Europe’s farmers are in revolt and their anger is growing: The fury has led to road blockages and tractor parades in the past few weeks, with farmers taking their protests to the street in France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, and the Netherlands before that. 

While farmers have protested over national issues, concerns over increasing challenges facing agriculture including extreme weather, bird flu and surging fuel costs are uniting them. Another source of discontent is over what farmers say is excessive regulation, also on European level. Then there is the influx of Ukrainian agricultural products into the EU since the lifting of customs duties in 2022. The European Commission must soon reveal its intentions on the renewal of the customs exemption, which expires in June.

The agricultural question, in light of the European Parliament elections in June and surveys showing a surge of the far-right and nationalists who take up agricultural issues fervently, is important. Farmers are a “very important electorate”, said EU lawmaker and vice-president of the parliament’s socialist grouping, Pedro Marques

On Thursday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen – aiming at defusing the anger – launched a new strategic dialogue format that brings together farmers, environmental organisations and industry to develop solutions to the problems of agriculture in Europe. According to the German politician, everyone agrees that the challenges are increasing. 

Among the main issues are topics such as farmers’ income, sustainability, technological innovation and competitiveness. These were also discussed at the meeting of the EU’s agricultural ministers at the Agricultural and Fisheries Council (AGRIFISH) on Tuesday. Concerns that the green transition will wreak further havoc for farmers are also part of the program.

The dialogue at EU level aims to develop new solutions and achieve a common vision by summer 2024 and present this to the EU Commission. The initiative, only confirmed at the end of last week, was promised by von der Leyen last September, calling for “less polarisation” and assuring that “agriculture and nature protection can go hand in hand”. 

Powerful agri-group Copa-Cogeca said it was a “welcome initiative, albeit one which has been slow to materialise”, adding that “the scope of the discussions remains particularly vague”.

Protests across Europe

A day prior, on January 24, demonstrations were held in front of the European Parliament in Brussels. “The demonstrations will grow because discontent is growing and this will affect the European elections,” French farmer Stéphane Bleuzé said during the protests. “We came to Brussels because this is where the rules that affect us are decided.” 

Marion Maréchal, who will lead the French right-wing Reconquête (Reconquest) movement in the European elections and is the niece of Marine Le Pen, attended the Brussels protest criticizing EU agriculture policies.

The Flemish trade union Algemeen Boerensyndicaat (ABS) said that “today’s action is yet another cry for help” and that  “farmers don’t ask for much, just to fulfil their social role and to be treated fairly”.

In Germany, for example, angry farmers have for weeks been protesting over diesel fuel subsidy cuts, including with mass demonstrations in several cities in which farmers blocked traffic with tractors and other pieces of farm equipment. The government agreed to soften the measure by phasing out the diesel fuel subsidy over three years, instead of immediately, but has otherwise stuck by the policy. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition has been under pressure to raise tax revenue or cut spending to close a major budget gap. The nationwide farmers’ protests sparked a discussion about the extent to which farmers are being exploited for the interests of far-right parties.

In neighbouring Austria where citizens will vote in national elections in autumn, the right-wing FPÖ organised a farmers’ demonstration last week. The farmers’ association of the conservative ÖVP, in response, criticised that the party was “instrumentalising the farmers for its own party purposes” and distanced itself from the “election campaign games at the expense of the farmers”.

In France, the growing anger of French farmers is shaping up to be the first major challenge of President Emmanuel Macron’s newly appointed government. The new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal paid tribute to the country’s agriculture sector last weekend, responding to the growing discontent of farm workers. A reform package designed to meet some grievances has been postponed for fine-tuning. MEP Jordan Bardella who will lead the far-right National Rally into the June elections claimed there is growing anger against “the European Union and the Europe of Macron”, who according to Bardella wanted “the death of our agriculture”. Some political observers think it could pose a major challenge to France’s mainstream parties. 

In recent months, “exasperation” has also spread to Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, where producers essentially denounce “unfair competition” from Ukraine, accused of undercutting the price of their cereals. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the export of Ukrainian agricultural products through so-called Solidarity Lanes created disruptions in the internal markets of those countries. 

In Poland, protests led to the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture in April 2023. In November, Polish operators began to block the crossing points with Ukraine, along with truckers. Farmers suspended their blockade on January 6 after an agreement with the Polish government.

In Romania, farmers’ and transporters’ protests began on January 7. Hundreds of tractors and trucks blocked border traffic, making it difficult for grain trucks from Ukraine to enter the country. The farmers demand compensation for the losses caused by the major disruption of the grain market following the import of cheap grain from Ukraine, which, they claim, does not comply with EU standards. 

On January 21, Bulgarian Minister of Agriculture and Food, Kiril Vatev, and Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov met the National Grain Producers Association and the Bulgarian Agrarian Chamber to discuss the status quo and avoid potential future protests. Farmers rallied in Sofia in November last year. 

The protests could have a contagious effect: “The Italian and Spanish (agricultural unions) are also talking about demonstrations,” says the president of the Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations of the European Union (Copa), Christiane Lambert

The Slovenian Farmer’s Trade Union urged the new Minister of Agriculture, Mateja Čalušić, to resolve their demands, which they addressed to the government during protests last spring. “Some solutions have to be offered, because if they are not, farmers are calling on us to follow in the footsteps of German protests,” according to the union.

In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, several thousand farmers with 1,300 tractors gathered this week for two days to demand better prices, lower taxes on fuel, simplification of regulations and a ban on the transit of Russian grain through their country.

A farmer carries a canister of plant protection agent with glyphosate at his farm in Badbergen. The European Union has authorized the use of the controversial weedkiller glyphosate for 10 more years, but there will be new conditions, the EU Commission announced on Thursday.
A farmer carries a canister of plant protection agent with glyphosate at his farm. The European Union has authorized the use of the controversial weedkiller glyphosate for 10 more years in 2023. Photo: Friso Gentsch/dpa

Courting an important electorate

Less than five months out from the European Elections and many national elections, the protesting farmers and agricultural producers fuel the campaign fires. Political parties are already courting the farmers’ vote. 

Agriculture makes up eleven percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. As part of the so-called Green Deal, the EU Commission under von der Leyen’s leadership launched several projects. In the summer, for example, there was great displeasure over a nature conservation law that also affects the use of agricultural land. Also bans on pesticides cleared for use in other parts of the world are a source of farmers’ discontent.

Their discontent has been a growing concern in the European Parliament. The centre-right EPP, the largest parliamentary grouping of which von der Leyen is a member, has often sought to water down agricultural texts, arguing it represents farmers’ wishes. “We share the green ambition but it must be adapted to the economic situation. Agricultural prices are falling, expenses are skyrocketing, by adding additional regulatory efforts, it’s too much,” EPP MEP Anne Sander said.

“There’s a perception that the centre-right and the far-right are trying to create in the farmers that the green transition, those that choose the green transition, are going against them,” EU lawmaker Marques said. But he recognised the need to provide support, especially as the EU prepares to debate its ambitious 2040 climate targets, which will involve a costly decarbonisation of the agricultural industry.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.
Editor’s note: The paragraph mentioning Marion Maréchal has been updated for clarification.