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In the Dutch Countryside, a Rural Revolution Simmers

Goedemorgen, I’m Eddy Wax and I’ve taken Playbook on tour to the agricultural heartlands of the eastern Netherlands, where The Hague, let alone Brussels, feels far away. 

In the crucible of Dutch politics, I’m here to explore the rise of a new party called the Farmer-Citizen Movement, or BBB, which is surfing a wave of peeved-off farmers and peri-urban disenfranchisement as the food producing powerhouse undergoes a chaotic realignment at the end of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s 13 years in power.

PREPARING FOR POWER IN THE PIGGY’S PALACE: “We will be the biggest one so everybody wants to join us,” said BBB President Erik Stegink sipping a Pepsi Max on his pig farm outside the small city of Deventer, as he predicted the results of the November election. The 56-year-old longtime local politician has good reason to be confident. POLITICO’s Poll of Polls shows BBB is currently a very close third, no mean feat for a party that was born in 2019 and only has one MP at national level. 

Rural awakening: That MP, Caroline van der Plas, who is from Deventer, built her party out of the anger that surged in the wake of the years-long Stikstofcrisis — or nitrogen crisis — when The Hague tried to rein in the excessive use of chemicals in farming for the sake of the environment. Now, BBB is targeting 80 seats in the 150-seat chamber, having won big at provincial elections and become the largest force in the Senate.

The prize: The winner of November’s election will get to shape the future of green policy, with massive ramifications for the rest of the EU. 

Protest movement grows up: As it eyes government, the BBB is shifting to also become a broader rural issues party and is cutting through in the urban-rural borderlands. “Now that we grow we see a lot more people [supporting us] in the cities also,” Stegink said, listing off issues like bus services, cultural events and the availability of school places as areas where rural folk feel ignored by city-dwelling policymakers.

Big picture stuff: The BBB is making hay while other, older parties flounder. The traditional farmers’ party of the Christian Democratic Appeal, part of the the European Parliament’s EPP group, has seen its support drain away in provinces like Overijssel, where I am. Back in the day this former textile-making center was a Dutch Labor Party stronghold. 

The times they are a-changin’: Not just Rutte, but the leaders of all three of his coalition partners have announced they’re stepping down too. Commission supremo Frans Timmermans is all but certain to lead a joint GreenLeft-Labor list, while independent MP Pieter Omtzigt — also from this province — is the dark horse, threatening to form his own party. So many other MPs are quitting, The Hague is emptying out faster than Brussels in August.

Cuddly image: Part of the BBB appeal is its claim to represent “normal” people and encourage a sort of community spirit associated with the countryside. “We have our feet in the clay,” said Stegink, whose “Piggy’s Palace” farm raises thousands of animals to be slaughtered and also allows visitors to cuddle piglets. BBB plucks policies from left and right. Its headquarters, based here in Deventer, are next to a BasicFit gym in a retail park, which seems on brand.

Sounding out: I went to a shop called Crash Vinyl & Booze in Enschede, the region’s most built-up area, to ponder why BBB is cutting through beyond the tiny number of people who are actually farmers. There were mixed reactions. Miranda Kaiser, 52, said it is a “positive switch” from the rise of far-right populist parties focused entirely on booting out migrants, and represents a “think-for-yourself” mentality that’s neither left or right wing. The barman who only gave his name as Marcel described it as the “least worst choice for the Netherlands to make.” But another woman said she hated the BBB and accused it of being in hock to large agricultural businesses — a common charge the party denies.  

Seeking friends in Brussels: The BBB’s Head of Europe Johan van Utrecht has held talks with all seven groups in the European Parliament, even the Greens, he said. But he has narrowed down the choice of which group they’ll join after the EU elections next year to three: Renew Europe, EPP or ECR. Seen from here, it’s no wonder the EPP has been trying to stem the leakage of votes by casting itself as the farmers’ party this year. “There are a lot of pieces of [EU] legislation that make it hard for people to keep doing their practical life,” van Utrecht said.

On the brink: Lucas Brinkhuis, 24, who leads the GreenLeft in the provincial parliament, said a coalition he’s in with BBB and other parties is going “really well.” But he fretted about what would happen to environmental policy if BBB becomes the biggest party at a national level. “When they’re really going to change the laws on nature at a national level I am worried,” he said.

