

Last edited 5 months ago by Jerry Carroll
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Good to see you have sobered up Caroll.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago

I have always been in favour of electing a single party with a clear electoral program in the first past the post system and distrusted the coalition building of proportional representation but perhaps we do need a pr system to break the logjam of the two current main UK parties with similar statist left of centre policies. It would be good to see additional common sense parties like Reform and the SDP having a bit more influence, as seems to be happening in Holland. Of course the danger is that the small extreme parties wag the coalition dog as seems to be the case in Israel.

Norman Powers
NP
Norman Powers
5 months ago

which party officials refused to have costed by independent economists

What a strange aside, nothing in the article is explicit about high-cost policies. Maybe the alluded to stronger social security is what the author is thinking of?
As for independent economists, lol, where are they going to find those? The only truly independent economists are investment bank and hedge fund employees. If you’re thinking of academics pretending to be independent, well of course they won’t ask them, why would they? They might as well go ask their biggest political opponents for permission to exist. Academic economists have a track record of total failure anyway, they don’t understand economics well and certainly wouldn’t be independent when it comes to questions of politics.

Steve Jolly
SJ
Steve Jolly
5 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Letting ‘independent economists’ decide policy was how we all ended up on this sinking ship of globalism in the first place. May as well ask the Pope which religion is correct.

Rory McGregor
RM
Rory McGregor
5 months ago

Why no mention of Geert Wilders’ party (PVV) . They overtook the BBB in the polls back in September and are now polling 4th with twice the vote share of the BBB. Wilders has now had much more air time on Dutch MSM than I have seen in the last 20 years …..

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
5 months ago

From what I understand, Dutch agriculture is unreasonably intensive.
Factory farming is a stain on humanity, and the sooner we can move away from it, the better. Let’s eat meat, but good quality meat that’s been grown the traditional way, with minimal suffering.
That said, the Dutch ruling elite is at least as bad as our own. I’d support BBB if I could.

Wim de Vriend
WD
Wim de Vriend
5 months ago

The author seems unaware that in the 1950s there was a Boerenpartij (farmers’ party) that drew quite a few voters who were tired of the establishment politicians. But it didn’t last very long.