Published1 day ago
Across Europe, tens of thousands of farmers have downed tools, mounted their tractors and taken to the streets.
They were already struggling with the cost of living crisis and they have now come out in force to air their grievances, from the European Union’s sustainability policies to the effects of the war in Ukraine.
In France, farmers have blocked large stretches of motorways, creating a crisis for new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who travelled to a farm in the south-west to offer a string of measures in a bid to soothe their frustration.
Some of their concerns, such as burgeoning bureaucracy, have a national character; others point to wider issues, including the increasing cost of farm diesel, late payment of EU subsidies, or competition from imports.
Farmers say it is a fight for survival and they won’t stop now.
Earlier this week a young farmer, Alexandra Sonac, and her 12-year-old daughter were killed when a car crashed into a farmers’ roadblock south of Toulouse. Only the day before, Ms Sonac told French radio she was joining the protests to “defend her profession” and look after her daughters.
Protests have also spiralled across much of Germany, although they have a primarily national character. Farmers are angry with the phasing out of tax breaks on agricultural diesel, which they say would lead them to bankruptcy.
But, across Europe, discontent is often fuelled by anger with EU policies.
The agricultural sector has always viewed with suspicion measures brought in by the EU to revamp its €55bn (£47bn) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and make it more sustainable. More than 70% of that money is spent on direct payments to farmers as a safety net.
The revamp includes an obligation to devote at least 4% of arable land to non-productive features, as well as a requirement to carry out crop rotations and reduce fertiliser use by at least 20%.
Many farmers have long argued these measures will make the European agricultural sector less competitive against imports.
They are also worried that inflation has dramatically reduced the value of their direct payments.
“Farmers are having to do much more… with less support,” Luc Vernet of Brussels-based think tank Farm Europe told the BBC. “They don’t see how they can cope any longer.”
In some countries, the protests are nothing new.
Demonstrations first broke out in the Netherlands in 2019 over government demands that livestock production be halved in order to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions.
And Brussels residents have long been used to farmers entering the city’s European quarter to spray buildings with milk or fill the streets with cattle in protest at EU agricultural regulations.
Now, though, the ripple effect of war in Ukraine has brought protests to almost every corner of Europe.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 all but blocked off trade routes in the Black Sea. The EU stepped in by temporarily lifting restrictions on imports from Ukraine – allowing its agricultural produce to flood European markets.
The playing field was never going to be even: an average Ukrainian organic farm is about 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres); its European equivalents measure on average only 41 hectares.
Prices in neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Poland and Romania were suddenly pushed down, and local farmers were left unable to sell their crops.
By spring 2023, tractors were blocking the same Polish roads that had been lined with volunteers welcoming Ukrainians refugees a year before.
The EU soon imposed trade restrictions on Ukraine’s exports to its neighbours, but only for a limited period. When the ban expired, the governments in Budapest, Warsaw and Bratislava announced their own restrictions.
Ukraine promptly filed a lawsuit; relations soured and compassion for a country defending itself from Russia’s invasion took a backseat.
Now, Eastern European countries are demanding the EU definitively revises its trade liberalisation measures with Ukraine.
In Romania, where farmers and hauliers have been protesting against the high price of diesel, insurance rates and EU measures, as well as competition from Ukraine, news outlet Kronika said this month that the EU letting in cheap Ukrainian goods was “like a non-swimmer trying to save a drowning person. They both drown”.
In Poland, farmers kicked off a nationwide protest on 24 January against Ukrainian agricultural imports.
“Ukrainian grain should go where it belongs, to the Asian or African markets, not to Europe,” said Adrian Wawrzyniak, a spokesperson for the Polish farmers’ trade union, told Polish media. Similar sentiments are being echoed in Slovakia and Hungary.
Southern Europe has so far been spared the brunt of the protests, but things may change soon. Christiane Lambert, the president of the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organizations (COPA), Europe’s leading farmers’ union, has predicted that Italian and Spanish farmers will soon stage their own protests.
They are unaffected by the war in Ukraine, but are vulnerable to climate change, as the Spanish and Portuguese governments consider emergency restrictions on water usage in some regions because of intense drought.
In Sicily this week, farmers blocked roads in protest at the regional government, which they say has failed to compensate them for last summer’s prolonged, intense heatwave and drought. “We’re on our knees, the drought has halved our harvest,” farmer Giuseppe Gulli told Rai News. He also accused the EU of helping “big corporations”.
With European elections around the corner in June, Eurosceptic parties are finding a voice.
Jordan Bardella of France’s National Rally has been spotted among protesters; the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has sought to champion the farmers’ cause too.
But Mr Vernet batted off these concerns: “Farmers are not extremists. In fact, farmers in Europe are the first Europeans, because they’re the ones who know best how important Europe is for them.”
In Germany, ministers have scrambled to water down the proposals to end farmers’ tax breaks on agricultural diesel that had caused uproar.
The change is now set to be phased in over time – but farmers want the subsidy cuts scrapped in full. “Everything that has been announced so far has further increased the farmers’ anger instead of calming it down,” said German Farmers’ Association President Joachim Rukwied.
Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk has promised to meet Ukrainian representatives in early March to come to a deal to regulate the transit and export of products.
The EU appears to have already taken note.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has admitted “there is an increasing division and polarisation”, and has launched a “strategic dialogue” between agriculture groups and EU decision-makers.
The language is self-reflective, but also vague. And for farmers across Europe who feel forgotten, betrayed or unable to feed their families, it is unlikely to be enough.