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The agricultural community is rebelling and the climate plans of Europe are falling apart. We have entered the era of 'greenlash' | Paul Taylor.
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The agricultural community is rebelling and the climate plans of Europe are falling apart. We have entered the era of ‘greenlash’ | Paul Taylor.


Last week, Ursula von der Leyen gave in to frustrated farmers at an astonishing speed, as quick as shaking a pitchfork or dumping a load of manure outside the European parliament. The president of the European Commission, who was set to announce her bid for a second term as head of the EU executive next week, informed lawmakers that the commission would no longer pursue a bill to decrease the use of chemical pesticides by half by 2030 and would instead engage in further discussions.

The suggested action was a crucial component of the commission’s European Green Deal and Farm to Fork plan. Its goal is to achieve carbon neutrality in the EU by 2050, promote eco-friendly practices in agriculture, and protect biodiversity.

Von der Leyen’s sudden U-turn on one of her signature policies was not just an attempt to defuse a spreading continent-wide rural revolt over rising fuel costs, burdensome environmental regulations, retailers’ price squeezes and cheap imports. It was also a sign of growing panic among the EU’s mainstream parties over the seemingly inexorable rise of far-right nationalists ahead of the June elections.

Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, is competing to become the lead candidate for the center-right European People’s Party in the upcoming elections. However, she is not running for a seat in the European Parliament herself. Her official appointment as the EPP’s Spitzenkandidaten, or lead candidate, to serve as the Commission president from 2024 to 2029, is expected to take place at a party congress on March 6-7. While there are no other candidates, she has had to compromise on her environmentally-friendly policies in order to appease a party that is concerned about the potential backlash against legislation aimed at achieving net zero emissions. As a result, the party is now positioning itself as a voice for gradual adaptation that is acceptable and affordable for citizens.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels, Belgium, 14 February 2024

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In December, leaders of the European Union attempted to resolve a controversial topic by reaching an agreement on a migration pact that had been stalled for a long time. The pact involves implementing stricter measures for controlling external borders, expediting the process of evaluating asylum requests, and deporting those whose applications are denied. Additionally, it aims to distribute the responsibility of handling the refugee crisis among EU member countries. However, some populist leaders, such as Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, remain opposed to the idea of being forced to either accept unwanted migrants or financially support other countries in taking them in under this new system.

In January, I came across unpublished survey results for the European parliament which revealed that parties with Eurosceptic, sovereigntist, or populist views are leading in eight out of the 27 EU member states and are in second place in four others. Additionally, the countries with the highest levels of support for far-right parties are also the ones with the most representation in the parliament, such as Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Romania, and the Netherlands.

This situation is becoming frightening, and occurrences like the farmers’ protests are working in favor of populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France, Alice Weidel in Germany, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. These leaders thrive on the discontent of ordinary people against the elite groups in big cities.

“The proposed use of pesticides has become a divisive issue,” von der Leyen acknowledged during her address to parliament in Strasbourg. “In order to make progress, it is necessary to engage in more constructive dialogue and adopt a different approach.” This may be a case of closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped.

In the past, farmers typically supported mainstream conservative and Christian Democratic parties. On the other hand, socialists and social democrats tended to have more support in industrial urban areas. Former president Jacques Chirac, known for his support of farmers, was often seen playfully patting cows in his constituency of Corrèze in southwestern France or at the annual Paris agricultural fair. However, recent polls show that these voters are now more likely to vote for Le Pen’s National Rally.

In France, the Republican party, which is considered to be the successor of former President Chirac, is currently only polling at 8%, while the National Rally party is leading in recent surveys with over 30% support. The far-right Reconquest! party, led by anti-Islam figure Éric Zemmour, has gained 6-8% support. Jordan Bardella, a 28-year-old MEP and leader of the National Rally party, is heading the list for the upcoming election, while Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece and a popular figure among the far-right, is leading Zemmour’s list with support from US political strategist Steve Bannon.

Farmer dissatisfaction with restrictions on nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands resulted in the unexpected emergence of the Farmer-Citizen Movement, a political party that gained the most votes in regional elections last March. Some of these protestors have now shifted their support to Wilders’ Freedom party, which won the most votes in a general election in November and has continued to increase its popularity.

Satisfying the rebellion in rural areas may prevent farmers from blocking highways or setting fire to hay bales in front of government buildings, but it is unlikely to persuade them to align with the mainstream center-right, considering the extent of their dissatisfaction.

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Farmers protesting in Rome, Italy, 15 February 2024

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Abandoning environmentally-friendly policies when faced with challenges will only strengthen opposition to other efforts towards climate protection, such as transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, constructing wind and solar facilities, restricting polluting vehicles in urban areas, or implementing carbon taxes on gasoline and household energy expenses.

Surprisingly, the Greens, who are not included in the main coalition of center-right, center-liberal, and center-left parties that hold power in the commission and parliament, are expected to face the greatest consequences from the anger of farmers. According to recent polls, the ecologists may lose up to 1/3 of their 72 seats in the 720-member legislature due to the backlash against their policies.

However, according to a political consultant involved in the campaign, there is still significant potential for the far right to gain support. The use of incidents involving migrants, fueled by xenophobic politicians and disinformation on social media, may be utilized to incite public opinion leading up to the June election. Both Russia and Belarus have attempted to use refugees at the EU’s eastern borders to instill fear, most recently in Finland. The fear of terrorism may also sway voters towards parties that promise stricter law enforcement and immigration policies.

Von der Leyen’s only small comfort is that the right-wing populists are unable to come to a consensus and form a unified group in the European Parliament due to personal, ideological, or national conflicts.

Giorgia Meloni’s political party, Brothers of Italy, is part of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group which also includes the Polish Law and Justice party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, the Finns party, and the Sweden Democrats. Meanwhile, Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini’s League is aligned with the hard-right Identity and Democracy group, along with Le Pen’s National Rally, Weidel’s Alternative für Deutschland, and Wilders’ Freedom party.

If the extreme right does not experience a greater increase than what has already been forecasted, it will continue to be fragmented and excluded from EU decision-making due to the collaboration of pro-European dominant parties. However, as demonstrated by von der Leyen’s change in stance on pesticides, it may be gaining ground in certain policy debates in Europe.

  • Paul Taylor holds a distinguished position as a senior member of the Friends of Europe thinktank.

Source: theguardian.com