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What is the reason for farmers' protests throughout the EU and what actions can the bloc take in response?
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What is the reason for farmers’ protests throughout the EU and what actions can the bloc take in response?

On Thursday, a large number of tractors caused congestion in the city center of Brussels and enraged farmers threw eggs at the European Parliament. Even though agriculture was not a topic of discussion for the EU leaders who were meeting nearby, they may face consequences if they overlook these complaints.

Here is a look at what lies behind the farmers’ protests that have been sweeping Europe for months – in countries such as Greece, Germany, Portugal, Poland and France, where the government was taken by surprise this week by a motorway blockade of Paris.

Certain issues, like Berlin’s proposal to eliminate tax exemptions for agricultural diesel in order to stabilize the budget, or the Netherlands’ mandate to decrease nitrogen emissions, are specific to each country. However, many concerns are common across the entire continent.

Rural producers have expressed concerns regarding declining market rates, increasing expenses, strict government regulations, dominant and controlling merchants, financial obligations, environmental shifts, and inexpensive international imports, all operating within a European Union farming scheme that prioritizes larger operations.

Expenses have increased, while prices have decreased.

The expenses for farmers, such as energy, fertiliser, and transportation, have increased in several EU nations, especially since Russia’s takeover of Ukraine in February 2022. However, governments and retailers are trying to lower the rising food costs due to concerns about the impact of the cost of living crisis on consumers.

According to Politico’s analysis of Eurostat data, the base price that farmers receive for their produce, known as farm-gate prices, decreased by approximately 9% on average in the third quarter of 2022 compared to the same time last year. However, there were a few exceptions, such as olive oil, which experienced shortages and saw an increase in price.

Imports are a major concern, especially in central and eastern Europe. Due to the influx of inexpensive agricultural goods from Ukraine, the EU has waived quotas and duties after Russia’s invasion, causing lowered prices and creating resentment towards unfair competition.

Grain is moved at a terminal in Odesa

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Last spring, Polish farmers initiated road blockades from Ukraine as a form of protest. When Brussels enforced limitations on Kyiv’s exports to neighboring countries, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia each followed suit after the restrictions expired.

Last month, the trade union of Polish farmers stated that Ukrainian grain should be exported to its appropriate markets in Asia or Africa, rather than Europe.

In other parts of Europe, particularly in France, there is increasing frustration over the presence of inexpensive imports from distant regions. Many are upset that products from countries like New Zealand and Chile do not have to follow the same rigorous standards as European Union farmers.

The EU and South America’s Mercosur trading bloc have been engaged in talks to reach a comprehensive trade agreement, which has caused significant backlash from European farmers who are concerned about the potential for unequal competition in industries such as sugar, grain, and meat.

As the temperatures increase, so do the tensions between individuals.

The impact of climate change is causing more frequent and severe extreme weather events, leading to significant disruptions in production. For example, in southern Spain, certain water reservoirs are currently at a mere 4% capacity, and wildfires in Greece last year resulted in a loss of approximately 20% of their annual farm revenue.

Protests in Southern Europe have been limited, but this may change as governments, particularly in Spain and Portugal, contemplate implementing emergency water usage limits due to severe drought conditions.

In addition, in addition to feeling targeted by what they perceive as a controlling government body in Brussels that lacks understanding of their industry, numerous farmers express frustration with being stuck between competing expectations from the public for affordable food and environmentally sustainable practices.

To top it all off…

The CAP, a subsidy program worth €55bn annually that has been crucial for ensuring Europe’s food security for over six decades, has traditionally operated on the principle of economy of scale. This means that larger farms, with bigger holdings and shared standards, have been prioritized.

This has led to consolidation, with a decrease of over one third in the number of farms in the EU since 2005. As a result, larger farms are facing significant debt in a market with low profit margins, while smaller farms are struggling to stay competitive.

The EU’s “farm to fork” strategy, a crucial aspect of the European Green Deal, has raised concerns within the agriculture industry. This sector is responsible for 11% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions and is becoming more concerned about the regulations being implemented in order for the bloc to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050.

Goals consist of reducing pesticide usage by 50% by the year 2030, decreasing fertilizer application by 20%, allocating a greater amount of land for non-agricultural purposes – such as allowing it to remain fallow or planting non-productive trees – and increasing organic production to make up 25% of all farmland in the EU.

Numerous farmers are already expressing dissatisfaction with current EU regulations pertaining to irrigation and animal welfare, claiming that they are being enforced too strictly. They assert that proposed environmental policies are unjust, impractical, financially unsustainable, and will ultimately backfire.

What actions are politicians taking to suppress the protests, and will they be successful?

Governments at the national level have implemented measures: Berlin has lessened its intentions to reduce diesel subsidies; Paris has canceled a planned increase in diesel taxes, postponed other actions, and committed to providing €150 million in aid, which has led farmers’ unions to urge their members to halt their protest.

“Across Europe, a common inquiry arises: how can we increase production without sacrificing quality? How can we effectively address climate change? And how can we prevent unfair competition from abroad?” stated French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal during a Thursday address.

Tractors on a motorway in Paris

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The European Commission has suggested implementing an “emergency brake” to restrict agricultural imports from Ukraine at the EU level. They have also proposed exempting farmers from the requirement to keep 4% of their land fallow in 2024, while still receiving subsidies from the EU.

Worried about causing more conflict within a resistant group, French president Emmanuel Macron and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar have both stated that the current version of the EU-Mercosur trade agreement should not be approved.

As European parliament elections approach in June, there is a growing trend of farmers receiving support from far-right parties. This could potentially lead to more concessions being made to these parties.

Source: theguardian.com