Farmers take protest to EU leaders

Farmers take protest to EU leaders

European farmers feel they cannot earn a decent income
European farmers feel they cannot earn a decent income. Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP
Source: AFP

European farmers took their growing protest over low prices and the threat of competition from South American agri-food importers to Brussels on Thursday, clogging the streets with 1,300 tractors as EU leaders met for a summit.

Police barricades and riot-control vehicles prevented the farmers getting to the European Council building where European Union leaders were discussing aid to Ukraine.

So they converged in front of the nearby European Parliament.

Scattered small fires sent clouds of black smoke over the protesters and many parked tractors, as horns, whistles, firecrackers and chants punctuated the air.

Police in helmets stood behind barbed-wire barricades at the entrance to the parliament, under signs urging EU citizens to vote in European elections taking place in four months' time.

Farmers explained to AFP that was part of their calculation in taking their protest to Brussels.

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"We have the European elections and the Belgian elections then as well. So everybody is afraid they will be wiped off the map and we put other people in power," said one Belgian farmer, Dominique Houfflain, 51.

"We are taking advantage of the fact that there will be these two elections the same year to act," he said.

The litany of farmers' complaints is long but mostly boils down to them feeling they can no longer make a living working the land.

Part of that is because they face red tape and climbing costs associated with expanding EU regulations to meet climate targets.

A lot of anger is also directed at an EU-South America trade deal that has been negotiated for decades and which the current European Commission has hopes of sealing.

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The pact with the South American Mercosur bloc -- which includes agricultural giants Brazil and Argentina -- would open European markets to cheaper meat and produce not bound by strict EU restrictions on pesticides, hormones, land use and environmental measures, farmers complain.

"We want fairness when it comes to produce and to work," said Mauro Bianco, the leader of an Italian farmers' union, Coldiretti Alessandria.

"So a product that comes from another part of the world must have important qualities but must be fair compared to the product we make in our countries," he said.

Several banners condemned the Mercosur deal, calling for it to be halted and for food to be excluded from trade negotiations.

'We want an income'

Another Belgian farmer, Pierre Sansdrap, told AFP that a Brussels concession made this week -- to exempt farmers from a rule requiring them to keep a small proportion of their land fallow, as long as they plant short-term crops that boost nitrogen in the soil -- amounted to "crumbs".

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"That doesn't solve the core problem: we want an income. We don't care about subsidies. We want to live from our labour," he said.

The farmers' revolt adds to the discomfort of EU politicians as they brace for a predicted far-right surge in the June 6-9 European elections.

Several nationalist parties across the bloc are surfing on the rural anger, winning support by promising to roll back globalisation and EU single market practices.

Police described the overall situation as "calm".

The aim of Thursday's protest was "to make the (European) Commission, the European Council, the EU lawmakers hear the anger that is rising across Europe," said Marianne Streel, head of the FWA union in Belgium's Wallon region.

"We are here with many delegations -- Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, also German and French," she said.

That was to show that "we are all against the incoherent EU policies and speak with one voice," she said.

Source: AFP

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