Hundreds of tractors thronged streets around the EU’s headquarters in Brussels on Monday as EU ministers met to seek ways to streamline farming rules and red tape fueling protests around the bloc.

An estimated 900 tractors brought the city’s European quarter to a halt for the second time in a month. The farmers lit fireworks, burned tyres, hurled eggs and sprayed manure on police, who fired water cannons and tear gas in response.

Farmers say they’re angry about burdensome regulations and cheap imports, particularly from Ukraine. Falling incomes from agricultural produce are also a major source of anger. As another example, they cite free trade agreements, such as with the South American trade bloc Mercosur. Agreements like that allow low-quality food to enter Europe at dumping prices, they said, causing European farmers to fear unfair competition.

Despite the recent protests against EU agricultural rules, the European Parliament on Tuesday voted in favour of the controversial Nature Restoration Law, which aims to rehabilitate biodiversity and degraded ecosystems – but could put additional pressure on the agricultural sector.

While farmers’ protests are common in Brussels, this Monday’s demonstrations are the most extreme the city has seen since the anti-establishment “yellow jackets” marches in 2018.

Elsewhere in Europe, farmers have been taking to the streets, too. In Spain for example,  thousands of farmers rallied outside the agriculture ministry in Madrid, holding placards including one that read: “The countryside is in the abyss and the government doesn’t care.”

Furthermore, Polish farmers blocked a major highway into Germany on Monday, carrying their protest against EU regulations and “uncontrolled” Ukrainian grain imports into its second day. Polish farmers also blocked a border crossing with Slovakia, setting up barriers in the village of Barwinek and not allowing any vehicles to pass for the first hour.

Thousands of Polish farmers also gathered in Warsaw on Tuesday to protest against the European Green Deal and in favour of stricter controls on imports of agri-food products from Ukraine.

EU ministers meet to pacify farmers’ fury

The rolling protests – which saw French President Emmanuel Macron angrily heckled over the weekend – have unnerved EU leaders concerned they could prove a boon for the far-right at European elections in June. On Saturday, Macron attended the annual Paris International Agricultural Show, one of the world’s largest and most important agricultural shows, where protesters clashed with police.

Agriculture ministers from the 27-nation bloc were in Brussels on Monday to examine proposals from the European Commission for simplifying the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), in a new attempt to try to assuage farmers.

CAP refers to the EU’s flagship agricultural subsidy policy. To receive support from the CAP, farmers and ranchers must meet a series of environmentally friendly conditions.

The European Commission has presented a raft of options to reduce the bureaucratic burden on farmers to access subsidies, among other things, offering more flexibility around land use and farming inspections. The proposals would also relax some environmental constraints for farmers, including easing demands for former livestock farmers to convert their land into grassland. 

The Commission envisions simplifying administration and changing the way on-site inspections work in a bid to cut the number of visits farmers face by 50 percent. Added leeway could also be granted to farmers who fail to meet the CAP requirements because of extreme weather events.

European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski opened the door to revisit the current CAP regulations, which are in force between 2023 and 2027. He wants to review the environmentally friendly conditions that must be implemented in the farming sector to obtain the support of the CAP. On February 6, the Commission also withdrew from a controversial proposal for a law to cut pesticide use.

However, EU agriculture ministers asked the European Commission to “quickly” present “more ambitious” measures to respond to farmers’ protests, since the Member States consider those proposed “not sufficient”.

A step forward, but not enough

The non-governmental organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned that farmers’ concerns are not being addressed by these measures.

“The European Commission is running around like a headless chicken throwing environmental measures under the tractor.”

Anu Suono, agriculture policy expert at WWF

“These measures will be a very first step towards answering people’s concerns, but it is not enough,” Belgium’s Agriculture Minister David Clarinval, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, told reporters after the meeting in Brussels.

“The new CAP was badly written, the current exemptions are insufficient, we need substantial changes,” Francesco Lollobrigida, Minister for Agriculture in Italy, said, demanding a simplification of the rules for the sector.

Their Spanish equivalent, Luis Planas, said that a new European pact is needed for farmers and rural areas. He called on the Commission to urgently present legislative proposals to change some of the conditions that farmers must meet to receive support from the CAP. Those  modifications should be adopted before the elections to the European Parliament in June, according to Planas.

Slovenia welcomed the Commission’s proposals for less red tape for farmers but would like to see more flexibility in the conditions for payments, Agriculture Ministry State Secretary Eva Knez said ahead of Monday’s ministerial meeting. Knez singled out a proposal to exempt smaller farms from the Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) checks that farmers must meet in order to receive direct payments.

On February 20, the Bulgarian Agriculture and Food Ministry sent a notification to the European Commission that it will apply for a derogation for 2024 concerning the minimum share of agricultural land dedicated to non-productive areas.The derogation gives farmers greater flexibility in terms of areas, placing fewer restrictions on how farmers can use them, so that revenue losses are reduced, while the corresponding environmental benefits are ensured. 

The Croatian government is trying to secure additional budget support for farmers and, through its proposals at the Council of the EU, certain measures and flexibility within available European agricultural funds, said Agriculture Minister Marija Vučković. She noted that her ministry was preparing proposals for reducing the paperwork farmers are expected to do.

Sweden: building trust is key

Sweden is one of the few countries where there hasn’t been much protest from farmers. One of the reasons, according to Palle Borgström, head of the major Swedish farming association Lantbrukarnas Riksförbund (LRF), is a “more constructive discussion and relation” between the farmers and the government.

“In Sweden, we have chosen to build trust between farmers and the rest of the society. Protests would be devastating and destroy this trust,” Borgström recently told Swedish Television SVT in an interview.

According to him, Swedish farmers have also been more successful in getting compensation from the market, compared to further south in Europe, where their colleagues are facing a tougher situation with discount chains “that always are putting the prices down”.

Most major political parties in Sweden are also very pro-trade, strongly supporting agreements with Mercosur countries, New Zealand and Australia.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.