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New farmer show of force shakes Europe

EU ministers gather to reduce red tape and discuss proposed changes to policy

By CHEN WEIHUA in Brussels | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-02-28 07:14

A tractor discharges hay onto Belgian riot police officers in Brussels on Monday during a protest called by farmers' organizations. NICOLAS MAETERLINCK/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Farmers across Europe continued their protests on Monday against the rising production costs, excessive environmental regulations and cheap imports despite recent appeasement by European Union politicians.

Some 1,000 tractors took over the areas and blocked streets around Brussels' Schuman Roundabout, which houses EU institutions. Traffic in the area was paralyzed.

"Farmers' mobilizations continue across Europe because policymakers have so far failed to listen to those who feed our populations in Europe and who are on the front line of climate crisis," said Morgan Ody, a farmer from Brittany, France, and member of ECVC, which represents small farmers in more than 20 EU states.

The protest was held on a day when EU agriculture ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss targeted changes to the Common Agriculture Policy and the reduction of red tape in a bid to appease angry farmers.

While most farmers, some from France, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, staged peaceful protests, some set fire to piles of tires and threw eggs. Several tractor drivers spread hay and manure on streets while a few tried to break the police barricades.

Police responded with water cannons and tear gas that also targeted farmers who were peacefully demonstrating.

On the same day, farmers from across Spain held a massive demonstration in Madrid against excessive EU regulations.

"It's impossible to put up with these rules, they want us to work in the field during the day and deal with paperwork at night — we're sick of the bureaucracy," said Roberto Rodriguez, who grows cereal and beetroot in the central province of Avila.

On Tuesday, thousands of Polish farmers took to the streets of Warsaw. Earlier on Sunday, they protested by blocking a major highway leading to Germany.

They have also blocked border points with neighboring Ukraine to protest against the unfair competition from the non-EU state's cheap imports.

Protesters in Poland had destroyed 160 metric tons of Ukraine grain en route to other countries via the port of Gdansk, prompting Ukrainian officials to call on the Polish government on Monday to punish those responsible for it.

Besides cheap imports from Ukraine, the fear of cheap beef from South America is also a concern for farmers as the EU hopes to conclude a trade deal with the Mercosur countries — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The latest round of protests came despite the announcement weeks ago by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of the withdrawal of a controversial pesticide law that would halve the use of pesticide by 2030.

The EU has also laid out some safeguards to stop Ukrainian imports from flooding the market under a tariff-free scheme adopted after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict two years ago.

"We don't just want a few crumbs. We want the bread, and if we don't want the bread, we want the bakery," said farmer Tijs Boelens, who demonstrated in Brussels.

"So this Europe needs to stop trying to appease us with anti-environmental or antisocial measures. No, they have to support us in developing sustainable agriculture."

French Minister of Agriculture and Food Marc Fesneau, upon his arrival in Brussels on Monday, said, "We need something practical, something operational." There is room for adjustments "within the current rules", he said.

But he also said meeting some demands "would require changing the legislation".

"Whether that happens before or after the European elections does not matter — what matters is moving forward," he said.

German Minister of Food and Agriculture Cem Oezdemir admitted there is "a lot of anger faced with promises that have not been kept".

"The current (Common Agricultural Policy) is a bureaucratic monster," he said, calling for reforms to encourage "working the land rather than paperwork".

Agencies contributed to this story.



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