Farmers’ protests that began in France in mid-January have spread across Europe in a fight for less bureaucracy and protection of their livelihoods amid rising costs of living on the continent .
Protests caused chaos Thursday outside the European Union headquarters in Brussels, where EU leaders were holding a summit. In France, two major farmers’ unions subsequently suspended nationwide lockdowns due to new government measures.
A convoy of farmers driving around 1,300 heavy tractors in Brussels honked their horns and disrupted traffic to draw attention to their plight. Some set tires on fire and threw stones and eggs, while others warmed themselves on piles of burning wood in the square in front of the European Parliament.
Farmers from Italy, Spain and other European countries joined the protest and demonstrated at home. In Portugal, farmers headed to the Spanish border at dawn to block some roads connecting the two countries.
Meanwhile, growing unrest has also been observed recently in Poland, Greece and Germany.
Why are farmers protesting?
The EU’s largest farming groups say environmental regulations imposed by Brussels, and excessive regulation in general, are undermining crop profitability.
The high cost of fertilizer and fuel, which has risen sharply since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, is also hurting the bottom line.
Farmers have also denounced what they see as unfair foreign competition.
In Poland, disgruntled farmers demonstrated in major cities last month to draw attention to competition from neighboring Ukraine, which benefits from special wartime export regulations.
As a whole, EU farmers are struggling to compete in an increasingly globalized economy, with the movement of goods and services supported by several free trade agreements signed by the EU in recent years.
Offer of financial support
To ease tensions, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced new measures on Thursday including financial aid and tax breaks for farmers.
France’s finance ministry said the new emergency measures – focused largely on supporting struggling breeders and wine producers – would cost 400 million euros ($581 million Canadian) plus 200 million euros in cash advances.
In his speech, Attal said it was “out of the question” that France would agree to a trade deal with the South American Mercosur trade bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – countries that do not use growth hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. authorized in the European Union.
Attal, who was sworn in as prime minister in early January, said France would strengthen safety controls on food imports, including to ensure that imported foods do not contain traces of pesticides banned in France or the EU.
Attal also said the French government would stop imposing stricter rules on its farmers than those required by European Union regulations to respond to any complaints of unfair competition without the EU.
“It makes no sense to ban pesticides in France before such decisions are taken at European level. We will put an end to this practice,” he said.
Leaders of two key unions said after the speech that their call to end the roadblocks came with the condition that promises be followed by concrete progress.
They said they would give the government three weeks, until the start of the Paris International Agricultural Show, France’s giant agricultural show, for the first results to be published.
It is not certain that all the farmers on the streets of France followed the directives given by the two main unions. Many farmers are not unionized.
Union leader sees “tangible progress”
France’s two main farmers’ unions announced they would lift nationwide lockdowns, shortly after the prime minister introduced the new measures.
However, farm activists who blocked traffic on major highways around Paris said they would stay put at least one more day to see the government’s commitments in writing, and both unions said they would monitor closely any government implementation.
“We don’t want to hear words of love. What we want is proof of love,” said Thierry Desforges, an agricultural unionist who demonstrated against the roadblock on the A6 motorway in Chilly-Mazarin, south of Paris.
Arnaud Rousseau, president of FNSEA, France’s largest agricultural union, and Arnaud Gaillot, president of the Young Farmers’ union, said Thursday that they were calling on their members to suspend the protests.
“We have been heard on a number of points, with tangible progress,” Rousseau said, although both unions said they would closely monitor whether the government implements its promises by June.
Elsewhere in the EU
On Wednesday, the European Commission proposed limiting agricultural imports from Ukraine by introducing an “emergency brake” for the most sensitive products – poultry, eggs and sugar – but producers say the volume would still be too high .
Farmers also challenged new EU subsidy rules, such as the requirement to leave 4 percent of agricultural land fallow.
The Commission responded this week by exempting EU farmers this year from the obligation to keep part of their land fallow – without using it for a certain period of time – while continuing to receive agricultural support payments from the EU. EU, but they should instead cultivate without applying pesticides. .