Suddenly, ‘peasant resistance’ in Flanders also flares up much more than expected. That does not bode well for the electoral battle in rural Flanders.
No, they wouldn’t block roads with tractors, said Hendrik Vandamme of the General Farmers’ Syndicate at the beginning of the week. Less than 24 hours later, heavy tractor tires also rolled on Flemish motorways. The larger Boerenbond was also caught with speed and severity. A planned action in Merksplas faded into insignificance compared to the harder actions that cropped up everywhere. These were often organized via informal WhatsApp or Telegram channels, mobilizing a younger and more radical audience, outside the known structures.
The established agricultural associations looked like giants with feet of clay. That is also a problem for the Flemish government, which is responsible for agricultural and environmental policy. She was also surprised by the late, fierce resistance. With the approval of the nitrogen decree, the Jambon government believed that it had circumvented that difficult hurdle for the time being. That signal actually also came from the agricultural organizations. They still resist, but only legally, with a (by no means hopeless) complaint to the Constitutional Court. Before that happens, we will have to wait another year or so. Then Ineos will have laid the foundation stone of its ethane cracker, agricultural companies will have received permits again and the resistance would die out, the government thought.
So that was wrong thinking. The nitrogen bomb still exploded, strangely enough, a week after the vote in the Flemish Parliament. It is correct that the bubbling resistance cannot be reduced to the nitrogen policy. The timing and intensity are inspired by protests that have been flaring up in other European countries for some time, with other reasons. Sometimes it turns against the fear of cheap imports from Ukraine or Latin America, sometimes against high energy costs or against strict European environmental and climate standards. So the bucket of humiliation filled up everywhere, including here. And in Flanders, nitrogen is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The ferocity of the rebellion suggests that a deeper nerve has been touched. In a very large part of the agricultural world there is the idea that the farmer is one-sidedly portrayed as a bogeyman in the fierce battle for healthy, green space. That is not entirely a delusion, as the nitrogen policy of Environment Minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA) teaches us.
There was certainly little room for the aspirations of the agricultural sector when the decree was drawn up. Major pain points such as the mandatory closure of peak loaders or the ban on taking over nitrogen rights from discontinued agricultural companies (‘external netting’) were only removed at the very end and under heavy pressure from CD&V and Open Vld. The sector, the coalition partners and here and there within the N-VA itself are left with a bitter aftertaste that Minister Demir hit the agricultural world harder than was actually necessary.
Why? The answer to that question is political-strategic rather than technical-content. When it became clear that nitrogen was also in danger of becoming a problem in Flanders, N-VA chairman and Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever’s priority was that the major interests of the port and industry must be protected. So it was better to forge an objective alliance between industry and nature. By creating a framework with a lot of freedom for industry and sufficient space for nature, environmental movements could be prevented from constantly challenging permits.
The child of that bill became the third competitor in the battle for space: agriculture. The party gambled that the electoral price for that choice would initially be paid by competitor CD&V. The old, yellow-green, pillarless VU resentment against the powerful Farmers’ Union – which explains the good ties between the Demir cabinet and environmental association Natuurpunt – also played a role. Basically, the cold calculation was made that ‘the farmers’ in Flanders no longer mean much.
The N-VA thus committed a double mistake. Agriculture, or rather ‘agribusiness’, is not such a small economic player in Flanders, with an export figure of 53.8 billion euros in 2022. Even more important is the symbolic value of the farmer in the somewhat idyllic image that a retains a large part of rural Flanders for itself. If you touch the farmer, you touch that idyll.
In suburban Flanders, it makes little sense to look for a geographical divide between city and countryside. But there is certainly a mental divide. It is no coincidence that CD&V chairman Sammy Mahdi is currently advocating rehabilitation for locally rooted ‘somewhere people’ as opposed to the cosmopolitan ‘everywhere people’.
Mahdi takes up that fault line with the British David Goodhart, who The Road to Somewhere describes the political revolt in rural areas against urban cultural dominance. Of course it’s the era of Peasant Psalm by Felix Timmermans is long gone and agriculture is today a hyper-technological and strongly export-oriented sector. But in a time of ‘cultural loss’, many ‘somewhere people’ have great appreciation for a sector that guarantees the food supply ‘from their own soil’.
It is almost incomprehensible that a conservative like Bart De Wever does not realize this or does so late. It must be that the mayor of the country’s largest port city is standing in the way of the community thinker. Certainly, in these challenging times there are good reasons to pursue an active industrial policy. But the contrast between a major industrialist who orders a custom-written decree with the snap of his fingers and a sector rooted in the country that receives no response cuts deeply. And certainly not just among farmers themselves.
The electoral impact of farmers’ resistance can indeed be great. Certainly also for N-VA. Because even though the party tries to deny it, the resistance from rural Flanders has been directed against the party par excellence of rural Flanders. Even Theo Francken (N-VA) experienced this. He was immediately targeted after he called the organization behind a gallows with puppets representing the Flemish government parties ‘crap’. The irony is that Francken, as mayor of an agricultural municipality, has always internally opposed the Demir line.
Reason for anger
The N-VA has a lot to lose in the hotbeds of the resistance. In 2019, it was still worth 30 percent as the largest party in Kempen cantons such as Hoogstraten or Turnhout, as well as in cantons in Waasland or Meetjesland in East Flanders. How much of that will be left in June? There is a real chance that the party, just as happened in 2019 with Francken after the Marrakech exit, will pay for Demir’s local popularity with a decline in the other provinces.
That Sunday, June 9, will turn black in rural Flanders is a prediction that has little merit. The cunning way in which the VB manages to recover and activate the protest certainly plays a role in this. But the N-VA-led Flemish government has also given many in those regions a reason to be angry.
The nitrogen saga is strongly reminiscent of what Juli Zeh and Simon Urban masterfully tell in their recent novel Between worlds (2023). In it they confront the clashing world views of two friends: one a cosmopolitan, politically correct journalist from the big city, the other a struggling farmer in East Germany. At a certain point in the book, the farmer puts her hope in a bundle of demands that she can deliver to the competent minister. But at the cabinet she only sees an uninterested employee. Without spoiling the point: that story also ends in radicalization.