The farmers of Europe successfully challenged Brussels and its numerous regulations, claiming that they were being overwhelmed by them.
In the outskirts of Pamplona, a stream of tractors from New Holland, John Deere, Massey Ferguson, Fendt, and Deutz-Fahr in the colors green, red, and blue rolled forward, sounding their horns and flashing orange lights.
Amidst the rainy and overcast weather and accompanied by police vans, there was little desire to clarify the reasons for their protest. However, a young farmer from Estella, a nearby town, eagerly opened his taxi door to express his complaints. “They are overwhelming us with regulations,” he stated. “They should relax the strict rules and red tape. We cannot keep up with other countries under these circumstances. We feel like we are being suffocated.”
Farmers in Europe have paused their protests in France and Germany, but continue to demonstrate in Spain as they wait for concrete action from their governments rather than just promises.
Last week, farmers in various countries, including Poland and Portugal, expressed their frustration by blocking roads, a port, and a major wholesale market. They intend to continue these protests throughout February. Italian farmers also joined in by driving their tractors to the outskirts of Rome and staging a symbolic drive-by of the Colosseum on Friday.
In the past few weeks, major cities such as Paris and Lyon have experienced blockades. The city centers of Brussels and Berlin have come to a halt due to heavy traffic. Farmers have taken action by shutting down highways, leaving manure, throwing eggs, destroying supermarkets, lighting hay bales and pallets on fire, and engaging in confrontations, occasionally resulting in violence, with law enforcement.
The farmer’s protest has gained support from the populist far right, who view it as a new opportunity to fight against “elites” and environmental policies imposed by Brussels. This support has been evident in TV interviews and speeches in Parliament, away from the intensity of the protests themselves.
In the lead-up to the European parliament elections, there is a predicted increase in support for far-right and “anti-European” parties. Surprisingly, farming, which only makes up 1.4% of the EU’s gross domestic product, has become a major focus in political discussions.
France’s prime minister, Gabriel Attal, noted that similar concerns are being raised across Europe. These include how to increase production while also improving its quality, addressing climate change, and preventing unfair competition from other nations.
These are urgent inquiries that Europe must address swiftly. The initial concerns arose in the Netherlands, a highly agricultural nation with over 110 million farm animals, such as cows, pigs, and chickens. This has resulted in nitrogen emissions four times higher than the EU average.
Five years ago, government officials announced the need for extreme measures, such as purchasing and closing down farms, in order to address nitrogen emissions. The government’s goal is to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030, which includes a potential reduction of up to one third in livestock numbers. Dutch farmers did not wait for more information before expressing their discontent. In October 2019, over 2,000 tractors from all over the country gathered in The Hague to protest, causing 620 miles of traffic jams on the motorway. Their signs read “No farmers no food” and “Proud of the farmer.” This sparked a movement that has spread across the EU, with only Austria, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden remaining unaffected so far.
Several demonstrations, such as those in the Netherlands, are specific to their country. In Italy, the requests included the restoration of a tax exemption that had been implemented since 2017, but was scheduled to be removed in the 2024 budget. In Germany, protests have temporarily halted after an estimated 30,000 farmers and 5,000 tractors caused chaos in Berlin in mid-January. The most contentious issue there is the government’s proposal to gradually eliminate tax breaks on agricultural diesel in order to balance the budget.
However, what ties these farmers together are common concerns that are prevalent throughout mainland Europe. These include decreasing prices of products, increasing expenses, dominating retailers, inexpensive imports from other countries, and the EU’s environmental regulations that are perceived as unjust and impractical by many farmers. Arnaud Rousseau, the president of France’s largest farmers union, FNSEA, stated that there are numerous problems, but they all stem from a lack of comprehension between the actual circumstances faced by farmers and the choices made by governments.
Spain’s agriculture minister, Luis Planas, said last week that the causes of the protests sweeping Europe were diverse and complicated, but boiled down to longstanding dissatisfactions and farmers feeling underappreciated. “Farmers want to be listened to and respected,” said Planas. “And they often feel they aren’t respected – especially in Brussels, but also sometimes in Madrid, or in the urban or political sphere.”
Some problems are structural. The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), the €55bn (£47bn) annual subsidy on which mainland Europe’s postwar food security has rested for more than 60 years, has always been based on economy of scale: bigger farms, common standards. Increasingly, that has encouraged consolidation (the number of farms in the bloc has fallen by more than a third since 2005), leaving many larger operations overburdened with debt and many smaller ones struggling to stay competitive on product price.
Others are temporal. The past two years have brought a vicious squeeze on already tight margins, triggered by the pandemic and, more significantly, Russia’s war on Ukraine. Farmers’ costs – fuel, electricity, fertiliser and transport – have soared.
At the same time, efforts by governments and retailers to limit the impact of the cost of living crisis on consumers have hit prices. Eurostat data shows the prices farmers get for their products fell on average by almost 9% between late 2022 and late 2023.
The pressure is increasing due to a large influx of imports, mainly from countries where farmers do not have to follow the same strict standards and regulations as those in the EU. This allows them to unfairly compete with lower prices. The surge of inexpensive agricultural products, particularly grain from Ukraine, caused Polish farmers to take action by blocking cross-border roads in the spring of 2023, after the EU originally waived quotas and duties following Russia’s invasion.
