Farmer revolts in Europe: What are reasons?

Europe Materials 28 February 2024 12:09 (UTC +04:00)
Farmer revolts in Europe: What are reasons?
Ingilab Mammadov
Ingilab Mammadov
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BAKU, Azerbaijan, February 28. Farmers' riots have lately taken place in numerous European countries. For example, farmers blocked a road in Brussels, Belgium's capital, a few days ago, while farmers deposited tons of manure on two highways in Spain. A similar protest occurred in France, where farmers with posters read "Saw misery, reap wrath," and marched their tractors into highways, blocking them.

Farmers in France are protesting diesel prices and pesticide restrictions, in Portugal against a lack of state support, in Belgium against a decision to leave 4 percent of land unused, subsidies primarily for large farms, and in Spain against trade agreements that will allow cheap produce to be imported. A similar issue exists in Eastern European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Farmers' mass demonstrations against cheap Ukrainian imports and EU farm policies are not subsiding.

Photo 1. European countries with farmer protests

Investigating this situation reveals that during the commencement of the war in Ukraine, the EU's exemption of agricultural exports from that nation from customs inspections put Eastern Europe and then other countries on the continent in jeopardy. Polish farmers protested on the streets before attempting to barricade border crossings. The crisis in Ukraine has also boosted transportation costs due to rising energy and fuel oil prices.

Protests began in Poland and quickly extended to Italy, Germany, Belgium, and France. Another major source of dissatisfaction among farmers is the agreement between Mercosur and the EU, which has been in the works since 2000 and was signed in 2019 after the parties met for the 39th time at the negotiating table. At the end of 2023, debates about the pact, which has yet to be ratified due to the refusal of several EU members to adopt it, heated up once more. Mercosur is a South American economic group formed by agreements made by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay in 1991 and 1994.

If ratified, the number of import-export activities between the EU and Mercosur countries would expand, customs procedures will be simplified, and agricultural products from South American countries will be imported into the EU at a cheaper tax rate. It should be noted that in 2019, farmers from Poland, France, Ireland, and Belgium protested the deal. Although this agreement, described by the Financial Times as a watershed moment in global trade policy, creates a market for 800 million people, if all EU countries accept it, importing large volumes of agricultural products from South America at lower tax rates will aggravate farmers and weaken agriculture in EU countries. The approach to this agreement varies per country.

While German equipment and appliance businesses, which previously had no access to the South American market due to high taxes, would enjoy simple market access under this deal, it was expected that the agreement would bring problems for EU food security and farmers' futures. In short, the EU members' diverse approaches are causing issues in implementing the accord. Most recently, on February 2, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal underlined that France does not intend to ratify this accord.

Photo 2. French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz discuss the Mercosur agreement.

Agricultural products manufactured in European Union member countries, particularly meat products, are deemed to be of excellent food safety quality. Brazil, on the other hand, is one of the most heavily used pesticides and insecticides in Mercosur, while also having environmental issues. According to the deal, the EU can import cheap meat and poultry products from Brazil. In this case, EU member countries that receive subsidies will confront unfair competition.

"We want the EU to be aware of our situation. There is too much regulation, wages are not high enough, and now we are facing imports from behind Mercosur, where there are farmers who do not meet the standards we meet," one of the farmers who joined the protests in Brussels, Emile Herbiet says.

Photo 3. One of the slogans of the farmers' riots in France is "Our work has a price."

The other problem is the clash between farmers' interests and EU interests on environmental policy and the green energy transition process. Initially, farmers objected to the EU Green Pact because of the severe restrictions on fertilizers, and pesticides because they will face severe restrictions on agricultural production. The EU's announcement in January 2024 that it aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 has further escalated the protests because it will lead to restrictions on agricultural actors. According to the EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, this is the goal of all economies, but agriculture must take into account the peculiarities specific to this area.

This year marks an election year in several crucial parts of the world, including the majority of Europe. 2024 will also be an election year for the European Parliament, with over 400 million voters casting their ballots. This is the world's second largest electoral platform, behind India. In such a circumstance, the fact that right-wing parties have backed farmers' wrath cannot be forgotten. The fact that farm riots have become so regular in such a sensitive year, and no meaningful actions have been taken to assuage farmers, raises an important argument. Even though following the farmer protests in Belgium, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, organized an emergency meeting to express support for farmers, and French President Emmanuel Macron recognized that Europe was facing a major farm crisis, and as a result, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced a €150 million aid package for farmers, European farmers are still protesting.

A delay in tackling the current issues confronting Europe's agriculture business could result in more major structural disruptions in the future.

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