Interview by Vladimir Mitev, BNR, 3 February 2024
Vessela Vladkova, Saturday 150: From Athens to Brussels – angry farmers pulled tractors out of fields and blocked streets, highways and markets. In Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania – the common thread of their protest is dissatisfaction with high fuel prices and exorbitant EU environmental demands.
“We know we have to adapt our production to climate change, but Brussels is constantly flooding us with new demands,” says Hendrik Vandam, president of the Belgian Chamber of Agriculture. This makes production more expensive and no one says who will foot the bill – farmers, taxpayers or consumers.
The protest is not just about money – the outpouring of discontent is an expression of fundamental disagreement with this policy. Take a look at neighbouring Romania where, last night, protests by farmers and hauliers ended following an agreement with the government. An inter-ministerial committee is expected to be set up on Monday to work with the protesters to identify and take the necessary steps by yesterday to meet the demands made – on diesel subsidies, insurance prices, speed of payment of subsidies and inspection of goods at border crossings.
For three weeks, protests have continued in Romania, with convoys of tractors and heavy lorries and roadblocks on roads to Bucharest and other major cities across the country. Bogdan Iancu, sociologist and professor at the National University of Political Science and Public Administration, will talk about the discontent in Romania. He was contacted by Radio Bulgaria colleague Vladimir Mitev.
Bogdan Iancu: The background of these protests is the war in Ukraine. Many Romanian farmers are left with unsold products in their warehouses. When an agreement was reached on the export of Ukrainian grain, fertilisers and other products, Romanian transporters turned to transporting Ukrainian agricultural products, and local farmers could no longer sell their old goods.
But the protesters have other concerns about agricultural policy in recent years. They talk of cutting some of the privileges enjoyed by farmers across Europe. They say the sector has been over-subsidised and now a number of incentives are being removed.
And the main reason for the hauliers’ discontent is the rising cost of insurance policies and demands for better pay in international transport. What farmers and hauliers have in common is that they want to defend their position as two key sectors in the Romanian economy.
You mentioned the war in Ukraine and the import of Ukrainian agricultural products as a major reason for the protests. What role does the requirement to comply with increasingly strict EU environmental standards play?
This is not necessarily explicitly mentioned by protesters during demonstrations in the markets, but discontent with environmental policies in agriculture is spilling over onto social media. There are groups on various platforms that are clearly opposed to EU environmental standards. For example, farmers are unhappy that they have to leave a certain percentage of their fields uncultivated to replenish the soil, and feel that they do not receive a subsidy for these areas. But this is not the case – the subsidy includes the uncultivated area.
One of the problems I see, as someone who has been researching this sector for the last 10 years, is that many of the measures in agriculture are not discussed with farmers’ associations. There is no dialogue. In my view, this is a serious problem.
How do you explain the fact that farmers in several European countries went on strike almost simultaneously? What unites them and what sets them apart?
What unites them, to a large extent, is the issue of fuel prices. This brings us back to the root cause – the war in Ukraine. We all know that energy costs have skyrocketed because of the war. But a large number of farmers have still been compensated for that. However, this compensation probably did not live up to their expectations.
Moreover, it is difficult to articulate the reasons for the protests and the government’s reaction, because in the context of this war, there is a lack of up-to-date data. It is difficult to formulate easy-to-implement policies. Romanian farmers are unhappy about the increase in fuel excise duties. However, what distinguishes the protests here and elsewhere is the nationalist tinge that the protest has taken on in Romania. At demonstrations, we see a butaphorical scene, with people protesting dressed in national costumes.
The leader of the nationalist SOS party, Senator Diana Șoșoacă, called a protest in Bucharest in January, but it did not turn into a mass demonstration. Is there a danger that nationalists will hijack the farmers’ protest?
Ms Soșoaca’s influence is strong online, on social media, where she has many followers. For now, however, they don’t come out to support her in the markets. However, this may change.
Photo: The protesters at the Siret border crossing point with Ukraine (source: YouTube)