In recent days, thousands of agricultural workers across Europe have protested against what they perceive as unfair environmental policies and certain free trade agreements that allow the import of foods from overseas.
The reasons for the protests are linked to various situations, but the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions said that a common thread running through the protests is a “strong opposition to the EU’s Green Deal and ‘Farm to Fork’ ambitions”.
This week, French farmers blockaded Paris by using tractors and other agricultural vehicles to block motorways leading into the capital. Belgian farmers carried out similar protests on the roads, and German workers also staged protests.
Earlier this month, Polish farmers took to the streets to protest EU regulations regarding Ukrainian imports.
The agricultural sector has generally remained suspicious of measures brought in by the EU to revamp its €55 billion Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and make it more sustainable.
CAP has been a central aspect of European policies since 1962. Although CAP’s portion of the EU budget has diminished over the years, approximately a quarter of the total budget still goes towards supporting farmers.
Traditionally, CAP was based on area payments, where farmers received income based on the size of their farms. Since the 1960s, CAP has undergone several reforms, the latest in 2023, which aims to promote more environmentally friendly farming practices. These changes align with the European Green Deal, the EU’s initiative to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
The revamp includes an obligation to devote a portion of arable land to non-productive features, as well as a requirement to carry out crop rotations and reduce fertiliser use by at least 20%.
To facilitate this, in 2020 the EU introduced its ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy, aiming to hasten the shift towards more sustainable food systems.
With four main aims, the ‘Farm to Fork’ initiative intends to halve pesticide use by 2030 and reduce fertiliser use, devote at least 10% of agricultural areas to non-agricultural uses (for example, by turning it into fallow land, planting non-productive trees or creating ponds), and to ensure that by 2030, 25% of the total agricultural land in the EU is used for organic farming.
If these goals are achieved and the agricultural sector stays in line with the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals,’ the European Commission says that food and agriculture systems could generate global economic value of €1.8 trillion.
While more than 70% of CAP’s money is spent on direct payments to farmers as a safety net, many farmers have long argued these measures will make the European agricultural sector less competitive against imports.
The Green Deal itself also includes legislation aimed at reducing emissions.
With agriculture accounting for around 11% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is expected that farmers could be significantly affected by efforts to reduce emissions.
According to lobby group IFOAM Organics Europe, the EU’s target of using 25% of farmland for organic farming by 2030 could have significant benefits. The group said the move could reduce nitrogen pollution by up to the equivalent of 25 million tonnes of carbon, lowering GHG emissions from farming by 15% and increasing biodiversity on organic land by a third.
However, some farmers view the effects of these recent changes and EU green targets as unjust and challenging to manage, with many concerned that these measures could jeopardise farming businesses.
Luc Vernet of the Brussels-based think tank Farm Europe told the BBC, “Farmers are having to do much more…with less support. They don’t see how they can cope any longer.”
The war in Ukraine
Another key factor that has contributed to the protests is the effects of the war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has blocked trade routes in the Black Sea.
To support trading, the EU temporarily lifted restrictions on imports from Ukraine, thereby allowing its agricultural produce to enter European markets.
However, the average Ukrainian organic farm is about 1,000 hectares, while European equivalents are, on average, only 41 hectares. This difference in output has created an unbalanced market, and prices have been pushed down in neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Poland and Romania. As such, farmers began to struggle with costs as they couldn’t sell their crops.
This, in turn, led to protests in Poland last spring, with roads blocked by farmers and agricultural workers.
The EU soon imposed trade restrictions on Ukraine’s exports to its neighbours, but only for a limited period. When the ban expired, the governments in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia announced their own restrictions.
Now, protesting agricultural workers in Eastern European countries are asking the EU to revise its trade liberalisation measures with Ukraine.
The BBC reported that earlier this month, Romanian news outlet Krónika said that the EU letting in cheap Ukrainian goods was “like a non-swimmer trying to save a drowning person. They both drown.”
In an interview with Polish agricultural news outlet Wieści Rolnicze, Adrian Wawrzyniak, spokesperson for the Polish farmers’ trade union, said: “We cannot compete with Ukraine, so we expect, among other things, to introduce quotas that existed before the war. Ukrainian grain should go where it belongs, to the Asian or African markets, not to Europe.”
In response to the protests, the French government abandoned plans to gradually reduce state subsidies on agricultural diesel and pledged to ease environmental regulations. However, farmers’ organisations have said these measures are insufficient and vowed to intensify their efforts.
French farming minister Marc Fesneau announced that the country’s President, Emmanuel Macron, would advocate for more pro-farming policies at the European Union leaders’ summit in Brussels, Belgium, this week, addressing the concerns shared by many farmers within the bloc. Fesneau intends to visit Brussels to seek modifications to EU regulations concerning fallow agricultural land under the new green rules.
President Macron is scheduled to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday in Brussels. The agenda includes discussions on the agriculture industry, EU-wide support for farmers, negotiations on a free trade deal between the EU and Mercosur (a bloc of South American countries), regulations about leaving some farmland uncultivated and Ukrainian imports into the EU.
In a statement from the Élysée Palace – the official residence of President Macron, – the French government emphasised that the meeting would specifically focus on the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which France’s Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, said the country “very clearly opposes.” This stance aligns with the opposition expressed by some French farmers.
Last week, President von der Leyen acknowledged the increasing division and polarisation on agriculture-related issues and started a “strategic dialogue” between agriculture groups and EU decision-makers.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2024