HOW EU OFFICIALS GET THEIR NEWS: How do European commissioners and their staffers stay on top of the news? Before 8 a.m. on weekdays all Commission staff receive a tailored summary of must-read news stories courtesy of a German media monitoring company called Unicepta. The Cologne-based business won a €24 million four-year contract from the Commission’s Directorate-General for Communication back in February, beating three competitors to become the Berlaymont’s eyes and ears.

Newsmakers’ newsreaders: “Our key task is to keep the Commission abreast and ahead of the news curve every day, so they can know how to react to developing stories,” said Martin Schulze, Unicepta’s head of business development (not to be confused with the unrelated Martin Schulz, the former EU Parliament president and SPD heavyweight).

News is nocturnal: The company uses artificial intelligence to trawl the internet for relevant stories from the 27 EU countries, plus the U.S., U.K., Turkey, China and Russia, producing 30,000 summaries a month. Then a 25-strong team of summarizers work through the night to turn the stories into paragraph-sized synopses for the commissioners, spokespeople and bureaucrats. EU staffers get news digests tailored by policy area corresponding to their area of work, which a spokesperson described as an “essential service” for the institution’s comms work.

Guten Abend: One extra feature Unicepta provides specifically for spokespeople and for President Ursula von der Leyen’s communications adviser is a media preview of the next day’s German newspapers, which arrives, in English, in inboxes at 8:30 p.m. 

A MAURITANIAN MYSTERY: The corruption hoo-ha that has dominated Planet EU since last December has largely focused on two countries: Morocco and Qatar, which gave its name to the Qatargate scandal. But a third country is also implicated, if the alleged bribery ringleader Pier Antonio Panzeri is to be believed. The West African state of Mauritania also allegedly passed €200,000 to Panzeri and his right-hand man Francesco Giorgi between 2019 and 2022, the Italian ex-MEP told investigators. 

Nouakchott knees-up: The crowning achievement of this problematic partnership, Panzeri said, was an international human rights conference about Africa’s Sahel region in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott last June, bringing together the European Commission and Panzeri’s human rights NGO Fight Impunity. The Mauritanian president also dropped by. My colleague Gian Volpicelli and I scrutinized the murky role of Mauritania in our article, out today.

MORE TRIBUTES POUR IN FOR LATE MEP: Warm words continued for French Renew MEP and medical doctor Véronique Trillet-Lenoir who died aged 66 this week after a battle with cancer. French President Emmanuel Macron’s Elysée released a statement revealing that every Friday, the MEP would return to Lyon Sud hospital to see former patients. Ursula von der Leyen also paid tribute, saying: “Her legacy will continue to inspire us in the fight against cancer.” My colleague Ashleigh Furlong looks at her role in shaping EU health policy here. 

10 MONTHS TO GO: The EU Parliament published a video online Thursday answering the self-posed question “What is the EU doing for me?” — the surest sign yet that we’re counting down to an election. (The real answer right now is not much, because everyone is on holiday, but anyway …) Enjoyably, the video is voiced by a man with a British, well, English, accent. Reminder: This is the first EU election since 1979 that the U.K. will not participate in.

DG TRAVEL TIPS: “If you’re on the lookout for a mesmerising destination at the crossroads of East and West, you will be fascinated by #Azerbaijan.” It sounds like a travel agent’s holiday brochure but it came from the X (formerly Twitter) account of DG NEAR Director Lawrence Meredith, who will soon become the EU’s ambassador to New Zealand.

Inappropriate or keen tourist? Meredith has been producing all manner of social media posts that read like sponsored content, on countries including Armenia and Moldova. X users snapped back that he shouldn’t be uncritically promoting countries like Azerbaijan with dubious human rights records as a “tapestry of captivating experiences waiting to be explored.” 

Blocked: There’s no mention of the fact the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said he was “deeply concerned” about the “serious” humanitarian situation there as recently as July 26 because of Azerbaijan’s illegal obstruction of the Lachin Corridor, causing mayhem in Nagorno-Karabakh. Commission spokespeople were unable to respond to a request for comment made at 5 p.m. Thursday. Contacted directly, Meredith passed us back to the spokespeople.

