Home Society Meet the — really — angry farmers coming to take down Brussels
Meet the — really — angry farmers coming to take down Brussels

Meet the — really — angry farmers coming to take down Brussels

by host

When farmers descend on the European district of Brussels on June 4, don’t be fooled.

They won’t be the same farmers who burned hay, toppled statues, fought with police and sprayed manure on the buildings of the EU institutions several times this year.

No, even those protesters find these rivals too militant and don’t want to be associated with them.

Emerging from countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Poland, these radical groups have grown over the past five years, claiming to defend farmers from a political establishment they say is determined to wipe them out.

Emboldened by the electoral success of a farming party in the Netherlands that will join the right-wing coalition being formed by populist Geert Wilders, these groups are urging voters to back candidates in the European election who will reverse the EU’s Green Deal reforms of recent years.

It also just so happens that the politicians they want to see running the EU are on the far right of the spectrum.

So who are the really angry farmers who are coming to Brussels to shake things up?

Last line of defense

The most prominent of these groups, the Farmers Defence Force, was formed in the Netherlands in May 2019 by farmer Mark van den Oever to fight the occupation of a pig farm by animal activists.

The FDF gained notoriety as one of the two farmer groups that launched mass protests against the government’s policy to curb pollution from intensive livestock farming. The newly formed right-wing coalition led by Wilders, in which the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) has a seat at the table, has pledged to reverse farm closures and livestock reductions.

Van den Oever is notorious for his inflammatory rhetoric.

Protests by farmers in Brussels in February 2024. | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

He has compared the situation of Dutch farmers to that of Jews during World War II and called the children of the country’s nitrogen minister “pussies” after they were intimidated by FDF activists outside their home.

In 2020, Dutch counterterrorism authorities included FDF in their annual report, describing it as an activist group that fuels polarization. A 2021 investigation by De Groene Amsterdammer found an overlap between FDF members on social media and conspiracists spreading anti-vaxx information and warnings about pedophile networks.

In last year’s national elections, the group’s spokesperson, Sieta van Keimpema, ran for the far-right Belang van Nederland. The party won no seats.

“Everyone calls us the far right, but the real extremists are in politics. They have blood on their hands,” van Keimpema told POLITICO, adding that only right-wing politicians actively engage with her group while others ignore it.

“It’s their choice, not mine. I can’t force them.”

FDF formed an offshoot in Belgium last year in Flanders, which claims a support base of about 4,500. The Belgian FDF has played an active role in demonstrations in Brussels and elsewhere around the country.

All united

Germany’s Landwirtschaft verbindet Deutschland — known as LSV, or Agriculture unites Germany — was founded in 2021 on the back of a protest movement launched just months after the FDF.

The group has taken inspiration from its Dutch counterpart, blocking roads with tractors (including earlier this year in Berlin) and making veiled threats against progressive politicians.

LSV maintains a more subdued online presence than the FDF, but its leaders have faced accusations that they may be too close to the country’s main far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

Last year, LSV chief spokesperson Anthony Robert Lee was billed to speak at an AfD event; he withdrew amid a wave of criticism.

Speaking to POLITICO by phone, Lee said his group was not actively working with the AfD, but he did not rule out the possibility of that happening in the future. (Lee is running in the European election for another rightwing party, the Free Voters, which is part of the regional government in Bavaria.)

“Many things that the AfD say are true and I support that, but the truth also is that the AfD was never in government duty, so they couldn’t prove how good they are or how bad they are. But I’m totally open for it,” said the former paratrooper and son of a British soldier.

To him, groups like the AfD are simply filling the vacuum left by traditional political parties that have failed to address people’s needs.

“The people who are willing to vote for the AfD, they are not nationalists, or right wing or whatever. Most of them are probably just fed up with the whole political system,” he said.

Lee has been quoted in the past claiming that land in Europe is being taken from farmers to build houses for refugees.

Farmers protest in Brussels in Marc 2024. | James Arthur Gekiere/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

“I didn’t say it like that,” he told POLITICO. “I said there are many reasons.”

Still, he added, housing refugees was becoming a problem in his home town of Rinteln, Lower Saxony. 

“This is a small town of only 27,000 people, and one school is totally closed for the refugees,” he said. “And we don’t have a square meter left … to build something new, so obviously the farmers have the land — and that’s what I meant.”

Free thinkers

Founded by Polish fur farming magnate Szczepan Wójcik and led by Monika Przeworska, the Institute of Agricultural Economy, or IGR, is the smallest of the three groups coordinating the demonstration.

It’s also the only one that isn’t a protest movement per se, but rather a self-styled think tank working on agricultural policy.

Wójcik made his name bankrolling a campaign against the former Polish government’s attempt in 2020 to ban fur farming. His allies included priest-turned-media mogul Tadeusz Rydzyk.

During this year’s farmer protests, the IGR coordinated several actions across the country, and Wójcik attended a closed-door meeting between Prime Minister Donald Tusk and other farming leaders.

Like the other groups involved in the Brussels demonstration, the IGR denies belonging to the far right, but its social media channels and news portal give airtime to politicians from the Confederation Party, which espouses a kind of free-market liberalism laced with anti-EU and pro-Russian sentiment.

Neither Wójcik nor Przeworska hide their fascination with far-right parties elsewhere in Europe. Shortly after Wilders announced that he was forming a Dutch government, Wójcik posted photos of himself with the bleached-haired politician.

It’s hard to say how big a role the IGR has played in popularizing the far right among Polish farmers — but the shift is noticeable. 

In 2019, only 3.4 percent of Polish farmers voted for the newly formed Confederation. In this year’s regional elections, 9.3 percent did.

Big bang or big fizzle

Other groups involved in the demonstration include Coordination Rurale, France’s No.2 farmers’ union, which has a history of flirting with the National Rally, especially at local level, and Spain’s Plataforma 6F, a farmers’ movement allied with the far-right Vox party.

But for all the talk of a pan-European revolution and slick videos promoting the demonstration, June 4 in the EU capital may end up being no different than any other day.

FDF’s van Keimpema said that mainstream agricultural unions have advised their members to stay away.

Because of the backlash, she expected a thousand people to attend, “maybe 3,000 if we’re lucky.” That’s down from the hundreds of thousands her group was predicting just a month ago.

Even if the event fizzles, the groups behind it are unlikely to go away, especially if the far right does well in the EU election — as indicated by POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.

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