Blocked highways, vandalized police cars and ministers being visited at home: the Netherlands is under the spell of farmers’ protests. The farmers set out with very heavy tractors and the police hardly seem to be able to do anything about it. It seems, because in the short term the police force will show its muscles, police experts expect.
Jaap Timmer of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam believes that the tolerance of the police is coming to an end due to the constant illegal protests. That is also the opinion of Marnix Eysink Smeets (Inholland Rotterdam). “The police can’t let these incidents go on for too long. With the recent arrests, they show that the behavior is unacceptable.”
The pair points to the incidents at the house of nitrogen minister Christianne van der Wal and the dangerous situations that arose during blockades of highways. “The police force must set limits when farmers cross the line,” says Eysink Smeets. “I was surprised by the police reading that the situation was manageable, while officers felt unsafe.”
Police can quickly end protests, but risk escalation
On social media and on our discussion platform NUjij, many users wondered why the police did not take stricter action against the farmers before, and they still ended up on highways. The police experts emphasize that the risk of escalation would then have become much greater.
“The most important weapon of the police is their intellect and the dialogue,” says Eysink Smeets. “You don’t want to elicit agri-guerilla.”
Timmer: “You have to get off the road and sit at the table. Violence is a means that agents would rather not use. Sometimes you have to tolerate the misbehavior given the seriousness and threat.”
However, the risk of escalation will not continue to outweigh the loss of authority because no active action is taken in the event of abuses. And that the police can do nothing is a big misconception, the police experts emphasize. “The corps in Apeldoorn has shown that.”
Police have resources to solve tractor problem
Timmer lists some means with which agents can bring the farmers to their knees.
- The police can block the road with heavy containers or vehicles
- Emergency ordinances allow tractors to be seized
- The Marechaussee and the army have specialized vehicles
“Think of armored tracked vehicles,” says Timmer. “They are normally available for security duties, but have been used in the past for counter-terror missions and breaking truck blockages. For example, staff can unblock tractor brakes and tow agricultural vehicles.”
The police scientist also calls it outrageous that towing companies have – allegedly – been threatened for removing tractors. “That too is a task that Defense can take over, with special low-loaders that normally transport tanks.”
Help from the Marechaussee and Defense is within reach
The help of the Marechaussee and assistance from the Defense organization can easily be requested through regulations and the Police Act, say Eysink Smeets and Timmer. And with the limited police capacity, this can be a welcome solution.
“The police have been greatly overworked in recent years,” says Eysink Smeets. “Capacity is under great pressure. These protests are causing even more police officers to move out and you run the risk of exhausting them.”
Timmer adds: “Police deployment comes with a price. It takes a lot of hours that they could otherwise use as detectives in the future.”
Timmer also disagrees with claims that more decisive action was taken in the corona riots, for example. According to him, especially the protest actions that have gotten out of hand remain with the public. Many other demonstrations were peaceful. “I have the idea that farmers’ protests get out of hand relatively more often.”
“It’s not as if officers don’t want to intervene,” says Eysink Smeets, “but they have to make a decision at a time based on available resources.”
The police are not as powerless and farmers are not as invincible as many people think, the two conclude. “But diplomacy is the better solution. Farmers know they can’t be caught easily. But at some point their statement is made and the government has to say: this far and no further.”