Europe’s Farmer Protests Are Part of a Bigger Problem

After months of protests by outraged farmers in cities across the continent, European lawmakers are struggling with how to quell the anger sparked in part by new green agricultural regulations—a backlash that has underscored the difficult trade-offs confronting governments as they navigate the energy transition. 

After months of protests by outraged farmers in cities across the continent, European lawmakers are struggling with how to quell the anger sparked in part by new green agricultural regulations—a backlash that has underscored the difficult trade-offs confronting governments as they navigate the energy transition. 

To hit ambitious climate targets, European leaders have unveiled a raft of measures that would overhaul the agricultural sector, an industry that accounts for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet those policies have infuriated tens of thousands of European farmers, who have staged massive protests to voice their frustrations with the economic strains of the latest climate regulations; soaring production costs; and cheap foreign imports, particularly from countries with less stringent rules. 

Demonstrations continued to roil Europe this week as hundreds of Czech and Greek farmers poured into the streets of Prague and Athens, the latest in a wave of protests that has swept all but four European countries: Austria, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. In some cities, enraged farmers have resorted to dumping loads of manure and hurling eggs at city buildings; others have used their tractors to blockade ports and roads

“As you’re imposing these stricter climate regulations on farmers, there’s a cost, and the cost has to be borne somewhere,” said Caitlin Welsh, a global food security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If the cost is imposed on the farmer, well then the farmer is going to produce less. The farmer is going to protest. There are going to be ramifications.” 

Those ramifications are now coming into sharper focus as lawmakers—worried that far-right groups will exploit the farmers’ outrage ahead of European Parliament elections in June—cave to some of their demands. But even as lawmakers make new concessions, some farmers have vowed to ramp up their fight.

Wait, let’s back up. Why are farmers protesting? 

While exact grievances vary by country, Europe’s farmers broadly say they are being pounded by a storm of converging pressures: a surge in production costs and drop in global food prices; cheap agricultural imports that have flooded their markets, namely from Ukraine; and now also a mix of national and European Union agricultural regulations targeting the farmers’ subsidies and use of pesticide and fertilizer.

When it comes to EU-wide policies, much of the farmers’ frustrations is directed toward the European Green Deal, Brussels’s plan to slash emissions by overhauling the continent’s food, transportation, and energy systems. The deal set ambitious targets for the agricultural sector to meet by 2030, including cutting chemical pesticide and antimicrobial use in half and reducing fertilizer use by 20 percent.

Yet the European farmers’ frustrations are also part of a larger global picture, said Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University. “Farmers all over the world are under considerable stress right now,” he said. At the same time as falling global commodity prices and rising input costs are squeezing farmers, he said, governments are increasingly turning away from direct agricultural subsidies and instead supporting greener production practices.

In Europe, where one-third of the EU budget traditionally goes to the agricultural sector, many farmers are also accustomed to generous state support, and lawmakers’ proposed overhauls have sparked fierce resistance. In Germany, for example, protests erupted over Berlin’s plans to slash fuel subsidies to farmers, while French demonstrations have centered on a pesticide ban. Nitrogen taxation has been a key issue in the Netherlands, and an income tax break was one of the focal points of Italy’s protests. 

“Add it all up, and farmers in Europe and here in the United States are increasingly feeling under political attack—like support the government has long provided them is getting pulled back,” Barrett said. “Understandably, that concerns them.”

How are European leaders responding? 

Worried about alienating a major base ahead of European Parliament elections in June, lawmakers have rushed to make concessions to appease the farmers. In one of the sharpest reversals, the EU this month abandoned its major proposal to slash pesticide use by 50 percent, while top officials stressed that Brussels and the farmers share the same objectives. France, Germany, Greece, and Italy have also all diluted their original plans

“We want to make sure that in this process, the farmers remain in the driving seat,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in early February. “Only if we achieve our climate and environmental goals together will farmers be able to continue to make a living.”

But Europe’s far-right parties are also hoping to align themselves with the farmers and leverage their anger to score political points ahead of the June vote. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, for example, has already harnessed the French demonstrations to criticize French President Emmanuel Macron; the Dutch populist Farmer-Citizen Movement has also capitalized on the farmers’ frustrations to rail against “radical environmentalism.” 

“Long live the farmers, whose tractors are forcing Europe to take back the nonsense imposed by multinationals and the left,” said Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister, in response to the EU decision to shelve the pesticide restrictions.

“The rising radical right is really exploiting these protests,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe. “Because we’re moving toward the European Parliament elections, everybody is very alarmed by this.” 

Still, experts warn that making too many concessions could also backfire. 

“The risk is that if they give in to some of these demands, or if they continue giving into some of these demands, those young people who showed up to vote in 2019 will not show up again in 2024,” Balfour said. 

What does this mean for the green energy transition? 

Europe’s current conundrum highlights the difficult economic and political trade-offs that all governments will inevitably confront in shifting away from fossil fuels, particularly when it comes to overhauling the agricultural sector. As the energy transition gains momentum around the world, experts say Europe’s wave of protests may be a harbinger of what’s to come. 

“The EU might be hitting this problem right now most acutely, but other countries aren’t far behind,” said Barrett of Cornell University. “We will all have to adjust agricultural support policies to attend to environmental and health effects of our agrifood systems, and we have to ensure that farmers and rural communities aren’t deserted in the process.”

Farmers across Europe, in the meantime, have vowed to continue the fight. Greek farmers recently rejected Athens’s proposed concessions, while Polish farmers continued to chuck eggs at government offices and Bulgarian protesters ramped up resignation calls for the country’s top agriculture minister last week. And in France, where hundreds of farmers recently called for a siege” of Paris, the head of the largest French farming union has warned that demonstrations could restart if government efforts do not go far enough. 

And the more that governments back down, the further the protests may spread. 

When farmers see a protest that is successful, “they say, ‘OK, well this is what we have to do. This is the way we mobilize. This works, and it actually gets people on our side,’” said Scott Reynolds Nelson, a historian at the University of Georgia and the author of Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World. “So I think it’s going to explode.”

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