Thousands of Tractors Jam Streets as Farmers Demand Change
Brussels awoke Thursday morning to an invasion of tractors as thousands of protesting farmers descended on the city to bring their rage over European Union agricultural policy to leaders gathered for a summit meeting.
The farmers came from across Europe, but most were French, furious over EU moves to curb pesticide use and over free trade pacts that they say put them at a disadvantage to growers elsewhere in the world.
As EU leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron gathered to discuss issues including climate change and immigration, the streets outside echoed with the honking of tractor horns and the revving of engines. Farmers leaned out of their cab windows chanting slogans and waving signs attacking EU regulations.
“The pressure is very great,” said one farmer from Normandy who gave his name only as Jean. “We cannot continue to work more for less. Our costs go up but what we are paid for our goods does not follow.”
Rows of tractors stretching for kilometers jammed key bridges and roads, paralyzing traffic and bringing public transportation to a standstill. Police in riot gear stood by guarding EU buildings as farmers tried to push through barricades. Authorities said dozens were detained as they tried to break through police lines.
Inside the summit conference center, the images of chaos outside contrasted with the polite diplomatic talk around the tables. But EU leaders said they got the message.
“It is clear the level of frustration is very high,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen after seeing video of protesters battling police. “We understand the European farming community faces many pressures and challenges.”
Months of Growing Unrest
The tractor convoy crowding the heart of European power in Brussels was the culmination of months of growing rage among farmers not just in France but across Europe.
Initially centered in France, the protests spread as farmers elsewhere saw themselves facing the same EU environmental rules and trade deals they say threaten their livelihoods. Farm groups staged protests in Germany, Poland, Italy, Lithuania and beyond.
Most visible was the uprising of French farmers, who mobilized first last summer, accusing President Emmanuel Macron of failing to protect them as EU environmental regulations meant to curb the impact of large-scale agriculture took effect.
Rules limiting the use of pesticides and antibiotics have increased costs for French farms, as did rising prices for fuel and fertilizer. Meanwhile, they say, trade pacts allow imported goods into Europe from places with lower standards and cheaper production costs.
For months, French farmers staged smaller demonstrations, throwing potatoes at buildings and dumping manure in city centers across France. But anger continued to build.
In January the protests escalated dramatically as farmers began blocking highways and supermarkets around France with convoys of tractors, dump trucks and farm equipment. Then thousands converged on Paris, vowing to lay siege to the capital city.
“They want to impose rules on us they do not impose on others,” Jean the Normandy farmer said Thursday, standing in the Brussels chill and surveying rows of tractors stretching in front of the European Parliament building. “It cannot continue.”
Next Steps Unclear
By afternoon the streets of Brussels were still clogged with tractors, and smoke from fires farmers lit to keep warm mixed with the diesel fumes from their idling engines. Talks inside among EU leaders were ongoing.
It was unclear if the disruption outside would bring about real change to the complex web of European agricultural regulations and trade policies that have brought farmers’ anger to a boiling point.
“These policies do not shift easily or quickly,” said Sylvie Corbet, an agriculture policy expert with the Paris Institute for Political Studies. “But there is pressure not just from France now but across borders.”
Some farmers said they would continue demonstrations in Brussels through the night Thursday and vowed to keep pushing for change however long it takes.
“We stay until Macron and the others make a new deal that protects European farmers,” said Monique Roux, who raise cows for beef and dairy in southern France. “One that gives us a future.”
She stood watching a group of farmers roll a giant tractor tire down a central Brussels boulevard toward a police barricade as she summed up why she had come all this way to demonstrate.
“It’s simple,” Roux said. “We have no choice”.
Key reasons for farmers’ anger
The farmers are protesting against several EU policies and international trade deals that they say threaten their livelihoods:
- Pesticide restrictions – New EU rules limit use of chemical pesticides and antibiotics over concerns about environmental and human health impacts. Farmers say this drives up production costs.
- Climate change targets – EU climate change reduction targets require agriculture sector to curb greenhouse emissions. Farmers resist moves such as herd size limits which could reduce profits.
- Free trade pacts – Accords like the EU-South America trade deal allow more imports of cheaper agricultural goods into Europe. Farmers want import curbs and tariffs to protect domestic products.
- Fertilizer and fuel prices – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped sparked energy cost increases, raising fertilizer and fuel prices for farmers. This further drove up food production costs across Europe.
What farmers want
The protesting farmers are demanding EU and national policy changes to support European agriculture, including:
- Rollbacks of pesticide and antibiotic regulations
- Limiting agriculture sector emissions reduction requirements
- Ending or restricting trade deals with agricultural producing countries
- Subsidies and grants to offset rising energy and supply costs
- Minimum price guarantees for critical products like grain, milk and meat
What happens next?
In the wake of the massive farmer protests paralyzing EU capitals, leaders are under growing pressure for change to alleviate unrest over agricultural policy across the continent.
Several scenarios could play out in coming weeks:
- Policy concessions – Governments makes changes like subsidies or temporarily easing some regulations to diffuse anger. Risk is moves reward disruptive protests, fueling more.
- Crackdown – Authorities lose patience with protests, arresting key leaders and working to limit demonstrations through law enforcement. Could escalate tensions.
- Compromise deal – Negotiators hammer out an EU-wide or country-specific agreement that provides more farmer supports without fully scrapping regulations. Depends on flexibility of both sides.
- Protests expand – Anger snowballs so more farmers join protests, even blocking critical infrastructure like ports. Dissent spreads across agriculture sector making crisis tougher to resolve.
A lot depends on the French government’s ability to craft a deal to ease farmer fury, since they sparked the uprising now spreading across borders. But the complex mix of forces buffeting Europe’s farmers won’t be resolved easily or anytime soon.
Timeline of Key Events in France Farmer Protests
|France adopts EU pesticide restrictions, farmers hold small protests
|Farmer demonstrations spread across France
|Farmers start blocking roads, dumping produce at supermarkets
|Convoy of tractors jams Paris-area highways
|Police make mass arrests trying to stop huge tractor convoy headed to Paris
|French farmers lead thousands from across EU in mass protest surrounding Brussels summit
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