NOT IN OUR NAME: The row over comments made by former Chief Competition Economist Pierre Régibeau, as reported in Wednesday’s Playbook, rumbles on. Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager’s cabinet spokespeople have made clear that Régibeau’s views about EU industry and competition policy are not shared at the highest floors of Berlaymont. 

Competition and industry go together: “EU competition policy is a major contributor to the EU industrial policy, as it creates the environment for EU firms to be stronger and bring the very best out of them,” Commission spokesperson Arianna Podestà told my colleague Giovanna Faggionato. In addition, “state aid control offers ample opportunities to support European industry while ensuring that public funds are used efficiently where the market fails.” 

BIDEN SEEKS MORE CASH FOR UKRAINE: U.S. President Joe Biden has asked congressional leaders in Washington for $40 billion in emergency funding, more than $24 billion of which would be for aid to Ukraine. The proposal would include $9.5 billion more to speed up the replenishment of inventories of weapons and equipment sent to the front lines in Ukraine, and $3.6 billion for military, intelligence and other support for Kyiv.

The tricky bit: The aid forms part of a wider emergency spending proposal from Biden, which will encounter hurdles on Capitol Hill, particularly from some Republican lawmakers. My U.S. colleagues have more here.

UKRAINE BRACES FOR ‘REVENGE’ ATTACKS: Russia is intensifying its attacks in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region as it aims to retake territory which it lost during Ukraine’s counteroffensive last fall, Veronika Melkozerova reports. The renewed Russian offensive comes as fighting in Ukraine’s east is heavily bogged down in a war of attrition.

BLACK SEA CORRIDOR: Kyiv announced a “humanitarian corridor” in the Black Sea on Thursday to release cargo ships trapped in its ports since the outbreak of war. The plan could be a major test of Ukraine’s ability to reopen sea lanes at a time when Russia is trying to reimpose its de-facto blockade, Reuters reports.

FOUNDER OF RUSSIA’S GOOGLE SLAMS PUTIN’S WAR: Arkady Volozh, one of the founders of Yandex — Russia’s version of Google — is “categorically against” the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the entrepreneur said Thursday in a rare public admission from a leading Russian business figure. More from Nicolas Camut here.

**DSEI is the world’s premier hybrid defence and security event, and returns to ExCeL, London from 12 – 15 September 2023. The event is crucial in bringing governments, the armed forces and the international defence industry together. There is still time to register as a visitor at the link here.**

NIGER UPDATE: The Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ordered the activation of a standby force on Thursday to possibly use against the military junta that seized power in Niger. The decision was made at an emergency summit of the bloc’s leaders in Abuja, Nigeria.

France responds: Emmanuel Macron held an emergency meeting late Thursday with ministers and his ambassador to Niger. Paris backed the decision by ECOWAS to assemble a standby force, saying that France “affirms its full support for all the conclusions adopted at this extraordinary summit.” Zoya Sheftalovich has more here.

FRANCE — COPS CHARGED: French prosecutors have filed preliminary charges against three police officers in Marseilles over the death of a man during riots earlier this summer, which were sparked by the killing of a teenager by police in June. Prosecutors say it was likely the man died as a result of the impact of a shot from a blast ball commonly used by police. More via AFP here.

RUSSIA HEADS FOR THE MOON: President Vladimir Putin hauled his country back into the space race in the early hours of Friday, with the launch of Russia’s first lunar mission in nearly half a century. The Lunar-25 mission will aim to scope out the lunar south pole — an area of the moon both Washington and Moscow are scrambling to get to in search of natural resources. More from Joshua Posaner, Matt Berg and Laura Hülsemann here.

RYANAIR RAGES AT ‘SOVIET’ ITALY: Ryanair CEO Eddie Wilson lashed out at the Italian government’s measures to combat high flight prices between Italy’s islands and the mainland, comparing the plans to “the Soviet Union in 1927.” The European Commission has asked Rome for more information on the measures, which airlines say breach EU rules. More from Elena Giordano and Mari Eccles here.

