Why are farmers protesting across Europe?

Farmers gathered hundreds of tractors across various European countries in protests over pay, competition, climate regulations and red tape. Credit: AP

By ITV News Producer Hannah Ward-Glenton


All across mainland Europe, farmers are holding tractor rallies, protest barricades, and scarecrow standoffs - but why are they so angry and what are they asking for?

While farmers from different European countries are protesting against different government measures - such as sustainability goals making fuel more expensive or budget cuts reducing subsidies - it all boils down to the farmers' earnings.

Given how widespread and inflammatory the topic has become, agriculture is set to be a big topic in the run up to the European Parliamentary elections in June.

Right-wing parties are expected to heavily lean into the issue to galvanise voters into supporting populist candidates.

Here is a break down of all the different strikes across the continent.

Germany

In Germany, thousands of farmers drove tractors into Berlin on January 14 as part of a week of demonstrations against plans to scrap tax breaks on the fuel for agricultural vehicles.

The plans are part of a series of cost-cutting measures announced in December as part of the German government's budget for 2024.

Farmers with tractors protest at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on January 16. Credit: AP

The budget adjustments came after Germany's plans to re-allocate money originally earmarked as emergency Covid-19 funds were ruled as unlawful, leaving the government with some big financial gaps to fill.

Shepherd Ingo Stoll drives around 400 sheep near Stralsund, Germany, across a federal highway and through an industrial estate to a paddock. Credit: AP

On January 4, the government watered down its original plan, saying that a car tax exemption for farming vehicles would be retained and the cuts in the diesel tax breaks would be staggered over three years, but farmers want officials to scrap the plans entirely.

France

Protests by French farmers have also been gaining momentum, with tractors edging closer to Paris in an attempt to sway government ministers to do more to protect the agricultural sector from foreign competition, rising costs, and low pay.


Tractors face military vehicles on a blocked highway in Chilly-Mazarin, south of Paris.

Farmers have dumped agricultural waste, created straw bale barricades and caused enormous traffic jams by slowly driving tractors along main roads.

BFM-TV images from Agen, in southwest France, showed a supermarket being showered with a thick jet of pig slurry.

The government responded to the farmers' demands on January 26, and opted to scrap plans for diesel fuel taxes for farm vehicles and cut down some of the red tape in the industry, but farmers were not satisfied with the arrangements.

Farmers block a highway during a demonstration near Beauvais, northern France. Credit: AP

Navigating the tensions has been the first big test for newly-appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who was appointed on January 9.

Mr Attal wore a suit and tie and read from notes resting on a hay bale as he said the government has decided “to put agriculture above all.”

Two of France's key farmers unions then suspended their protests on Thursday after they were offered a new set of measures, including emergency measures to financially support struggling farmers and wine producers.

The Netherlands

While the Netherlands is far from the biggest EU nation, its farmers' strikes have been some of the longest lasting and most disruptive.

It is unsurprising that Dutch farmers have been particularly passionate in fighting for their cause, given that the country has the densest livestock population in Europe, according to Eurostat data from 2020, making it one of the country's most important sectors.

Tractors are reflected in a car window during a farmers demonstration in The Hague, Netherlands. Credit: AP

The Dutch farmers' protests started in October 2019 after a government proposal suggested halving the country's livestock in an attempt to cut down agricultural pollution in the Netherlands.

Gatherings of farmers, tractors, and sometimes livestock, in tow, became a regular sight in some of the Netherlands' biggest cities.

Public support for the farmers has been so great that a political party formed in 2019 - the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) or Farmer-Citizen Movement - was a big winner in provincial elections that determine the position in the senate.

Farmers came together in The Hague during a protest against the government's plans to rein in emissions of nitrogen oxide. Credit: AP

The Dutch government has undergone huge changes since the protests started - and the country doesn't currently have a prime minister having been unable to form a government since the controversial Geert Wilders won the majority of votes - but the protests are very much ongoing.

Belgium

Belgium became the epicentre of Europe's farmer protests on Thursday as thousands of tractors descended on the capital to demonstrate outside the European Union headquarters during a summit of EU leaders.

Police officers were pelted with eggs, firecrackers and beer bottles as they tried to reign in the chaos of burning hay bales by firing water canons.

People gather outside the European Parliament during a protest by farmers as European leaders meet for an EU summit in Brussels. Credit: AP

Italy

The streets of Milan were the target of Italian tractor-driving farmers on Thursday as they gathered to protest against the EU's agricultural policy and increased production costs.

Protests also took place in Italy on January 22, 23 and 24.

Farmers run their tractors in Milan, Italy. Credit: AP

On the outskirts of Verona local farmers, accompanied by around 100 tractors, took to the streets across a two-day demonstration, causing disruption to local transport and businesses. People also gathered in Rome, Bologna, Florence, Milan and Naples.

Spain

Thousands of farmers protested in Madrid at the start of 2023 after government officials announced plans to reduce the amount of water taken from the Tagus River for use in irrigating agricultural land in southeastern Spain.

The country had suffered its hottest year on record in 2022, and ministers said the measures were necessary as reservoirs dropped to dangerously low levels.

Farmers protest against an order to provide ecological protection for a river they need to irrigate their crops, in Madrid, Spain. Credit: AP

There are also rumblings that Spanish farmers are starting to get involved in protesting against the EU's agricultural policy.

Poland

Poland's agricultural situation has been heavily impacted by the ongoing war, with farmers complaining that imports of Ukrainian produce has caused prices to fall, threatening their sources of income.

Farmers and truckers had been blockading border crossings, which was posing challenges to the flow of aid into Ukraine. Those blockades came to an end on January 6, according to local media.

Protesting farmers in Poland slow-driving their tractors on a road in Deblin, Poland. Credit: AP

Reacting to the protests, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Wednesday that talks would be held with Ukraine's government to ensure that agriculture production and the market weren't threatened by the “uncontrolled inflow of farm produce from Ukraine.”

Fresh from a visit to Kyiv, Mr Tusk said that the Ukrainian authorities “are not interested in the uncontrolled export” of their produce, but want it to be regulated.

Romania

Romanian farmers have been protesting in a similar vein to those in Poland, blockading borders as they look to convince the government to solve the issue of pressures on the domestic market because of imported goods from Ukraine.

A woman holds a loaf of bread during a farmers' protest in Bucharest, Romania. Credit: AP

Farmers have also petitioned for government officials to address the high cost of diesel, insurance rates and environmental measures implemented by the European Union.

A Romanian flag with the words "Tax the Ukrainian Grain" written on it during a protest held by farmers on a road leading to Bucharest. Credit: AP

And the protests have started to have the desired effect, with the Romanian government approving a first package of measures agreed with farmers.

Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu was quoted as saying that "it is clear that the protests were justified," by news website Biziday.ro on January 18.

An EU-wide resolution?

In Brussels, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen opened a discussion panel to try to address the issues raised by the agricultural community across the 27-nation bloc.

“We all agree that the challenges are, without any question, mounting," Ms von der Leyen said, be it “competition from abroad, be it overregulation at home, be it climate change, or the loss of biodiversity, or be a demographic decline, just to name a few of the challenges."


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