Europe's restless farmers are forcing policymakers to act

Policymakers have scaled back rules to protect nature
calendar icon 4 April 2024
clock icon 4 minute read

European policymakers have scaled back rules to protect nature, drawn up limits on the import of tariff-free Ukrainian grains and scrapped new legislation limiting pesticide use as farmers' protests resonate with voters ahead of elections.

From Poland to Portugal, farmers have won remarkable concessions in response to waves of street action, reshaping the European Union's green politics months ahead of European Parliament elections, reported Reuters

Environmental activists and analysts say the policy backsliding illustrates the considerable political influence of farmers as mainstream parties seek to impede the far right and nationalist parties' hunt for votes in rural areas.

Farmers again blockaded streets surrounding the European Union headquarters in Brussels last week, spraying manure to protest low incomes, cheap food imports and burdensome red tape. As they did so, the bloc's farming ministers backed a new set of changes to weaken green rules linked to the disbursement of tens of billions of euros in farming subsidies.

When the last European elections were held in 2019, the Greens made strong gains and climate activist Greta Thunberg was voted Time Magazine's Person of the Year."

The elections in 2024 will be elections in the year of angry farmers," said Franc Bogovic, a Slovenian lawmaker in the European Parliament and himself a farmer.

The scramble to placate farmers has impacted key pillars of EU policy, pressuring the bloc over its Green Deal and free trade accords.

EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius warned of a "disastrous" blow to the bloc's credibility last week, when EU countries declined to approve a landmark law to safeguard nature, leaving it unclear if the policy will be passed.

Other green measures are hanging in the balance ahead of the election. EU countries asked Brussels last week to scale back and possibly delay a new anti-deforestation policy, which they said could harm local farmers.

In France, senators in March voted against ratification of an EU-Canada free trade deal, targeting a symbol of the EU's willingness to open up markets and boost competition.

And while the EU has extended tariff-free access for Ukrainian food producers, it agreed last month to impose duties if imports exceed a certain level, in response to farmers' protests.

Some farming groups acknowledge the response by policymakers to the protests is likely linked to June's elections - but say the weakening of green rules is not what they want.

"Our demands (for fair prices) have not actually been met," said Dutch farmer Leonardo van den Berg, a representative of farming association La Via Campesina.

Rural discontent

Farmers account for 4.2% of the EU's workforce and generate just 1.4% of the bloc's gross domestic product. However, their protests resonate in the countryside where discontent towards distant policymakers and questions of cultural identity run deep.

A report commissioned by the EU's Committee of the Regions, published last month, found Eurosceptic voting was high in many rural areas, where concerns including over migration and lower economic opportunities boosted populist parties.

An Elabe survey in January showed 87% of French people supported the farmers' cause. In Poland, nearly eight in every 10 people backed the farmers' demands, according to a poll by the Institute of Market and Social Research.

The far right in France and elsewhere paint the farmers' protests as symptomatic of a disconnect between an urban elite and hard-up countryside folk. Farmers are a small group, but the far right thinks it can attract a much wider rural vote by extension, said Teneo analyst Antonio Barroso.

Far-right parties are jostling to be the standard-bearers of farmers’ discontent, using them to illustrate the perceived failure of what they consider elitist green policies, said Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at think-tank Bruegel.

"This is pushing mainstream political parties to recalibrate their own agendas," Tagliapietra said.

In France, farmers are a growing constituency for Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party. She has called for a halt to EU free trade deals.

Asked why farmers were proving so effective in influencing policymaking, agriculture ministers in Brussels last week described farmers as lynchpins of the rural economy."

Everybody needs to eat everyday," Finland's minister Sari Essayah said. "(Farming) is one of those basic sectors we should support."

Irish Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue said Europe needed to learn from the upheaval to food supply chains inflicted by Russia's war in Ukraine."We cannot take food security for granted," he said.

Environmental campaigners warn of the pace at which environmental policies are being loosened for what they say is political expediency.

Changes to weaken environmental criteria linked to the disbursement of subsidies under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) had taken place at lightning speed without proper consultation, Greenpeace said.

"What they are now presenting as a set of simplification adjustments is literally a CAP reform worked out in a week," said Marco Contiero, the group's EU agriculture policy director, somewhat exaggerating what were still speedy proposals."

This is a political, an electoral card being played," he said.

A Commission spokesperson said the proposals to amend the CAP were "carefully calibrated, and targeted to maintain a high level of environment and climate ambition". 

The Commission consulted four EU-level farming associations and EU member states before proposing the measures to reduce bureaucracy for farmers, the spokesperson said.

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