Jeremy's Blog 9th February 2024: Lessons from European Farmers' Discontents
This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 8th February 2024
It started in Holland but has now spread to most EU countries in the mainland of Europe, from Spain to Poland as farmers bring their tractors to town make their points. Each country’s protests though follow its national agenda, perhaps only unified by the EU’s pernickety farm-level auditing of the CAP and the growing force of the EU Green Deal. With a wider background of western malaise and ahead of elections this year, notably for the European Parliament, they are having an effect with some governments and the EU bending.
In Holland, action was first triggered by the EU’s habitats legislation. In the “Dutch N” case, the CJEU interpreted the EU’s approach to the precautionary principle so that a reduction in livestock farming was required to protect ecologically important sites. A programme of purchase for decommissioning was outlined. In reaction, a wider Farmers Citizens Party (BBB) was formed (a Farmers Alliance has since been launched in the Irish Republic). While agriculture accounts for 2.5 per cent of the population, last spring’s regional elections saw BBB as the largest party with 19 per cent of the vote. It lost ground in the autumn national election as footloose protest votes moved elsewhere.
While Polish and then Romanian farmers objected to competition from Ukrainian grain, German farmers took action in response to German budget cuts increasing the cost of their diesel. They attracted support, tapping into a wider sense that the coalition government’s green agenda, especially heat pumps, had been forced too far, too fast. Limited concessions were made. Greece, where farmers sought compensation from the summer’s devastating floods as well as relief from bureaucracy, is extending fuel subsidies, as has Romania.
As trouble spread, so French farmers came to the party, blockading Paris and other cities. Their concerns are many and varied, with divisions between larger and smaller farmers, but French farmers have seen greater weakness in produce prices than elsewhere. They include resistance to net zero measures and objection to imports, whether disputing the quality of Spanish tomatoes or produce from outside the EU, mentioning Ukraine again. The French Government, fearing a repeat of the gillets jaunes, made some concessions (including €2bn of support loans) and pressed Brussels hard – and farmers took their tractors to Brussels.
Protests spread to Spain and then Italy (with supply chain issues and the loss of an income tax exemption). The EU dropped Green Deal proposals to halve pesticide use by 2030 and, with other changes, is reported to have removed 2040 emissions targets for farming and a 5 per cent fallow requirement.
The coincidence of accumulating pressures and political timing is fortuitous for the protests, but what might be the larger picture?
At the highest level, these are symptoms of the erosion of old certainties in a rapidly changing world. The EU share of global activity continues to decline while it seeks to hold a buffer against the changes sweeping much of the world – “a Europe that protects”. EU farming, ever less significant in both the EU economy and its activities, is facing larger forces beyond ready control. France now records 100,000 fewer farms than in 2010; many more will feel squeezed. Resisting change and losing competitiveness can only go so far.
Lessons for policy and government lie first in the reactions to measures directly organising people’s lives and second in the assurance of accountability, so much harder in an EU context. After Brexit, UK governments moved quickly to remove or weaken the legacy CAP’s antagonising penalty regimes. London has stopped tightening domestic MEES, preferring to decarbonise power generation. Whether it is the Uxbridge by-election or EU farmers, moving too far, too fast and too intrusively can be counter-productive, defeating the objectives. We have to manage such major challenges as answering climate change, productivity, housing and the growing world of risks in ways that carry assent in a democracy – even more challenging if the economy does not grow.