“It’s important to have a strong lobby for Dutch interests”

Jessika van Leeuwen(third from left and right on the screen) during a debate in Eindhoven. Photo: Rob Engelaar ANP

With the EU parliamentary elections just over a week away, Dutch News is talking to several Dutch candidates. Jessika van Leeuwen, number two on the list for the pro-countryside BBB, is third in the series.

Europe is set for a change of course when voters go to the polls on June 6 to choose a new European parliament.

Although much of the attention has focused on the likely gains for the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group, which includes Geert Wilders’s PVV, there has been a shift in tone by largest European “family”, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), on issues such as climate change and agriculture.

A resurgence of farmers’ protests in February against the EU’s Green Deal has prompted European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to take a more conservative line. Farming groups complained that excessive regulation, climate change targets and low supermarket prices were destroying their livelihoods.

Von der Leyen, who will seek a second term as Commissioner after the elections as the EPP’s candidate, has courted the farming vote during the election campaign, saying: “EPP will always be by the side of our farmers.” In February she withdrew a law that would have required pesticide use to be halved by 2030, after the conservative parties voted it down in parliament. The EU also cut a requirement to cut nitrogen and methane gases by 30% from its road map for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The protests reflected farmers’ despair at the way Brussels has imposed its Green Deal reforms on the agriculture sector, says Jessika van Leeuwen, the number two candidate for the farmers’ party BBB. “For a large number of farmers it was a kick in the teeth,” she says. “They don’t know what they’re supposed to do to comply with all the demands.”

Animal nutrition

Van Leeuwen has spent 15 years in the animal feed industry, latterly with Danish-based company Hamlet Protein, after obtaining a PhD in reproductive physiology at Wageningen University. She got involved in politics two and a half years ago after becoming concerned about the direction the Netherlands was heading in.

“I noticed during an international conference that when people asked me how things were going in the Netherlands, I couldn’t say with conviction that they were going well,” she has said. She joined the BBB – in her words “the only party that spoke up strongly and coherently for the Netherlands” – and stood as a candidate for her local water board, Drents-Overijsselse Delta, last year, becoming the leader of the 10-member party group.

Van Leeuwen says farmers have been let down both by Europe’s Green Deal policies and the failure of the Dutch government to stand up for their interests in Brussels. “It’s important for the Netherlands to have a strong lobby for Dutch interests,” she says. In its manifesto, the BBB says MEPs should spend one day a month in The Hague updating parliament on their activities. Nations should retain their veto rights and Dutch ministers should only approve new laws in Brussels once they have been endorsed by a vote in parliament.

Nature restoration

That would avoid a repeat of the stand-off over the European nature restoration law, which nature and nitrogen minister Christianne van der Wal initially supported, while a majority of the the new MPS elected on November 22 opposed it. “Eventually we were able to stop her in her tracks by saying: we want you to vote against it. So it’s very important that there is a good dialogue between what parliament wants and what the members of government do.”

A particular bugbear for the BBB is the phasing out of the manure derogation. Dutch farmers were given special dispensation to spread more animal waste on certain types of grassland, but from 2026 the Netherlands will have to observe the standard European limit of 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare, making it harder to dispose of organic manure.

Van Leeuwen cites it as an example of how Europe imposes “one-size-fits-all” limits on a diverse industry. “It’s a bit bizarre that our fertile soil is treated the same as desert regions of Spain,” she says. But her sharpest criticism is directed at the Dutch government, which 30 years ago declared the whole of the Netherlands a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ). The European nitrate directive requires countries to protect water sources in areas with high levels of nitrogen pollution, but applying the label to the entire country is “unacceptable”, says Van Leeuwen.

“It’s just because someone couldn’t be bothered to make a proper map,” she says. “So we say, make a real map that says: here are the fertile areas, here are the vulnerable areas that we need to protect, and decide what type of manure can be used based on an accurate map.”

