Anyone about town on Friday would likely have come across the procession of tractors that congregated in Brussels as farmers from Flanders marked their frustration with the nitrogen policy deadlock. As explained last week, the explosive affair isn't only a big deal for those who till the land – it threatens to break up the Flemish government, which is currently incapacitated by the impasse.
ICYMI, Flanders must urgently cut its nitrogen pollution if it is to receive EU funds provided under the Common Agricultural Policy. There is a lot of money at stake – many farms couldn't continue without it. But this is the bitter pill that Flemish politicians have been struggling to swallow: it isn't possible for the region to comply with EU limits without closing the most-polluting farms, and forcing radical changes to farming practices.
In a region that has over 23,000 farms (and 6.65 million residents), the proposed policy is political cyanide for parties that count on the considerable vote of the rural community. This has left ministers locked in disagreement, despite repeated efforts to settle on a deal. Meanwhile farmers have been up in arms about the lack of clarity. And funds.
City dwellers have a tendency to look inwards. Distracted by the bright lights of urban life, they often write off affairs of the countryside as parochial. With one-third of Brussels residents from overseas and the country's complex overlay of regional and federal administrations confusing even Belgian nationals (more on that here), it might be tempting to turn away from this issue. After all, it wouldn't be the first time we've seen Belgium's governing coalitions unable – or unwilling – to agree.
Friday's tractor convoy certainly turned heads – a refreshing change from the typical picket lines that usually head towards the numerous seats of government. But the fallout of this clash could be the dissolution of the Flemish government as the party responsible for the discord might be manoeuvred out of the political picture.
Belgium has historically set records for muddling by without an elected government, an almost two-year stretch that tested the fibre of its institutions. But it's unlikely that Flanders will be able to keep this up, not least given the livelihoods that hang on a decision, one way or the other.
Those who won't be impacted by the policy can watch the drama with disaffected zeal. But if you happen to have a tractor in the family, this is crunch time for life as you know it.
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