European leaders feed farmers with promises, yet no big change in sight

Though some governments have announced measures to appease the farmers, analysts foresee little change to existing EU agricultural policies, at least in the short term.

3 mins read
French farmers block a highway with their tractors during a protest in Longvilliers, near Paris, France, on Jan. 29, 2024. (Photo by Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua)

The meeting of European Union (EU) leaders in Brussels on Thursday was accompanied by a demonstration of angry farmers who blocked the roads around the summit venue with some 1,000 tractors, protesting against rising costs and shrinking income.

The event in the Belgian capital was part of EU-wide demonstrations that had caused disruption over the past weeks in France, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, the Netherlands, Greece, and Poland. On Friday, farmers in Malta also took to the streets in Valletta to show solidarity with their European peers.

Reacting to the wide-scale demonstrations, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a press conference after Thursday’s summit that farmers had an important role in the bloc’s economy and promised changes to tackle their challenges.

Although national governments, including Berlin and Paris, have announced some measures to appease the farmers, analysts foresee little change to existing EU agricultural policies, at least in the short term.

FARMERS’ COMPLAINTS

Yu Xiaohua, director of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at the University of Gottingen in Germany, said farmers in Europe are bearing the brunt of high inflation and shrinking profit margins. Yet, the reasons leading to the recent protests are different depending on each country’s specificities.

Despite food prices soaring across Europe, farmers have been grappling with various challenges, including rising costs, falling sales prices, red tape, taxes, debt, and even climate change impacts. The wide-scale demonstrations that first started in Germany and France were attempts to call decision-makers’ attention to the acute problems of the European agricultural sector.

According to Belgian farmer unions — the Wallonian Federation for Agriculture and the Union of Female Farmers in Wallonia, farmers need to spend a lot of time dealing with the large amount of red tape imposed by the EU, which keeps them away from working in the fields.

In Germany, last month’s International Green Week, which is considered the world’s biggest consumer fair for the food, agricultural, and horticultural industries, coincided with farmers protesting against planned subsidy cuts. The demonstration saw hundreds of tractors and trucks blocking traffic around the exhibition area.

Yu told Xinhua that German farmers were protesting because the financial crisis had forced the German government to reintroduce taxes on diesel used by agricultural machinery. “For every hectare of farmland, this tax translates to a cost increase of 30-40 euros.”

“In this period of high inflation, while everyone else is trying to get wage increases through strikes, farmers are not only bearing the impact of the same inflation but are also facing a 10 percent reduction in income. This is intolerable for them and serves as the trigger for this wave of protests,” Yu said.

For European farmers, who are complaining about the soaring cost of diesel, fertilizers and irrigation, national governments’ efforts to cap food prices were also bad news. Furthermore, extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change and imports of cheaper agricultural products from third countries were cited among the challenges.

In Athens, Greece, farmers are demanding prompt financial aid promised by the government, after a severe storm caused damages amounting to about 1 billion euros (1.09 billion U.S. dollars) in the Thessaly region, one of the country’s main agricultural production regions.

Even between EU member states, competition can be fierce. Spain’s transport companies and agricultural producers have been facing a crisis as their shipments were blockaded by French farmers. Some French protesters have even resorted to destroying Spanish produce, exacerbating tensions.

COUNTRY-SPECIFIC RESPONSES

Last spring, Polish farmers started a protest against the import of cheap wheat from Ukraine into the EU, which led to the European Commission imposing a temporary ban on such imports. But as that ban expired, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia continued the restriction, relying on different national measures.

In January, the German government lowered the amount of the planned subsidy cuts in the agricultural sector, but the move failed to satisfy the farmers. While German Finance Minister Christian Lindner directly told farmers that no more state aid would come from the federal budget, the French government agreed to lift the strict regulations on pesticide products and promised an aid package of 150 million euros (162.93 million U.S. dollars) for livestock farmers and 80 million euros for wine producers.

However, country-specific measures can hardly be the ultimate solution. After Thursday’s EU summit, von der Leyen admitted that “many challenges remain. For example, the tensions on agri-food prices or a very competitive global market that leads to uncertainty, and of course, the need to remain competitive while working to high standards and environmental protection – a very complex endeavor.”

So far, the European Commission has announced two concessions: a temporary lift of the “fallow obligations” imposed on farms, and a restriction on increasing Ukrainian agricultural imports.

On Thursday, von der Leyen promised to work on reducing the administrative burdens and defending EU farmers’ legitimate interests in trade negotiations with third parties.

However, no specific mid- and long-term proposals were adopted during the summit. Further political discussions are expected within the framework of the EU Strategic Dialogue on the Future of Agriculture and the upcoming negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy.

The cause of current protests can be traced back to the bloc’s Green Deal (2019), which introduced a series of new policies and measures aimed at helping to EU reach climate neutrality by 2050. Policymakers, however, failed to consider the impact of these measures on farmers, Osama Rizvi, economist and market analyst, said in an article posted on the website of Euronews.

Yu expressed skepticism about the prospect of significant changes in regulations even though the protests are creating a lot of political noise ahead of the European Parliament elections in June. In his view, the focus of the EU’s agricultural policies and regulations on environmental protection, health, fairness, and sustainable development is unlikely to change.  (1 euro = 1.09 U.S. dollar)

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog