The Netherlands: climate action faces backlash
Dutch activists mobilising to urge the government to keep its commitment to end fossil fuel subsidies are being rewarded with mass arrests and subversion charges. As in many other global north countries, criminalisation seems to be the growing response to climate activism. The Dutch government is also under rising pressure from a movement opposing its plans to cut nitrogen emissions. A populist party capitalising on anti-environmental anger recently came first in provincial elections. Faced with these dual currents, the government’s choice to restrict climate activism is sending the wrong signal, since it can only embolden those trying to halt the limited progress made so far.
The numbers were staggering: 768 people arrested on a single day, 28 January. Their crime was to have blocked the A12, a busy stretch of road in the Dutch city of The Hague. Their cause was the climate crisis. Protesters called on the government to keep its promise to end fossil fuel subsidies: the government said it would phase them out but has so far failed to do so.
It’s far from the only time activists have blocked roads, often in protests coordinated by Extinction Rebellion (XR), and faced arrest for doing so. An even bigger blockade was held in March. In July 2022, around 40 XR activists blocked the highway, and many were arrested. They blocked the A12 again in October 2022.
Nor have these been the only roadblocks. Around 18 XR activists were arrested for blocking traffic in Amsterdam in March 2022. In May 2022, XR activists blocked the street where fossil fuel giant Shell is based in Rotterdam, many gluing themselves to the road or chaining themselves to cars. Police responded by arresting 175 people.
In August 2022, XR activists blocked a cycling team sponsored by the INEOS chemical company at a race in Utrecht, protesting at the climate and environmental harm the company causes. Two people were arrested. The following month, XR protesters demonstrated against the Dutch Formula 1 race.
In November 2022 around 500 people scaled a fence at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, occupying the area where private jets – up to 14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial flights – take off and land. This time the police arrested over 400 people, reportedly using force to remove activists who’d chained themselves to planes.
Over 500 Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace Netherlands activists have stopped private jets from taking off at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport this afternoon. Activists cycled around the area where private jets are parked and blocked the aircraft. https://t.co/xghFkHixY3 pic.twitter.com/PIQ2K0IGz5— Greenpeace CEE (@GreenpeaceCEE) November 7, 2022
The country is also among those where works of art have been targeted to draw attention to the climate crisis. In November 2022, three Belgian activists from the Just Stop Oil campaign group staged a protest, with one gluing themself to protective glass covering Vermeer’s world-renowned Girl with a Pearl Earring. They ensured they caused no harm, but two of the activists received two-month jail sentences, with a month suspended; the other awaits trial.
In short, it’s been a frenetic time of climate action. In common with campaigners in many other countries, Dutch activists have embraced tactics of civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. They do so to communicate a sense of urgency, the fact that the climate emergency can’t be addressed through a business-as-usual approach and the reality that far greater disruption will come if climate change continues unabated. Direct action that causes disruption commands media headlines in a way other forms of protest don’t.
But there’s a price to pay. Some have been jailed and others fined. Water cannon have been used against protests, and journalists were reportedly among those detained at the January roadblock. There are claims secret police have tried to infiltrate XR.
Ahead of the January roadblock, police raised the stakes by pre-emptively arresting six activists and charging them with the serious crime of sedition for planning to take part in the protest. This helped rally further support to the protesters’ cause – but signalled a seemingly toughening stance towards protests.
Activists are questioning the severity of the state’s response – and asking whether they’re receiving fair treatment compared to other protest groups.
Voices from the frontline
Sieger Sloot is an actor and climate activist from a Dutch branch of XR.
In the Netherlands, XR organised over 300 protests in 2022 alone. One of the most successful was a blockade of the A12 highway. We were 30 people when we started blocking the road last June, and since then, the number of participants doubled or tripled every time, so we grew exponentially. On 11 March 2023, around 4,000 protesters blocked the same spot.
It is XR’s strategy to use non-violent disruptive actions like blockades to draw attention to the climate crisis, and especially to the €30 billion (approx. US$32.9 billion) annual fossil fuel subsidies provided by the government. These attract way more media coverage than regular protests.
