‘On The Edge Of What Is Bearable’: Why Are European Farmers Protesting?

Farmers have risen up in protest across Europe to slam national and European Union (EU) climate policies that threaten their economic interests.

Czech farmers descended upon the streets of Prague on Monday in their tractors, protesting burdensome regulations and green policies that are adding to inflationary stress that the farmers assert is ruining their livelihoods, according to Euronews. The Czech farmers’ protests are the latest in a wave of similar demonstrations across Europe lashing out against EU climate policies, coming on the heels of outcries in Italy, Spain, Poland, Germany, Hungary, France and the Netherlands.

The farmers are enraged that the EU has attempted to inject climate policies into agricultural practices at a time when poor macroeconomic conditions are already straining their ability to compete with farmers from other places who are able to sell their products for less, according to numerous reports.

The European Commission — the de facto executive arm of the EU — sets what is known as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which sets standards and the guidelines for agricultural subsidies that govern European farming. The most recent CAP went into effect on January 1, 2023, and it is specifically designed to force the European agricultural sector into closer compliance with the European Green Deal.

The European Green Deal calls for a 50% reduction in the use of certain pesticides by 2030, and the European Commission is pushing to achieve a 90% reduction in emissions by 2040 in a move that would substantially alter how European farmers manage their farms.

In Prague, farmers are rallying against stifling bureaucratic supervision of their operations and climate regulations that they assert make their products artificially more expensive than imports from outside of the EU, according to Reuters.

“We came today mainly because of the bureaucracy around farming, the paperwork is on the edge of what is bearable,” Lukas Melichovsky, a Czech farmer, told Reuters on Monday.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala suggested that the protesters are aligned with the Kremlin, referencing the fact that the nation’s leading agricultural unions have largely distanced themselves from the demonstrations.

Hundreds of Italian farmers ventured to Rome in early February to vent similar frustrations, deriding the EU’s efforts to impose climate policy into agricultural production while not doing enough to level the playing field with non-EU products subject to less stringent regulatory regimes, according to Politico.

Protesting farmers displayed signs and placards with slogans like “Unfair Market — You Are Taking Away Our Dignity!” and “No Farmers, No Food!” while they demonstrated, according to Politico.

Meanwhile, in Spain, farmers staged disruptive protests for more than two weeks in February, blockading highways and distribution hubs to demonstrate their displeasure with the new CAP, according to The Telegraph.

“We have to leave 11 per cent of our land unsown or fallow, but we still have overheads and pay taxes; it’s absurd,” Luis Cortés, the leader of a major Spanish agricultural trade union, told The Telegraph.

“We’re going to increase the pressure because it’s clear that the proposals we are seeing from the EU and the Spanish government are purely cosmetic and do not resolve the problems of farmers,” Cortés said, adding that the CAP has been “catastrophic” in part because “subsidies have decreased while environmental measures increase.”

Polish farmers also continued a wave of disruptive protests into February, blocking border crossings with Ukraine to highlight perceived trade imbalances and criticizing elements of the EU Green Deal, according to multiple outlets. The country’s leading agricultural unions backed the demonstrations, unlike in Italy and Poland, Euractiv reported.

“We oppose restrictions that the European Green Deal would impose on us and the influx of low-quality Ukrainian food to Poland under the liberalized EU trade rules,” one unnamed Polish apple farmer, who did not engage in the protests but supports the message, told Euractiv.

The EU extended the suspension of tariffs against certain Ukrainian agricultural goods at the end of January, justifying the decision as standing in solidarity with Ukraine while it tries to repel the ongoing Russian invasion, according to Euractiv. (RELATED: Europe Imposes First-Ever Climate Tax On Imported Goods)

Hungarian farmers launched their own simultaneous protests in conjunction with those seen in Poland, for nearly the same exact reasons, according to Euronews.

German farmers launched a massive, week-long protest in January to push back against the German government’s plans to slash key agricultural subsidies to plug a 17 billion euro budget gap and maintain funding for green initiatives.

The German government warned that extreme right-wing elements were co-opting the demonstrations.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country’s leading right-wing populist party, supported the protests. The party has seen its popularity rise significantly since Russia invaded Ukraine, and it is now the second-most popular political party in Germany, according to polling data aggregated by Politico.

French farmers also rose up in January and early February, blockading roadways across the country to cause disruption and protest stifling regulations and cheap imports undercutting their share of the market, according to France24. Demonstrators sprayed manure on government buildings to express their discontent, according to The Associated Press.

About one in every five French farms went under between 2010 and 2020, according to France24.

Dutch farmers engaged in similar protests in November 2023, preempting the wave of demonstrations that has marked the first two months of 2024 elsewhere in Europe. The farmers were enraged by the government’s plans to reduce the amount of livestock in the country by about 50% and shutter major farms in order to come into compliance with EU nitrogen emissions regulations, according to The Economist, and their protests precipitated the unexpected electoral victory of right-wing populist Geert Wilders in November 2023.

The European Commission did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Nick Pope on February 20, 2024

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