Free-trade agreements with non-EU countries are also a source of anger, particularly a forthcoming deal with the Mercosur bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – all of which use hormones, antibiotics and pesticides banned in the EU.
During a recent motorway protest outside Paris, French farmer Emmanuel Mathé expressed frustration with having to comply with numerous regulations while also competing with goods from non-EU countries that do not adhere to the same production standards.
In addition to Italy, there are expected to be significant farmers’ demonstrations in Greece this week as the climate crisis continues to wreak havoc with extreme weather such as droughts, floods, and heatwaves. These events are having a growing impact on production, particularly in southern Europe, adding to an already extensive list of challenges.
The readiest focus for farmers’ ire, however, is EU environmental legislation. For an already struggling industry, the European green deal, aimed at achieving climate neutrality across the bloc by 2050, looks very much like a bridge too far. The plan’s targets for agriculture included halving pesticide use by 2030, cutting fertiliser use by 20%, devoting more land to non-agricultural use – for example, by leaving it fallow – and doubling organic production to 25% of all EU farmland.
The primary agricultural advocacy group in Brussels, Copa-Cogeca, has criticized a significant portion of the “Farm2Fork” strategy for being a “top-down” approach that is inadequately planned, assessed, and funded. They also believe that the proposal lacks viable options for farmers.
In response to the increasing resistance in rural areas, European politicians are showing signs of fear. The European Commission has recently made several concessions in an attempt to ease tensions, with President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledging the concerns of farmers. Just last week, the commission decided to put aside plans to reduce pesticide use, recognizing its controversial nature. Additionally, they introduced an “emergency brake” for sensitive Ukrainian products and postponed regulations for reserving more land. In their latest recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the EU executive also relaxed restrictions on agriculture, removing a previous requirement for cutting non-CO2 emissions.2
Reduce emissions by 30% compared to 2015 levels.
While farming would have to transition to a “more sustainable model of production”, von der Leyen said, farmers were undeniably being confronted with a range of problems and “deserved to be listened to … We should place more trust in them”.
At a national level, too, governments have scrambled to respond: Berlin watered down its plans to cut diesel subsidies while the Italian prime minister, Georgia Meloni, on Friday agreed to partially reinstate the suspended tax exemption, at least for low earners. Paris scrapped a diesel tax increase and promised measures worth €400m, plus €200m more in cash aid.
Attal stated that France would no longer consider agreeing to the proposed EU-Mercosur trade agreement in its current form. He also pledged that the government would no longer enforce stricter regulations on its farmers than what is required by the EU.
Is there enough to satisfy everyone? The increasing involvement of politics in the movement is a legitimate worry. In the Netherlands, a fresh populist party called the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) was born out of the “nitrogen wars”, tapping into rural frustration and rejection of “extreme environmentalism”. The BBB dominated provincial elections last year and although it did not achieve the same success in the general election in November, it is one of the parties in talks to establish the next Dutch government alongside far-right, anti-Islam figure Geert Wilders.
The Alternative for Germany, a far-right party currently in second place in the polls, has strongly supported the farmers. This stance has also been taken by members of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, who have stated their desire for the complete elimination of the European green deal. The farmers’ protests are a tempting opportunity for far-right and populist parties to gain support, as they align with their ongoing battle against what they view as a tyrannical EU and an affluent, global elite that disregards or targets disadvantaged rural laborers.
Although most farmers deny any affiliation with far-right ideologies, a significant number have admitted to feeling deeply misunderstood. They feel unfairly burdened by politicians who impose impractical rules, consumers who have limited knowledge about farming practices, and environmentalists who portray them as villains.
During the recent protests in Germany, an unexpected amount of tractors displayed signs expressing discontent towards Tesla. It appears that Elon Musk’s American electric car company represents the wealthy urban lifestyle that supports environmentally-friendly policies, but lacks knowledge about agriculture.
Outside of Pamplona, the grievances expressed by Spanish farmers are nothing new: they desire reduced bureaucracy, fairer prices, a review of the European green deal, protection of CAP subsidies, and increased defense against non-EU competition.
In Madrid, Planas recognized the potential political danger as the agriculture minister expressed concern that opposition parties were taking advantage of the farmers’ protests for their own gain. He was specifically troubled by statements made in congress by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the head of the conservative People’s party, who accused the socialist-led government of isolating farmers through their pursuit of what he referred to as “environmental dogmatism.”
Planas stated: “This is a phrase we’ve frequently heard from numerous groups who, let’s not mince words, deny the existence of climate change and oppose the EU. This concerns me greatly because I have faith that Spaniards are well aware of the reality of climate change.”
According to Feijóo, discussions like this raise concerns about the bloc’s strategy for addressing the climate crisis. The consequences of this crisis, particularly a long-lasting drought that is severely affecting water resources, are already being strongly felt in the Iberian peninsula.
According to Planas, Spain is a nation that supports the EU, but that does not mean we always agree with every decision.
However, I believe that the current events are closely tied to the upcoming European elections.