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What to Know About the Farmer Protests in Europe

4 minute read

Morgan Ody, a 44-year-old French farmer from the hilly region of Brittany, embarked on a 12-hour train journey through Paris before she finally arrived in the Belgian capital of Brussels. There, she joined tens of thousands of farmers who took to the streets on Thursday to demand that E.U. leaders do more to help with their economic plight.

Ody, who represents a French farming union called Confédération Paysanne, says that farmers across the European continent were already plagued by poor conditions brought on by falling incomes, high costs, and competition from cheap imports. But now, the E.U.’s recent announcement of more strict green policies threatens to make things worse. 

“The situation is already difficult for farmers, who are completely overburdened because they work too much,” Ody tells TIME. “And now the E.U. wants to put in more free trade agreements, that will create competition that is impossible to overcome.”

After weeks of protests across the continent, the escalation in the Belgian capital on Thursday saw thoroughfares being blockaded by tractors and burned tires, while farmers from Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and Greece threw eggs at the European Parliament, set bonfires, and even toppled a statue of John Cockerill, a 19th-century British industrialist.

Why are E.U. farmers protesting?

Currently, the farming sector accounts for 11% of the E.U.’s greenhouse gas emissions, which the E.U. hopes to curb by revamping its existing Common Agricultural Policy, a yearly subsidy system worth nearly $60 billion. The new policies, which are part of the European green deal that aims to make the bloc climate-neutral by 2050, would include an obligation for farmers to devote at least 4% of arable land to non-productive features. They must also carry out crop rotations and reduce fertilizer use by at least 20%.

Belgian Farmers' Protest Reaches EU Buildings In Brussels
Farmers' tractors block the streets near the European Parliament on February 1, 2024 in Brussels, Belgium. Pier Marco Tacca—Getty Images

But many farmers argue these measures will make the European agricultural sector less competitive against imports. On Thursday, farmers union representatives told reporters they were “fed up in general” with “too much administration” and rules telling them how they should farm.

For Ody—who spoke with TIME on behalf of European Coordination Via Campesina, the collective voice of peasant farmers in Europe—the anger is fueled by contradiction. “On the one hand, we are being asked to farm more sustainably, which is fair enough because we know that the climate crisis exists because it's affecting us,” she says. “But at the same time, we are asked to keep producing as cheap as possible, which puts us in an impossible situation.”

Though many of the grievances are shared by farmers continent-wide, their concerns also vary from country to country. In Germany, farmers are protesting a plan by Berlin to phase out tax breaks on agricultural diesel to balance the budget, which they say would lead them to bankruptcy. In the Netherlands, farmers are revolting against a requirement to reduce nitrogen emissions. In France, farmers' unions are unimpressed by the concessions offered by President Emmanuel Macron's government and are fighting for improved pay, less bureaucracy, and protection from foreign competition.

The war in Ukraine has only made matters worse by causing a supply gut due to Russia’s aggression, upending trade flows and raising farmers’ costs for energy, fertilizer, and transport in many E.U. countries.

What measures are governments taking to solve the situation?

What steps are E.U. governments taking to help farmers?

After Thursday’s protests in Brussels, Macron called on the E.U. to implement farming reform, saying that Europe’s farming sector is facing a big crisis and must “profoundly” change its rules by implementing a joint E.U. mechanism to guarantee fair prices paid to farmers by food giants and supermarkets. A newly-elected French prime minister, Gabriel Attal, also announced a package worth $160 million in aid for French farmers in need, after which two major farmers’ unions said they would tell their members to suspend protests.

Dutch and Belgian farmers burn wooden pallets and tires as they block the border crossing between Belgium and the Netherlands, in Arendonk, on February 2, 2024.Rob Engelaar—AFP/Getty Images

“Everywhere in Europe, the same question arises: how do we continue to produce more but better? How can we continue to tackle climate change? How can we avoid unfair competition from foreign countries?” Attal said on Thursday while announcing the measures.

Attal’s pledge follows measures worth nearly $430 million that several European governments have already announced to help assuage the farmers’ anger, while at the E.U. level, the European Commission is proposing loosening green farming requirements while still allowing agricultural subsidies. 

But as E.U. leaders struggle to balance the need to save agricultural livelihoods while reducing farming’s impact on the climate, farmers like Ody say they are still angry and will continue to mobilize at protests. “Our main demand is that we get a European law that ensures that the price we get covers the cost of production, including revenue,” she says.

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com