EU LOSES TO CHINA ON GREEN ENERGY: Despite the loss of Europe’s solar power industry to China, the same is about to happen to the Continent’s wind sector, Ann Mettler, a former director-general at the Commission, writes in an opinion article for POLITICO.

ECUADOR ARRESTS: Ecuadorian police say they have arrested six Colombian suspects in connection with the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio on Thursday. The BBC has the story.

BELGIAN UNI LAUNCHES TAYLOR SWIFT COURSE: Taylor Swift might be skipping Belgium in her European tour, but from next semester Ghent University will introduce an elective course called “English literature: Taylor’s version” based on analysis of Swift’s songs and their references to classic English literature. “The course is not going to be a fan club,” said Elly McCausland, who’ll be teaching it. McCausland added that “enough books have already been written about Shakespeare and other dead white men.” 

SLAM POETRY! CITY POET PLAN UNDER ATTACK: The plan to have a Brussels city poet, announced earlier this week, is already causing controversy. “An urban poet … does that have to be paid for by the public authorities?” tweeted Georges-Louis Bouchez, president of the liberal MR Party. MR Brussels MP Aurélie Czekalski chimed in: “Brussels friends, you may not know it yet but #Brussels has won the EuroMillions.”

MR decrees, no poet for you: The employment of a poet is a part of the city’s effort to become the European Capital of Culture in 2030. A decision on who gets the role should come at the end of the year. Stay tuned.

RUBBISH! ANOTHER WASTE COLLECTION PROBLEM: Some Brussels municipalities are considering fining Bruxelles-Propreté, the public organization in charge of waste collection, for failing to pick up the trash. Brussels introduced a new waste collection system in May, which makes food waste recycling mandatory and reduces collection of general waste bags from twice to once a week. That’s causing problems for some densely populated municipalities. More here.

WELL AISLE BE DAMNED: Retail giant Ahold Delhaize’s sales were negatively impacted by strikes in stores around Belgium, according to the company’s quarterly report. The strikes erupted in March over the company’s franchising plans, and led to prolonged closures of some stores. Delhaize spokesperson Isabelle Meltzer told Playbook’s Ketrin Jochecová that while the decrease in profits was in part due to the strikes, the bottom line was also hit for other reasons, “including the closing of a fulfilment center in the U.S.”

COMING TO A SKY NEAR YOU: The Perseid meteor shower will be visible in Belgium over the next few nights. The peak is expected on the night of August 12-13. You can watch on Saturday at the Aquascope Virelles center … at the car park at BW Astronomy club on Saturday and Sunday … or the whole weekend at child-friendly Sparkoh! Center near Mons.

TRAFFIC UPDATE: Part of Brussels Ring Road will be closed off from 10 p.m. today until Monday at 4 a.m. due to repair work. More info here (in French).

WHAT’S ON THIS WEEKEND: Go check out nine wooden elephants at Brussels Grand-Place as part of Flowertime festival … Antwerp Pride Festival with a parade on Saturday … Antilliaanse Feesten, one of Europe’s biggest Caribbean music festivals, kicked off on Thursday in Hoogstraten close to Antwerp. It will run until Saturday.

BYE BYE to Dan Macarthur, the U.K. Mission’s deputy spokesperson on foreign affairs and security, who is heading back to London, three years after arriving at the height of Brexit negotiations. John Brunskill takes over his portfolio and Caitlin Griffith joins as deputy spokesperson next week.

BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Andrea BocskorMarkus Buchheit and Marian-Jean MarinescuPrincess Mabel of Orange-Nassau, POLITICO 28 alum; POLITICO’s Andrew McDonald; European Commission’s Cristina Torres Castillo.

Celebrating Saturday: Former French President François HollandeEnrico Gasbarra, former MEP; Affordable Medicines Europe’s Kasper ErnestGeorge Soros, Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist and POLITICO 28 alum.

Celebrating Sunday: MEPs Andrey Slabakov and José Manuel García-Margallo; Former French PM Manuel Valls; Managing Director of the IMF Kristalina Georgieva; Former MEP Gérard Deprez; POLITICO’s Aurélie Burnier; BABEDA’s Liora Kern.

Source: Politico