Tractor traffic jam
In May 2019, the Council of State, the Dutch high court for administrative law, declared the government’s nitrogen policy illegal under EU law. 18,000 construction, infrastructure and agricultural development projects that required permits under the policy ground to a halt. The ruling led to the formation of an advisory committee headed by former MP and minister Johan Remkes, whose findings showed that agriculture accounted for 46% of nitrogen depositions and whose preliminary recommendations included the “acquisition or remediation” of farms near nature areas with particularly high emissions – a euphemism for buying out the dirtiest farms.
When liberal party MP Tjeerd de Groot reacted with a statement that Dutch livestock numbers should be reduced by half, farmers had enough
When liberal party MP Tjeerd de Groot reacted with a statement that Dutch livestock numbers should be reduced by half, farmers had enough. On October 1st, thousands of tractors rolled into the Hague. The demonstration caused the longest traffic jam in Dutch history, and protesters, against the orders of police and city council, drove their tractors onto the city’s fairground.

Unsavory events
At the fairground, the main attractions were the speech of sheep farmer Bart Kemp, leader of the protests, and the reaction of the minister for agriculture Carola Schouten. Kemp’s address to the crowd of ten thousand included fantastical climate change denialism, and he insisted that Dutch livestock have a wonderful life since they are well fed and live indoors. He also pointed to deep structural flaws in the Dutch food system: many farmers are at the edge of bankruptcy, and farmers have little power in a market dominated by a handful of supermarket conglomerates. He directed his last words at minister Schouten: “You have made a mess of this. You promised clear regulations, but the uncertainty has never been greater.” Schouten’s reaction, in front of the angry crowd, was an attempt to quell the anger, saying that as long as she was minister, there would be no reducing the Dutch livestock numbers by half. This, in turn, set opposition politicians up for a humiliating time on stage: boos and whistles stifled them, and protesters turned their backs and raised their middle finger to the stage when the Green party leader Jesse Klaver spoke. More unsavory events and slogans could be found in the cheap seats off the main stage area, where Populist Radical Right politicians Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet spoke to farmers. Wilders – standing on a tractor and alluding to his inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric – asked a small crowd if they wanted “more or less nitrogen regulation”, even though his party had voted for the introduction of the policy that started the protests. There were banners declaring “stop the green lies”, confederate flags, and an oversized coffin with Klaver’s name on it.

Barbecue on the motorway
More protests followed: on October 14th against provincial governments, resulting in one hospitalization; on October 16th against the national institute for public health and the environment (RIVM), the organization measuring nitrogen deposition and whose methods were called into question; and on October 25th against both the provincial government of Noord-Brabant for instituting stricter regulations despite the protests and the dairy industry (specifically and prominently against the country’s largest dairy cooperative, FrieslandCampina) for daring to plan reductions in nitrogen emissions in their sector. Blocking motorways with slow-driving tractors caused massive traffic jams on November 25th. On December 18th, a day on which farmers also held a barbecue on the motorway, they blockaded a supermarket distribution center in Tilburg. And on the same day, they organized a brunch on Amsterdam’s Dam Square, showcasing Dutch produce to the city dwellers who are perceived to live literally and figuratively far away from the reality of the farming heartlands. Protests continued in 2020, only interrupted by the pandemic lockdown between March and May.

How PAS mortgaged the future
Much attention has been devoted to the aforementioned events and political handling of the crisis. We want to shift the attention to the consensus-focused Dutch political culture and resulting tendency towards depoliticization that lies at the root of these events, also called “consociationalism”. This political culture is not sustainable when faced with a problem like the nitrogen crisis: A problem where a clear, fundamental shift is required that will inevitably result in economic burdens for certain groups in society, and where these economic costs are so severe that they can hardly be obscured by political strategy. The story of how the Dutch nitrogen policy has come about illustrates the shortcomings of this political culture perfectly.

We want to shift the attention to the consensus-focused Dutch political culture and resulting tendency towards depoliticization that lies at the root of these events
The Dutch government implemented the Integrated Approach to Nitrogen (Programma Aanpak Stikstof, or PAS for short) in 2015. It was designed to reduce nitrogen deposition in nature areas, a process which can have devastating impacts on flora and fauna. The PAS was composed of two pillars. The first was a program to both mitigate the effects of nitrogen deposition in nature areas, so-called ecological restoration measures, and to reduce the emissions from economic activity that emits nitrogen in the first place, like construction or the expansion of livestock farms. The second pillar was to make some of the anticipated reduction in nitrogen deposition available as “room for deposition”; in other words, to grant permits to activities that emit nitrogen to allow for continued economic activity. Any permits were conditional on showing that the resulting emissions would have no harmful effects in the nature areas. This was the PAS’ pitfall and main ground for the legal rulings against it, as such a test would not prove that ecosystems would have a chance to recover from an already precarious status. In addition, the anticipated reductions from the first pillar didn’t materialize while nitrogen-emitting activities continued. Policy-makers had in effect “mortgaged the future” with the PAS.