“Unaffordable” targets

The BBB describes Europe’s targets as “unattainable and unaffordable” targets, such as its commitment to be climate neutral by 2050, and says the industry should be given more freedom to innovate and set the pace. The current system is inefficient, inflexible and fixated on micromanagement, Van Leeuwen argues.

“I love to take my children to school by bike. I’m happy, I’m being active and I feel like I’m doing my bit for sustainability. But if it’s tipping down with rain I want to have the option of taking the car. That’s what it’s like with these rules. When there’s a crisis you need to have the option of doing things differently.

“We have so many great opportunities to be innovative, but at the moment there is this huge focus on rules, we get rule after rule, and companies are overburdened by administration because they have to report on what they’re doing.”

Van Leeuwen points out that Dutch farmers have reduced nitrogen emissions by 49% since 1990, including a 65% reduction in ammonia from agriculture, “without any impositions from on high”. “So we can do it, and we should be proud of that and give our companies space to work on it,” she says.

Red card

The BBB is not a Eurosceptic party, Van Leeuwen says, but it wants to strengthen the sovereignty of member states by making sure decisions are taken “closer to Europe’s citizens where possible”. It wants to introduce a “red card” system so that national parliaments can block measures that should be determined at national or local level.

“We believe very strongly in the power of the European Union,” she says. “We are keenly aware that it’s a good thing for the Netherlands to have the internal market, but also to be part of an external trading block and act collectively in areas such as energy provision, defence and food security.”

If, as polls suggest, the BBB wins a seat or two in the European Parliament, it will seek to join the EPP group as part of a “centre-right correction” in Europe. That aspiration is less clear-cut since the BBB agreed to form a government in The Hague with Geert Wilders’s far-right PVV, but Von der Leyen’s determination to court the farming vote is likely to carry more weight.


It is not a perfect match for the BBB either: the EU has cooled on its Green Deal since Wopke Hoekstra, a Christian Democrat like Von der Leyen, took over the post of climate commissioner from his centre-left countryman Frans Timmermans. But Hoekstra has reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to targets such as a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, most recently at the COP28 summit in Dubai last autumn.

Timmermans’ other flagship policy, the nature restoration law, will be in the spotlight after the elections, having been put on hold after eight EU nations, including the Netherlands, withdrew their support for it. The EPP voted against the law in February, calling on the Commission to “start from scratch and put farmers’ interests first”.

“We made the choice for the EPP because when you look in broad terms at all the foreign parties who are in it, we see a lot of points of agreement,” Van Leeuwen says. “They see what has happened in the last few years with the Green Deal that Timmermans pushed through. Situations have arisen that are untenable and unaffordable for citizens. So we think that by joining the largest party group, we can wield the greatest and fastest influence.”

Asylum processing

As a member of the right-wing coalition taking shape in The Hague, the BBB is also calling for a clampdown on migration, with tighter controls at the border and more processing of asylum claims outside Europe. The current system is failing both European citizens and people fleeing their countries, Van Leeuwen says. “You can see differences between the member states and a lot of people disappear under the radar. Moreover a lot of people have to wait a long time for an answer when ultimately they’re not allowed to come here. It’s an expensive and inhumane system.”

The BBB’s manifesto suggests a number of countries where asylum seekers could be accommodated while they wait for their applications to be processed, one of which is Georgia. But since the manifesto was published Georgia’s parliament has introduced a “foreign agents law”, based on the Russian model, which would require third-country agencies to register with the government and be subject to tighter controls. It sparked mass protests in the streets, reflecting how quickly a country’s security situation can change.

“Sometimes developments move faster than the presses run,” Van Leeuwen says. “If we reach the point where we can get to work, we’ll have to make the correct judgment based on the geopolitical situation at that moment. I think there will be enough countries outside Georgia where we can introduce the procedure safely.”

Read the other interviews in the series:

Raquel García Hermida-van der Walle (D66) – “Spanish by birth, Dutch by choice and European by conviction”

Bas Eickhout (GroenLinks-PvdA) – “A stagnant Europe is an advantage for Putin and Trump”

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