A tractor blockade by angry farmers brought Brussels to a standstill on Thursday.Photo: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock
Hundreds of tractors choked the city center of Brussels on Thursday and angry farmers pelted the European Parliament with eggs. Although agriculture was not on the agenda for the meeting of EU leaders down the street, politicians may conclude that they ignore these grievances at their peril.
Here’s a look at what’s behind the farmers’ protests that have been sweeping Europe for months – in countries including Greece, Germany, Portugal, Poland and France, where the government was surprised this week by a Paris highway blockade.
Some concerns, such as a plan by Berlin to phase out tax breaks on agricultural diesel to balance the budget, or a demand in the Netherlands to cut nitrogen emissions, are country-specific. But many of them are shared across the continent.
Farmers have said they face falling sales prices, rising costs, onerous regulations, powerful and dominant retailers, debt, climate change and cheap foreign imports, all within an EU agricultural system based on the premise that “bigger is better”.
Costs rise, prices fall
Farmers’ costs – especially for energy, fertilizer and transport – have risen in many EU countries, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. At the same time, governments and retailers, realizing the cost of living impact on consumers, to reduce rising food prices.
Farm prices – the basic price farmers receive for their produce – have fallen by almost 9% on average between the third quarter of 2022 and the same period last year, according to Eurostat data analyzed by Politico, with only a few products – including olives oil, hit by shortages – bucking the trend.
Imports are also a concern, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, where a flood of cheap agricultural products from Ukraine – on which the EU relinquished quotas and tariffs after the Russian invasion – has pushed down prices and fueled resentment over unfair competition. has increased.
Polish farmers began blocking roads from Ukraine in protest as early as last spring, and although Brussels quickly imposed restrictions on exports from Kiev to its nearest neighbors, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia each announced their own restrictions once these passed.
“Ukrainian grain should go where it belongs, to Asian or African markets, not to Europe,” the Polish farmers’ union said last month.
Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in France, cheap imports from further afield are a source of increasing anger. Producers from countries such as New Zealand and Chile are blamed because they do not have to comply with the same strict regulations as farmers in the EU.
Negotiations to seal a major trade deal between the EU and South America’s Mercosur trading bloc have been the target of particular anger, with European farmers unhappy at the prospect of unfair competition in sugar, grain and meat.
Rising temperatures, rising tensions
Extreme weather events caused by climate change are increasingly impacting production, with some water reservoirs in southern Spain at just 4% capacity, while forest fires last year wiped out around 20% of Greece’s annual agricultural income.
Southern Europe has seen relatively few protests so far, but that could change as governments, particularly in Spain and Portugal, consider emergency water restrictions amid record-breaking droughts.
More generally, many farmers complain not only that they feel persecuted by what they see as a Brussels bureaucracy that knows little about their business, but also that they feel caught between seemingly conflicting public demands for cheap food and climate-friendly processes.
Related: ‘Hypocritical’ European politicians weaken climate policy amid farmers’ protests
And to end it all…
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the €55 billion per year subsidy system on which Europe’s food security has rested for more than sixty years, has traditionally been based on economies of scale: larger farms, larger farms, common standards.
That has fueled consolidation – the number of farms in the EU has fallen by more than a third since 2005 – leaving many larger, highly indebted farms in low-margin business, while smaller farms are increasingly uncompetitive.
More recently, the agricultural sector, which is responsible for 11% of EU greenhouse gas emissions, has become increasingly alarmed by rules in the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, part of the landmark European Green Deal aimed at the block can be made climate neutral by 2050.
Goals include halving pesticides by 2030, reducing fertilizer use by 20%, devoting more land to non-agricultural uses – for example by leaving it fallow or planting non-productive trees – and doubling organic production to 25% of all agricultural land in the EU.
Many farmers are already complaining that existing EU rules in areas such as irrigation and animal welfare are being interpreted too strictly. They argue that the coming green policies are unfair, unrealistic, economically unviable and will ultimately be self-defeating.
What are politicians doing to suppress the protests – and will they succeed?
National governments have taken steps: Berlin has weakened its plans to cut diesel subsidies; Paris scrapped a tax hike on diesel, postponed other measures and promised 150 million euros in aid, prompting farmer unions to call on their members to suspend their protests.
“The same question arises everywhere in Europe: how do we continue to produce more but better? How can we continue to tackle climate change? How can we avoid unfair competition from abroad?” said Gabriel Attal, the French Prime Minister on Thursday.
At EU level, the European Commission has proposed restricting imports of agricultural products from Ukraine through an “emergency brake”, and exempting farmers from the obligation to keep 4% of their land fallow before 2024 while still receiving EU subsidies .
Not wanting to further disrupt an already rebellious sector, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland, have said the proposed trade deal between the EU and Mercosur should not be signed in its current form.
With farmers gaining increasing support from Europe’s far-right parties, which are expected to make significant gains in June’s European Parliament elections, further concessions seem more than likely.