They are making themselves heard in many countries across Europe: Germany, Romania, Poland, France. Now, on Wednesday, a farmers’ protest came to the EU capital, where French farmers marched in front of the EU Parliament. On Tuesday, the agriculture ministers of the 27 member states, meeting in the European Council, had expressed the need to listen to the demands raised by the agricultural sector, including the possibility of obtaining “meaningful compensation” for those who work in it.
On Wednesday, also in the EU capital, a “strategic dialogue” phase will begin on the topic of the future of EU agriculture and involving agricultural organizations, the agribusiness sector, NGOs and experts, all under the auspices of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The stated goal is to appease the anger of the rural world.
COPA-COGECA, the main network of large farmers’ organizations at the European level, which engages in intense lobbying activity, has high expectations from this dialogue, while complaining about the “particularly vague” scope of the discussions, which need to address “the geopolitical, climatic and economic context that is undermining farms and farmers’ incomes.”
Speaking with il manifesto, Cristiano Fini, the president of CIA, an Italian farmer’s organization affiliated with COPA-COGECA, explains the issue as they see it: “The EU is asking for environmental sustainability but without taking economic and social mediation into account. But the application of the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy [its accompanying program] has a strong impact on farm management.”
The large farmers’ associations are also concerned about the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which “introduces measures that are theoretically meant for environmental sustainability, but in practice are a limitation.” However, their complaints gloss over the substantial amount of funding allocated to agriculture by the same measure: 55 billion euros a year (1/3 of the entire EU budget).
The farmers’ protests have two common denominators: Ukrainian agricultural competition, which is more salient in Eastern European countries, and the European Green Deal. “The Green Deal has set very ambitious goals for farmers, with targets that need to be reached within a short time frame,” explains Paolo Sckokai, professor of agribusiness economics at the Catholic University of Piacenza. “For example, the EU has introduced mandatory crop rotation to reduce land depletion, called for increased cultivation of crops that promote biodiversity, and provided for a ban on pesticides.”
It’s a short step from discontent to seeking an outlet in political representation. Protests had begun more than a year ago in the Netherlands, with the outbreak of a farmer revolt in March 2023 against the Rutte government’s intention to limit nitrogen emissions, which they claimed would cause the demise of many farms. One month later, in April, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) made great gains in all provinces, gaining 16 seats in the Senate. Months later, in Germany and France as well as in Eastern countries, the farmers’ protests have been striking a clear anti-government and anti-EU-policy tone.
“So far, agriculture has been sacrificed in European and national public policies, which have favored large organizations dedicated to the logic of export,” says Benoit Biteau, vice-president of the Agricultural Commission of the European Parliament. “Today, 80 percent of the CAP goes to 20 percent of farmers through large groups,” the French Green MEP adds, who also points out that half of the small farm businesses have been lost in recent years and those who remain are in great difficulty. “In the neoliberal logic of free trade agreements – Canada, New Zealand, Mercosur – the first victim is always the agricultural world.”
Marta Messa, secretary general of Slow Food, has also expressed concern about the CAP being “strongly oriented towards industrial agriculture and increased production” to the detriment of farmers. She explains: “Agriculture and the environment are not in opposition, because farmers depend on nature and nature needs a healthy environment to thrive.” This idea resonates with the words of the French MEP: “Attacking green policies is an explanation of convenience. The threat comes from climate change and the loss of biodiversity.”
Meanwhile, European politics is reacting to the protests. This is the reason behind von der Leyen’s initiatives to placate agricultural businesses, in an attempt to avoid being seen as enemy number one, since she was the architect of the Green Deal. On the other hand, in 2023 “her own” German Christian Democrats – part of the Populars group in Strasbourg – have slow-walked, or even backtracked on, a series of strong pro-environment measures, casting themselves since last spring as “defenders of farmers and the agricultural world.” According to estimates released by Politico.eu, out of 400 million eligible voters in the next European elections, workers in the agricultural sector amount to around 10 million: a small percentage, but one that is punching far above its weight.