These forms of protest have had a huge effect on Dutch society. For the first time we witness mainstream media talking about fossil fuel subsidies. Some 400 Dutch economists wrote an op-ed on why and how fossil fuel subsidies should be terminated. Members of parliament are making proposals for ending fossil fuel subsidies. A wave of famous musicians, actors, writers and directors are joining the XR movement.
The Dutch government promised to end fossil fuel subsidies in 2020 but still hasn’t done it, so with every blockade XR demands it end all fossil fuel subsidies immediately, or otherwise the protesters won’t leave. Until now, the government hasn’t complied with our demand. Instead, police have arrested protesters who weren’t willing to leave and fined others. They also used water cannon to disperse crowds and tried to infiltrate XR.
Over the past months, between 40 and 50 climate activists have been prosecuted in the Netherlands. The accusations vary from vandalism, which can be just about spray paint, to not following police orders and trespassing, all the way to sedition.
This included eight activists arrested for sedition because they posted on social media about their intention to go to the protest and block the highway. This had never happened before: it is a totally unprecedented attack on free speech and freedom of assembly. This provoked a lot of anger among Dutch people, since according to both Dutch and European Union law it’s allowed to block roads while protesting. Over 70 civil society organisations showed their solidarity with XR following the arrest of those eight activists by joining the A12 protest.
I think the Dutch government is criminalising climate activists just to ‘restore law and order’, but it has totally backfired on them. We’ve had some quite violent farmers’ protests in recent years, but it seems that the District Attorney didn’t dare to make a case against them. Of course they have tractors and aren’t as easy to target as climate activists.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Sieger. Read the full interview here.
Farmers fight emissions cuts
There’s another, very different group that’s also staged multiple disruptive protests in recent years – in backlash to environmental action.
Since 2019, the Netherlands has seen large-scale protests by farmers opposed to government plans to cut livestock numbers to reduce nitrogen emissions. The issue has come to symbolise what farmers’ groups see as the government’s lack of respect for their work and way of life.
Nitrogen emissions are an air pollutant and a greenhouse gas. This means they impact on public health and contribute to climate change. The Netherlands is an agricultural powerhouse, the second-biggest agricultural products exporter in the world, after the USA. Agriculture is a growing sector that currently accounts for almost half of the country’s nitrogen emissions.
The government has committed to cutting nitrogen emissions by half by 2030. It has been forced to do so by a 2019 supreme court ruling that found it in breach of the European Union’s nature protection laws. Currently the government of Belgium faces a similar lawsuit.
The Dutch government is offering money for farmers to cut their livestock numbers or close their farms. Recently the government said the country faced a stark choice: cut agricultural nitrogen emissions or stop building homes and infrastructure.
Farmers have protested by blocking roads, transport hubs and supermarket distribution centres with their tractors. They’ve also spread waste and hay on roads. The most recent mass protest, on 11 March, saw thousands converge in their tractors on The Hague, many carrying the upside-down Dutch flag that has become a protest symbol.
These actions are also clearly highly disruptive, but relatively few protesting farmers have been arrested. A leading lawyer has accused police of being much quicker to arrest climate activists than farmers.
Neither should be at risk of widespread arrests. Amnesty International has said the right to protest is coming under increasing threat in the Netherlands, with the authorities too often seeing protests as a security risk rather than the exercise of a fundamental right. These constraints come even though surveys show most Dutch citizens recognise that people should be free to protest and that protests are an essential part of how social change is advanced. This must be the case even if particular types of protest – including both the climate activists’ and farmers’ protests – are unpopular among many.
Populist backlash rises
The farmers’ movement has moved into electoral politics, through the Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB) party, formed in 2019. Among its proposed policies are a law to give farmers more say in agricultural, environmental and public health decision-making and a reversal of restrictions on the use of harmful pesticides, as well as an end to nitrogen emissions cuts.
