EU farmers step up protests against rising costs, green rules

Protests spread across Europe
calendar icon 1 February 2024
clock icon 4 minute read

The French government on Wednesday sent armoured vehicles to protect a wholesale food market in Paris in a sign of escalating tensions as farmers blocked highways in France and Belgium and protests spread elsewhere in Europe, reported Reuters.

Spanish and Italian farmers said they were joining the protest movement which has also hit Germany, aiming to press governments to ease environmental rules and shield them from rising costs and cheap imports.

With all eyes on a summit of EU leaders set for Thursday, the bloc's executive Commission made proposals to limit farm imports from Ukraine and loosen some green regulations.

But that was unlikely to be enough to quell the anger of farmers who said they would continue to block highways and ports until all their demands were met. Farmers in Belgium, Italy and beyond said they would rally in Brussels for the summit.

"We plan - as farmers - to go to Brussels and set up barricades because the (leaders) are meeting on Thursday," Belgian farmer Eddy Dewite said on the side of a highway blocked by tractors.

Another Belgian farmer, 26-year-old Luca Mouton, said: "Time is up. [EU leaders must] think of the farmers. Talk to the farmers rather than about the farmers, discuss what is possible. We are open to dialogue."

While the farmers' crisis is not officially on the agenda of the EU summit, it is bound to be discussed, at least on the margins.

Farmers say they are not being paid enough, are choked by taxes and green rules and face unfair competition from abroad.

"[Farmers'] expectations are huge and beyond what one can imagine," said Arnaud Rousseau, head of France's powerful FNSEA union. "What is happening at the moment stems from the accumulation of rules that at first you accept ... until it becomes too much."

The protests across Europe come ahead of European Parliament elections in June in which the far right, for whom farmers represent a growing constituency, is seen making gains.

While protests have so far been largely peaceful - though French farmers have sprayed liquid manure at local prefecture buildings and set tyres on fire - police arrested 18 people on Wednesday amid standoffs.


Those arrested were driving tractors and trying to block the wholesale food market at Rungis in Paris, a hub for produce for France and beyond.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has warned that while protests on highways would be tolerated, police would not allow farmers to block airports or the Rungis market.

In total, there are about 100 blockades, he said.

BFM TV showed standoffs near the River Loire, with tractors stopped by police from moving closer to Paris. It also showed tractors leaving roads and rumbling across fields to bypass police. Some made it to Rungis, French media said.

Officials at Rungis, at the Zeebrugge container port - where access roads were blocked for a second day - and British retailer groups said they were not seeing any major impact yet on supply chains yet as a result of the protests.

A spokesperson for the port of Antwerp-Bruges said farmers had also started blocking trucks from leaving and entering the port of Antwerp, Europe's second biggest port.

A major highway in Belgium was also blocked. Farmers were cooking fries on the edge of the motorway.

French and Belgian farmers also blocked several roads at their border, La Voix du Nord newspaper said.

In Italy, farmers have blocked traffic with hundreds of tractors near motorway access points outside Milan, in Tuscany and elsewhere in recent days.

French farmers have already won several concessions, including the government dropping plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel.

In another step to try to subdue farmer anger, the agriculture ministry announced 230 million euros in additional aid for wine producers.

Ukraine imports

The European Commission on Wednesday proposed several more steps that the farmers were calling for, including limiting agricultural imports from Ukraine.

The proposal, which will require approval from EU governments and the European Parliament, introduces an "emergency brake" for the most sensitive products imported from Ukraine - poultry, eggs and sugar - allowing tariffs if imports exceed the average levels of 2022 and 2023.

The Commission also proposed exempting farmers for 2024 from a requirement to keep a minimum share of their land fallow while still receiving EU subsidies - another key request from farmers.

Imports from Ukraine, on which the EU has waived quotas and duties since Russia's February 2022 invasion, and renewed talks on concluding a trade deal with South American nations in the Mercosur bloc have fanned farmers' discontent.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire repeated that Paris does not want the Mercosur free trade deal to be signed as it is now, due to a lack of guarantees that imported products would meet EU rules. But the European Commission has said it still aims to conclude the agreement.

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