‘They’re drowning us in regulations’: how Europe’s furious farmers took on Brussels and won

<span>Spanish farmers march through Logrono, La Rioja on 8 February.</span><span>Photograph: JM Garcia/EPA</span>
Spanish farmers march through Logrono, La Rioja on 8 February.Photograph: JM Garcia/EPA

On the outskirts of the northern Spanish city of Pamplona, a green, red and blue stream of New Holland, John Deere, Massey Ferguson, Fendt and Deutz-Fahr tractors trundled forwards, horns honking and orange lights flashing.

Under drizzly grey skies and escorted by navy blue Policía Nacional vans, few were in the mood to explain the motives for their demonstration, but a young farmer from the nearby town of Estella threw open his cab door to share his grievances. “They’re drowning us with all these regulations,” he said. “They need to ease up on all the directives and bureaucracy. We can’t compete with other countries when things are like this. We’re … drowning.”

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If Europe’s farmers have called a temporary halt to their protests in France and Germany – awaiting what one French farmer called “proof of love, not just words of love” from their respective governments – they have only just got going in Spain.

In scenes now familiar from Poland to Portugal, angry farmers last week blocked roads, a port and a large wholesale market, and plan to continue through February. Italian farmers also took to their tractors last week, converging on the outskirts of Rome and staging a symbolic drive-past of the Colosseum on Friday.

In recent weeks, large conurbations including Paris and Lyon have been blockaded. City centres in Brussels and Berlin have been choked to a standstill. Farmers have closed down motorways, dumped manure, hurled eggs, trashed supermarkets, set fire to hay bales and pallets, and clashed, sometimes violently, with police.

Away from the heat of the protests, in TV interviews and parliamentary speeches, their cause has been enthusiastically adopted by a resurgent populist far right, which sees in the farmers’ revolt a promising new front in its long-running war on “out-of-touch elites”, “radical environmentalism” and “Brussels diktats”.

Months from European parliament elections in which far-right and “anti-European” parties are projected to make big gains, farming – which represents just 1.4% of EU gross domestic product – has climbed, suddenly, to the top of the political agenda.

Related: Why are farmers protesting across the EU and what can the bloc do about it?

“Everywhere in Europe, the same questions are coming up,” said France’s prime minister, Gabriel Attal. “How do we continue to produce more, but better? Continue to tackle climate change? Avoid unfair competition from foreign countries?”

They are questions to which Europe needs rapid answers.

The first stirrings came, appropriately, in the Netherlands – Europe’s most intensively farmed country, home to more than 110 million livestock, including cows, pigs and chickens, and, largely as a consequence, to nitrogen emissions four times the EU average.

Five years ago, officials said “drastic measures” were needed, including buying up and shutting down farms. The government unveiled plans to cut nitrogen emissions in half by 2030, partly by slashing livestock numbers by up to a third. Dutch farmers did not wait for the details to make their feelings known. In October 2019, more than 2,000 tractors trundled from all corners of the country to the seat of government in The Hague, causing 620 miles of motorway tailbacks. “No farmers no food,” their placards read, and “Proud of the farmer”. It was the start of a movement that has since snowballed cross the bloc, accelerating rapidly in recent months to leave – so far - only Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden untouched.

Many protests – as in the Netherlands – are at least partly country-specific. In Italy, demands included reinstatement of an income tax exemption that had been in force since 2017 but was due to be scrapped in the 2024 budget. In Germany, where protests have briefly paused after an estimated 30,000 farmers and 5,000 tractors paralysed Berlin in mid-January, the most explosive issue is a government plan to phase out tax breaks on agricultural diesel to balance its budget.

But uniting them all are concerns shared across mainland Europe: falling product prices, rising costs, over-powerful retailers, cheap foreign imports and – in particular – EU environmental rules that many farmers see as unfair and economically unrealistic. “There are many issues,” said Arnaud Rousseau, president of France’s biggest farmers union, the FNSEA. “But the seeds of these protests are the same: lack of understanding between the reality on the ground and the decisions taken by governments.”

Spain’s agriculture minister, Luis Planas, said last week that the causes of the protests sweeping Europe were diverse and complicated, but boiled down to longstanding dissatisfactions and farmers feeling underappreciated. “Farmers want to be listened to and respected,” said Planas. “And they often feel they aren’t respected – especially in Brussels, but also sometimes in Madrid, or in the urban or political sphere.”

Some problems are structural. The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), the €55bn (£47bn) annual subsidy system on which mainland Europe’s postwar food security has rested for more than 60 years, has always been based on economy of scale: bigger farms, common standards. Increasingly, that has encouraged consolidation (the number of farms in the bloc has fallen by more than a third since 2005), leaving many larger operations overburdened with debt and many smaller ones struggling to stay competitive on product price.

Others are temporal. The past two years have brought a vicious squeeze on already tight margins, triggered by the pandemic and, more significantly, Russia’s war on Ukraine. Farmers’ costs – fuel, electricity, fertiliser and transport – have soared.

At the same time, efforts by governments and retailers to limit the impact of the cost of living crisis on consumers have hit prices. Eurostat data shows the prices farmers get for their products fell on average by almost 9% between late 2022 and late 2023.