It’s a right-wing populist party that’s received the backing of far-right icons like Marine Le Pen in France and Donald Trump in the USA, as well as the Dutch far right. And now it’s on its way to a slice of power. It came first in provincial elections held on 15 March, taking close to 20 per cent of the vote and coming top in each of the country’s 12 provinces.
Netherlands, regional election result:— Europe Elects (@EuropeElects) March 17, 2023
Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB-*) emerges as largest party in all regions with 19.4% of the vote nationally.
BBB's best results are above 30% in the more rural North-East, its worst results are below 15% in the more urban West. #PS2023 pic.twitter.com/dmGheQU7yb
Not only do provincial councils have significant power; this is also a result with national significance. In May provincial councils – alongside electoral colleges from the three Dutch Caribbean islands and expatriate citizens – will elect the 75 members of the Senate, parliament’s second chamber, which has the power to approve or reject laws passed by the House of Representatives.
It’s a shock result, on a higher-than-normal turnout, following an election campaign marked by further farmers’ protests. It points to a bigger current of populist, socially conservative and anti-elitist sentiment, with low trust in established politicians, that goes beyond the immediate constituency of angry farmers.
For Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who stayed in power at the 2021 general election, the result threatens to further complicate the already delicate business of governance. Dutch politics are notoriously fragmented: 17 parties won seats in 2021 and it took a record 299 days to negotiate the resulting four-party coalition government. That government is likely to be strained by the need to build new alliances to get legislation passed in the Senate.
Provincial elections have a history of being used for protest votes, but in the light of its results, the BBB may now fancy its chances in the next general election, due by March 2025.
A wider problem
The Netherlands is just one of many countries that claim to be climate leaders but where climate activism is increasingly being penalised. XR activists have been arrested in countries including Denmark and Finland, and police used violence against protesters opposed to coalmine expansion in Germany earlier this year. The UK has passed restrictive laws to criminalise disruptive protests and numerous climate activists have been jailed. Several US states have introduced laws to make it harder to protest near pipelines and mines. Some Australian states have also passed anti-protest laws that have been used to target and jail climate activists. People have been jailed for climate activism in Canada.
Italy’s far-right government is the latest to move to restrict climate protests. It recently announced plans to introduce heavy fines for people judged to have damaged monuments and cultural sites. The move has come after activists from the Last Generation group dyed water in a Rome fountain black as part of a protest.
Eco-attivisti hanno versato vernice nera nella fontana della Barcaccia, media locali— salvatore spanu (@salvatorespan17) April 1, 2023
L'acqua della fontana di Piazza di Spagna a Roma è stata dipinta di nero dagli attivisti del movimento Last Generation. Così hanno protestato contro l'uso di combustibili fossili. pic.twitter.com/oJqJ9xSfpP
These moves fail to recognise the vital role of the climate movement as a source of solutions and as the key force in resisting the deep power of the fossil fuel industry. Protests and direct action have placed climate action high on the political agenda. They help hold governments to account for climate commitments and demand greater ambition. In the Netherlands, the XR movement and other groups have played a crucial role in shaping public debate and recruiting support for climate action.
These forms of protest have had a huge effect on Dutch society. For the first time we witness mainstream media talking about fossil fuel subsidies.
At the same time, climate policies are increasingly vulnerable to populist claims that they’re elitist and somehow part of a conspiracy to control people. A populist backlash against climate action is well underway, in both electoral politics and the kind of protests seen in the Netherlands and in countries including Belgium, France and Germany.
Against this backdrop, it’s precisely the wrong time to restrict protests pushing for climate action. Governments need to uphold protest rights and recognise that disruption and obstruction are fundamental forms of peaceful protest. They can’t claim to be climate champions if they criminalise climate protesters. Suppressing mobilisations for climate action should be recognised as a form of climate denial. The Dutch government should be aware of the dangers of going down this path.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Dutch government should commit to respecting protest rights fully and recognise non-violent direct action as a fundamental part of protest.
The Dutch government should adhere to its promise to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.
States that are targeting climate activism should reverse their restrictions and recognise the role of protests in building pressure for climate action.
Cover photo by Michel Porro/Getty Images