Origins of Dutch consociationalism
The formation and implementation of the PAS was a typical example of Dutch political culture. Instead of making a difficult unilateral decision, various parties were involved in the policy process. The outcome was then framed as a win-win situation; an ultimate compromise where every stakeholder would get some of what they wanted. While this was a fictional narrative, it fits with the Dutch politics of consociationalism. This type of politics originated from a time where the Netherlands was deeply divided (1917-1973), the so-called pillarization of the Netherlands. Everyone belonged to a particular “pillar” – catholic or protestant, liberal or socialist – and this affected every aspect of society: what newspaper to read, what school to send your children to and, most importantly, what political party to vote for. To make such a divided nation governable, the political elite created a culture of depolarization, by obscuring conflict-creating stances and upholding a narrative of “we need to do it together”. The different pillars could live with government policy, as long as it was not really clear what the political argument was about, and everyone could think that they did not draw the short straw.

Conflict avoidant politicians
While the pillarization of Dutch society has diminished, the political culture remained. The first impulse of the Dutch political elite is to create support from all actors. Every policy plan agreed upon needs to be, or at least be presented as, a win for everyone. A similar situation occurred with the PAS: farmers could keep expanding their farms, the construction industry could continue building, and Dutch nature would benefit as well. In this way, the government avoided a debate of who should carry the heaviest load. This doesn’t mean that there was no pushback. Academics and legal experts were skeptical about the feasibility of the PAS from the beginning. In 2011, four years before the implementation of the PAS, the commission for environmental assessment warned that the PAS is not in line with the European Habitat Directive and that the courts would rule permits granted under the PAS illegal. However, in line with depoliticization, politicians reacted to this by doing nothing. No party was willing to take the responsibility to politicize this debate, especially since the PAS was dreamed up by the Labor Party and Christian Democrats, was supported all the way by the Liberal party, and two state secretaries of the economy (Bleker of the Christian Democrats and Dijksma of the Labor Party) ignored all reports that questioned the feasibility. They all preferred to “kick the can down the road” rather than risking conflict between collaborating political parties and making apparent that certain constituencies (such as farmers) could bear a heavy burden. Skeptical experts and dissident political parties (like the animal rights and environmentalist parties) were ignored. The result was that the farmers were caught off guard when the Council of State overturned the PAS. These farmers then took their anger to the streets. They are angry because politicians framed the solution as if everyone would win. The moment they realized that overturning the PAS meant that they were the ones that suffered the biggest blow, they revolted.

Accountability and the blame game
Thus, the Netherlands ended up in the present predicament, where protests continue, and no real solution is in sight. Political scientists recognize in this conflict the debate between Rudy Andeweg and Arend Lijphart from 2001. They debated the pros and cons of consociationalism; a debate that we can now empirically examine. Andeweg stated, “consensus democracies are strong on inclusiveness and weak on accountability”. And accountability is what the farmers want. For that to be possible, it is vital that the positioning of political actors on the salient issues are transparent. Instead, politicians that implemented the PAS, like Henk Bleker, backed down and voiced support for the protesting farmers, without acknowledging responsibility for the policy in the first place. And when groups cannot show their discontent within the system to those responsible, they will fight against the system instead.
There needs to be an honest discussion of what development paths are effective, desirable and compliant with agreements the Netherlands has committed to
This is precisely what happened: plans to deal with agricultural nitrogen deposition in even the least intrusive way possible (most recently by reducing the protein content of livestock feed) are made, only to be torn up again in the face of continued protests and scientific evidence that such measures would not significantly alleviate the problem. The blame is shifted away from the politicians that were responsible for this mess, and towards political parties that are actually proposing solutions. The Green party and its leadership in particular are subject to substantial protest and harassment. In addition, anti-system parties of the Radical Right have co-opted the movement as one of their own and are using the protests now as leverage for removal of all climate policy, and as a vessel to attack liberal democracy itself. The most striking example here is that the Radical Right politician Thierry Baudet has blamed the court ruling on partisan judges, thereby directly challenging the third branch.

Preventing the imminent cultural and political crisis
The Dutch political elite needs to defend liberal democracy against this attack, but also to reflect on how their political norms and culture facilitate these situations. In the end, transparency is vital for a liberal democratic system to work. The title of the Remkes commission’s report “you can’t have it all” (“Niet alles kan”), is both striking and true. Instead of a continued quest for the lowest common denominator and the creation of inoffensive but ultimately ineffectual policies, there needs to be an honest discussion of what development paths are effective, desirable and compliant with agreements the Netherlands has committed to. Having an honest debate is one of the vital tasks imposed on the political arena. We suggest that the political elite acts to uphold this responsibility. If it doesn’t, it is only a matter of time before the much bigger challenge of complying with the Paris Climate goals turns into a cultural and political crisis of commensurate proportions.