It was a sign of the new status of Dutch farmers’ protest leader, Caroline van der Plas when premier Mark Rutte agreed to meet her one-on-one in a location of her choosing this week – and came away with her resounding warning that his four-party coalition won’t last beyond the end of the year.
The first real indication of whether she’s right will come next Tuesday when Rutte and the leaders of his three coalition partners meet to consider the national impact of the big win in the provincial elections by Van der Plas’s Boer Burger Beweging (BBB), the farmer-citizen movement.
There’s no doubt that the victory by BBB, a single-issue party opposed to the government’s plans to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030, has sent shock waves through Dutch politics. In its first outing, it became the largest party in all 12 of the country’s provincial assemblies.
That matters because provincial assembly votes determine the make-up of the 150-seat upper house of parliament, the Senate – where the BBB is expected to have more seats in a new May assembly than Mr Rutte’s Liberals and, depending on alliances, the power to block his legislative programme.
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BBB’s specific aim in the Senate will be to stop the Rutte coalition’s hugely controversial plans to half emissions by buying out and shutting down about 11,000 working farms across the country – backed by the economic planning agency, PBL, as the only possible route to the emissions target.
The problem for Mr Rutte on Tuesday will be that while the rural electorate will be watching for a signal that its concerns are being taken seriously, his coalition partners are deeply divided and a new environmental platform agreed by all four is looking well-nigh impossible.
Of the coalition, the big provincial losers were the Christian Democrats, whose Senate seats are expected to fall from nine to five, and whose leader, finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra, has already been hauled over the coals – lucky to survive the week as leader.
“There was a great deal of anger and discontent”, he said after the “intense” discussions.
“There’s a clear gulf between the country and The Hague. That includes the Christian Democrats in The Hague.”
The apologetic tone was similar from the smallest coalition party, Christian Union, which draws much of its support from rural areas and one of whose leaders, agriculture minister Piet Adema, observed: “It’s clear to me that people want us to see these issues more from the perspective of farmers.”
Mr Rutte himself has been at the receiving end of a critical letter from some 100 party officials accusing him of directing policy “from the top down”.
Only centre-left urban D66 remains unapologetic. Leader Sigrid Kaag insisted she was vehemently against changing the coalition’s nitrogen plans. “A deal is a deal”, she said.
“My expectation is that they wont be able to resolve this issue”, said Caroline van der Plas about Tuesday’s summit.
“The internal tensions are untenable. We’ll have a general election by year’s end.”