Angry farmers on tractors create chaos in EU summit protest

1 February 2024, 18:34

Belgium EU Summit
APTOPIX Belgium EU Summit. Picture: PA

Security forces used water cannons to douse fires and keep a farmer from felling a tree on the steps of the European Parliament.

Farmers have burned bales of hay, thrown eggs and fireworks at police – and wrested some promises of relief from European leaders – at the culmination of weeks of protests across the continent over red tape and competition from cheap imports.

Eager to reassure a key part of the electorate and end disruption in several cities, leaders at a European Union summit in Brussels showered the farmers with compliments and compassion — if few concrete proposals.

In France, the government did make significant concessions — enough that two major farming union promised to suspend the blockade their tractors have placed on Paris for days.

Belgium EU Summit
Anti-riot police officers stand guard in a closed security area outside the European Parliament (Thomas Padilla/AP)

For weeks, farmers have complained that it is becoming harder than ever to make a decent living as energy and fertiliser costs surge because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, more and cheaper farm imports enter the bloc, and climate change-fuelled droughts, floods or fires destroy crops.

Their protests jammed traffic in cities, preventing millions of European citizens from getting to work or school, while blockades of ports and major traffic routes meant supermarket shelves were left bare.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban even complained that the endless noise from the tractors kept him up at night.

On Thursday, as thick smoke from burning bales of hay and tyres hung over parts of the Belgian capital, security forces used water cannons to douse fires and keep a farmer from felling a tree on the steps of the European Parliament.

They could not prevent one bronze statue being pulled off its pedestal and scorched.

In Greece, farmers rallied outside an agricultural fair, while others drove their tractors into Milan, Italy.

But ahead of EU parliamentary elections in June, most leaders at the summit were keen to win over farmers, especially as populist and hard-right politicians have latched on to their plight in recent weeks.

Belgium EU Summit
Anti-riot police used water to disperse people (Thomas Padilla/AP)

“Don’t demonise the farmers. Don’t send the army on them. But talk to them,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.

Leaders welcomed the plan of the European Commission to shield farmers from cheap imports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons.

EC chief Ursula von der Leyen also promised to prepare by the end of the month new plans to cut reams of bureaucratic rules to make sure farmers can spend more time in their fields, not in their offices.

In France, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced a new set of measures, including hundreds of millions of euros in aid and tax breaks, and also promised not to ban pesticides in France that are allowed elsewhere in Europe.

In Brussels, many leaders also said they would not approve a mooted trade deal with South American nations unless any imports meet the same regulatory standards faced by EU farmers, a key demand from the sector.

“The priority for us should be implementing existing rules and regulations and not imposing new additional ones on farmers over the next couple of years,” said Irish premier Leo Varadkar, adding to a chorus of soothing words from leaders on the subject.

By Press Association

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