That squeeze is being further exacerbated by an avalanche of imports, often from countries and regions where farmers are not generally subject to the same strict standards and regulations as in the EU – and so can compete unfairly on price. A flood of cheap agricultural produce, especially grain from Ukraine – on which the EU initially waived quotas and duties after Russia’s full-scale invasion – prompted furious Polish farmers to begin blocking cross-border roads as early as the spring of 2023.

Free-trade agreements with non-EU countries are also a source of anger, particularly a forthcoming deal with the Mercosur bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – all of which use hormones, antibiotics and pesticides banned in the EU.

“We have to deal with all these rules and yet we face competition from goods from outside the EU that simply aren’t produced in the same conditions,” said Emmanuel Mathé, a French farmer, during a recent motorway blockade outside Paris.

Completing the catalogue of woes, the climate crisis – droughts, floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather events – is increasingly affecting output, particularly in southern Europe. Besides Italy, large farmers’ protests are due in Greece this week.

The readiest focus for farmers’ ire, however, is EU environmental legislation. For an already struggling industry, the European green deal, aimed at achieving climate neutrality across the bloc by 2050, looks very much like a bridge too far. The plan’s targets for agriculture included halving pesticide use by 2030, cutting fertiliser use by 20%, devoting more land to non-agricultural use – for example, by leaving it fallow – and doubling organic production to 25% of all EU farmland.

Copa-Cogeca, the leading agricultural lobby in Brussels, has described much of the deal’s “Farm2Fork” strategy as “top-down … poorly designed, poorly evaluated, poorly financed”, offering “few alternatives to farmers”.

In response to the growing wave of rural revolt, Europe’s politicians are running scared. The European Commission has made multiple recent concessions in an effort to ease tensions, with its president, Ursula von der Leyen, insisting the bloc had heard farmers’ concerns. Last week, the commission shelved plans to cut pesticide use, saying it had become “a symbol of polarisation”. Last month, it unveiled an “emergency brake” on the most sensitive Ukrainian products and delayed rules on setting aside more land. Presenting the EU’s latest recommendations for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, the executive last week also eased up on agriculture, removing from a previous draft the stipulation that farming would have to cut non-CO2 emissions by 30% from 2015 levels.

While farming would have to transition to a “more sustainable model of production”, von der Leyen said, farmers were undeniably being confronted with a range of problems and “deserved to be listened to … We should place more trust in them”.

At a national level, too, governments have scrambled to respond: Berlin watered down its plans to cut diesel subsidies while the Italian prime minister, Georgia Meloni, on Friday agreed to partially re­instate the suspended tax exemption, at least for low earners. Paris scrapped a diesel tax increase and promised measures worth €400m, plus €200m more in cash aid.

Farmers deserve to be listened to… We should place more trust in them

Ursula von der Leyen

Attal also said it was now “out of the question” that France would agree to the planned EU-Mercosur trade deal as it stood and promised the government would stop imposing stricter rules on its farmers than EU regulations demanded.

Will it all be enough? The growing politicisation of the movement is a real concern. In the Netherlands, a new populist party, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), emerged from the “nitrogen wars”, channelling rural resentment and opposition to “radical environmentalism”. The BBB swept the board in provincial elections last year and while it failed to repeat that performance in November’s general election, it is one of the parties negotiating to form the next Dutch government with far-right, anti-Islam provocateur Geert Wilders.

The far-right Alternative for Germany – now second in the polls – has forcefully backed the farmers, as have members of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, which has said it wants the “abolition”, pure and simple, of the European green deal.

The farmers’ protests make an undeniably appealing bandwagon for far-right and populist parties, an extension of the culture wars that allows them to rail against what they portray as an increasingly dictatorial EU, as well as an urban, international elite ignoring – or attacking – oppressed rural workers.

While most farmers reject any far-right connection, many have acknowledged that they feel trebly misunderstood: by politicians who impose unrealistic regulations, consumers who know little about how food is produced, and environmentalists who cast them as evildoers.

In last month’s protests in Germany, a surprisingly large number of tractors bore placards complaining about Teslas. Elon Musk’s US electric car brand is, it seems, emblematic of the kind of urban wealth that votes green, but knows nothing about farming.

Back outside Pamplona, the list of Spanish farmers’ grievances sounded all too familiar: they want less bureaucracy, fairer prices, a revision of the European green deal, safeguarding of CAP subsidies and stronger protection against non-EU competition.

And in Madrid, Planas was well aware of the political risk, with the agriculture minister saying he was worried that opposition parties were deliberately exploiting the farmers’ protests for political gain. He was particularly bothered, he said, by comments made in congress by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the conservative People’s party, who accused the socialist-led government of alienating farmers through its pursuit of what he called “environmental dogmatism”.

Planas said: “That’s an expression we’ve heard a lot from many sectors that – let’s be clear – are climate deniers and anti-EU. I find it very worrying because I believe that Spaniards understand very well that climate change is here.”

Such talk by the likes of Feijóo, he added, called into question the bloc’s approach to fighting the climate emergency, whose effects – most notably a prolonged drought that is having a devastating impact on water supplies – were already being keenly felt on the Iberian peninsula.

“Spain is a country that is pro-EU,” Planas said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes disagree with the odd decision.

“But I think what’s happening now is directly linked to the forthcoming European elections.”