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EU farmer protests: What's driving tractors to the streets?

Ella Joyner in Brussels
January 11, 2024

The German farmers' protests that caused nationwide disruptions is the latest in a slew of farmer demonstrations in Europe. Many say their backs are against the wall amid new EU measures and soaring costs.

This aerial picture shows tractors parked in a field during a protest against the lifting of ban on imports of grain coming from Ukraine, in Dolni Bogrov, Bulgaria.
Tractors lined up in convoy are an increasingly common sight in EuropeImage: Nikolay Doychinow/AFP/Getty Images

Germany is the latest European country gripped by a wave of turbulent farmers' protests. In a week of action throughout the nation set to last until Friday, the agricultural sector is pushing back against proposed cuts to subsidies for fuel used in farming.

Convoys consisting of thousands of tractors and trucks have unleashed travel chaos and cut off several cities in recent days. Production at a Volkswagen facility in the northern city of Emden even ground to a halt. Last week, Economy Minister Robert Habeck was blockaded by angry protesters as he tried to disembark from a ferry during a family holiday.

Protest movement ripples across EU borders

Similar demonstrations, marked in some instances by violence and pointed encroachment into politicians' private sphere, have at times caused huge shutdowns in the Netherlands in the last few years.

Taking aim at planned measures to grapple with chronic nitrogen pollution, the protest movement there even spawned a new political party in 2019, the agrarian-populist Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB).

In Belgium, Spain and France, farmers have also taken to the streets to voice their discontent about the effects of planned environmental reforms and high costs. Poland and other eastern European states have seen a similar ripple, though these related largely to the import of cheap Ukrainian grain into the EU.

Farmers block roads across Germany

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, an agrarian sociologist and former professor at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, sees important commonalities for many of these cases: the defense of the status quo.

Concerns often involve "the right to continue to use subsidies gained over history [or] to continue to use fossil energy or pesticides. They are all very clear expressions of industrialized agriculture," he told DW.

What are the farmers' grievances?

While it's easy to lump the protests together, they have been mainly triggered by specific national situations. The German protests relate to diesel subsidies, Spanish farmers recently took aim at water-saving measures and French demonstrators' concerns included irrigation and fuel expenses, as well as EU trade policy.

Nonetheless, with fertilizer and fuel prices having soared in Europe after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, farmers have said they are feeling the squeeze across Europe despite much higher food prices on supermarket shelves.

According to Anne-Kathrin Meister of the Federation of German Rural Youth (BDL), agricultural yields simply cannot keep up with growing costs.

"If you compare the increase for prices of machinery, pesticides and fertilizer alone, the yield has never increased to the same extent," Meister, who grew up spending time on her grandparents' farm in northern Bavaria, told DW by phone from Berlin.

With Spain in drought, farmers drill illegal wells

"The challenges of the last few years and the current ones are simply a bit much all at once," she said. While the focus on Germany is on diesel and vehicles, "that's just the last straw that broke the camel's back."

The agricultural sector doesn't oppose environmental reform per se, but it needs more support, Meister stressed. "Farmers are the first ones affected when flora and fauna are in a bad way," she said. But environmental costs come with a price tag that consumers should also be prepared to pay, she added.

Backing from the far right, whether welcome or not

For the German government, there is also concern the protests are being hijacked by the far right, as Interior Minister Nancy Faeser made clear this week. Economy Minister Habeck sounded the alarm about "coup fantasies" circulating online in connection with the protests, as well as the display of nationalist symbols.

On Monday, many tractors featured banners emblazoned with the logo of the far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is currently second in the polls at 23%.

Joachim Rukwied, president of the German Farmers' Association, tried to distance the protests from extremists. "We don't want right wing and other radical groups with a desire to overthrow the government at our demos," he said. "We are democrats," he told German newspaper Bild on Sunday.

Climate goals at risk?

The farmers' restlessness is viewed nervously from Brussels. EU officials are above all concerned about pushback to the ambitious climate goals written into law under this European Commission. The EU has set its self the overall target of reaching "net-zero" emissions by 2050. For agriculture, planned changes include a 50% reduction of chemical pesticide by 2030.

With EU elections set for June, some worry how safe these well-laid plans would be if the European Parliament swings to the right.

According to Marco Contiero, an activist from the EU branch of climate campaign group Greenpeace, this risk was on full display during the political furor over the Nature Restoration Law. The act was narrowly passed in the European Parliament last year after a last-minute resistance led by the center-right European People's Party. The EPP, which is the largest group in the legislature, positioned itself as defending farmers' interests against plans to return agricultural land to natural habitat.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg attends a rally calling on MEPs to pass a nature restoration law, near the European Parliament, in Strasbourg
Climate activist Greta Thunberg turned out in Strasbourg in July to help push the contested nature restoration law over the lineImage: GREENS/EFA GROUP via REUTERS

"Conservative parties as well as even more right-wing parties, have decided to use, or misuse, farming communities, as an electoral tool to get better results," Contiero told DW. 

For Greenpeace, the present system, which pushes farmers to run large, intensively industrialized operations, is broken; agitating to keep things the same won't help.

Between 2005 and 2020, some 5.3 million farms closed down across the EU — overwhelmingly small farms, Contiero pointed out, citing estimates from EU statistic agency Eurostat. The amount of agricultural land being farmed remained stable.

"That's one-third of all farmers in Europe just disappeared because of financial problems," Contiero said. "Pretending that defending the current system means defending farmers is a blunt lie."

Long history of farmers' protests

Farmers may be taking to the streets in Europe more than they were 10 years ago, but the agricultural sector has a long history of protest, as van der Ploeg, the agrarian sociologist, pointed out.

There were several waves over the course of the 20th century, including notorious ones in the early 1970s that saw farmers from several countries descend on Brussels. In 1971, protests were so turbulent that police even gunned down a demonstrator.

In the past, farmers' protests were typically led by small players, according to van der Ploeg. These days, at least in his home country of the Netherlands, it is large-scale producers who are calling the shots.

"Very large farmers, they are the ones who define the program," he said. In his view, "they are fighting for a perspective that represents the interests of agribusiness."

Rukwied, head of the the German Farmers' Association, might not see things that way. On Wednesday, he declared that a compromise offer from the government wasn't good enough and threatened to continue protests next week.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

The evolution of agriculture in Germany