EU Tries to Soothe Farmers Anger as Protests Keep Spreading

(Bloomberg) — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday that it’s time to address the growing divisions over agriculture as she tried to respond to burgeoning protests from farmers over green policies and subsidy cuts in a crucial election year for Europe.

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“We all have the same sense of urgency,” she said in a speech kicking off a strategic dialog with the agricultural sector. “Things have to improve.”

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Her remarks are part of a new EU effort to mollify farmers, upset by what they see as a tangle of ever-shifting regulations that have pushed many of them to the brink of bankruptcy. But the bloc’s so-called strategic dialog is a slow-moving process, and it’s unclear how much it can do much in the short term to ease the fresh spate of farmer protests.

On Thursday, French farmers stopped trucks carrying products from outside of France, BFM TV reported. “We opened the trucks, saw what was inside, and everything that was foreign was emptied,” a winegrower named Sylvie, who only provided her first name, told BFM TV. “What makes us angry is that we shouldn’t be importing the food products we don’t want to produce at home.”

In parts of France, tractors and farm vehicles have blocked major highways this week. Those blockades, restricted to the country’s southwest last weekend, have since spread across the country.

“We’re fed up, it’s been going on for years and there’s never any solution. At some point, it has to stop. European norms, French norms, taxes,” Christian, a farmer taking part in a protest on the A12 highway, told BFM TV. 

In Poland, farmers plan to block roads in as many as 250 locations to protest EU plans to curb carbon emissions, as well as what organizers have described as uncontrolled food imports from neighboring Ukraine.

The EU’s push for new environmental regulation sparked considerable backlash last year, and pushback from farmers resulted in the watering-down of initial proposals by the bloc’s executive branch, including on nature restoration law or voting and the defeat of a plan to halve pesticide use by 2030.

Far-right parties have also tried to harness a backlash against European laws to protect the environment and pare back subsidies and are expected to make gains in European elections that will be held in June. 

The EU’s strategic dialog will include farmers, cooperatives, agribusiness, civil society and financial institutions with an aim to produce a set of conclusions by the summer. About 30 representatives of the agricultural sector and academia attended Thursday’s launch.

“It’s a very strong response, but how strong it is and how impactful it is will depend on the content of what that strategic dialog sets out,” Ireland’s agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue said in Brussels on Tuesday. It is important that respect and recognition for the work that farmers do “permeates our policy development as well.”

The EU has spent €2.5 billion ($2.7 billion) in crisis-related measures to support farmers since 2014 and has allocated more than €260 billion to its massive agricultural fund for the 2023-2027, around one-third of the common EU budget.

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