Tractors have been blocking highways, breeders are dumping slurry in front of supermarkets, tires are burning in front of town halls, prefectures and offices of elected officials are targeted. Since 18 February, the national tradition of protesting has been alive again. Interestingly, France was not the first domino in the European puzzle this time – Poland, alongside with Romania and Slovakia, were chronologically first. But now Italians, Spaniards and others from all across Europe are blocking the roads and facing the police – resolutely or peacefully. What is the whole thing about?

Warning indications of discontent among the farmers had increased recently, while analysts from Central and Eastern Europe saw the approaching train in the tunnel much earlier. And it was about a whole range of factors, from the EU’s ecological procedures to contradictions in the agricultural market itself, further exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

In Europe, Germany, Poland, Romania, the Netherlands, Spain, and Belgium were all stirred by mobilisations. Additionally, as a metaphor of a vocation that “walks on its head,” farmers in France have been flipping over the road signs that are placed at the entrance to towns since November 2023. Six European trade union centres even went so far as to describe the current state of affairs as “unsustainable”. It could “compromise the survival of producers in the European Union” in a news statement dated January 10.

What’s more, last year, member states started to alert Brussels to issues with the Green Deal’s implementation, notably the Fit for 55 package. The European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest political party in the EU, considers the needs of business owners who are footing the bill for the green transition. States and the EPP pay attention to reforms’ speed and viability of implementation, even if they do not contest their direction. However, in recent weeks, the agricultural community has been more successful in pressuring the Commission to change its present ambitious goals. 

Dire reality of agricultural business 

The Old Continent’s farmers have long been compelled to balance their debt, deal with the pressures of mass distribution and food giants, endure droughts and floods on a regular basis, deal with foreign competitors. and its low-cost goods. They all rely on a subsidy structure that benefits big farmers. For many, the agricultural market is incomprehensible due to its distance from common perceptions. In some countries, it is a business limited to a few percent of the population, resembling the agricultural industry rather than what we commonly imagine as ‘agriculture’. This situation occurs, among others, in Ukraine, where the land and the market are owned by capital groups

On the other hand, this model is often complemented by individual farmers, e.g. in Poland, where the average size of an agricultural enterprise is around 11-12 hectares. Here, most of the population engages in agricultural work. In Western European countries, these two models co-exist, but the individual model is dying out. This is the swan song of the current great conflict. The war in Ukraine and EU regulations do not help, but rather accelerate processes that started a long time ago.

Farmers now make up fewer than 2% of the working population in France, down from 35% in 1946, and down from 3,6% in 2010. In Italy The number of employed agricultural workers goes from 1,033,075 in 2021 to 1,006,975 in 2022, with a decrease of approximately 26,200 workers, equal to -2.5%, continuing the decrease that began in 2019. 

In Poland, however, these numbers look completely different. However, there is a catch connecting these numbers with those from other countries. According to data from the Central Statistical Office based on BAEL (“Poland in numbers 2022”), currently only 8.4% of people declare employment in agriculture. all working people. This is low both compared to other sectors (60.3% in services and 30.7% in industry) and compared to the level in previous years. In the mid-1990s, approximately 3.5 million Poles worked in this sector, which constituted 22%. all working people.

In Poland, we are dealing with a long-term trend of declining agricultural employment. After World War I, over 70 percent of people lived from agriculture. the country’s population, after World War II it was much less. Today it is already below 10 percent. The rural population lives from agriculture. This means that the rural structure is becoming agrarian. What’s more, the problem of employment in rural areas largely concerns jobs outside agriculture. 

Much more dire situation takes place in Romania. In Romania, the agriculture sector employed 18.61% of workers in 2021, followed by the industrial sector 30.39%, and the service sector – 51%. In Romania, the situation is so dangerous that current EU reforms pose a huge threat to local agriculture. However, Even while farmers around the EU continue to block highways and border crossings, Romania’s coalition government announced at the beginning of February that it had reached a deal with farmers and transporters to put an end to weeks of demonstrations about the high costs of doing business. The European Union’s constraints on the battle against climate change, as well as low product pricing, growing expenses, and cheap food imports, are the main causes of the demonstrations.

When it comes to other countries from this region in 202,, 6.29% of the employees in Bulgaria were active in the agricultural sector, in Hungary it is around 4,5% people working in  agriculture. 

Nevertheless, the Polish perspective reflects on a larger scale what is happening in the European periphery. Everywhere there is a greater or lesser problem with finding a job after leaving the agricultural field. Paradoxically, it would be much easier to change industries in Poland, due to the visiblegrowth of the Polish economy, on average 5% since 1989. The situation is much tougher in countries that are in a permanent economic crisis, such as Italy.

What are the demands?

Brussels’ decision to abolish customs duties and establish “solidarity corridors” allowed Ukrainian agricultural products to flood Eastern Europe, resulting in a price collapse that is now felt throughout the continent. It has a negative impact on farmers’ incomes as their expenses for supplies like energy, water, equipment, seeds, and other necessities are skyrocketing.

Farmers in Poland and other bordering nations with Ukraine started the strikes in response to the influx of cheap grain from the East, but now protests are taking place throughout almost all of Western Europe. In Germany, it was the elimination of a tax rebate on diesel (a move with a complicated political pre-history); in Belgium and the Netherlands, projects aimed at restricting the size of herds; in France, an increase in the charge for diffuse pollution etc. Groups of farmers from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and, more recently, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, had stopped or are still blocking the highways. In addition to Poles, previous protestors included Romanians and Bulgarians. Croats and Slovaks have also declared strikes. 

Another talking point that is infuriating European farmers is a possible deal with Mercosur, which would enable free import of agricultural products to the EU from the South American countries.  

The European Union has been conducting talks with Mercosur for over 20 years on a trade agreement that would bring the two regions closer together economically. Another round of talks lasting several years ended in failure. The main obstacles are environmental, climate and competitiveness aspects of selected industries.  

Increased conversation dynamics during the last several quarters have been bolstered by a positive diplomatic environment. The establishment of the favourable connections was aided by the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the country’s next president in 2022. Lula da Silva has been the primary proponent of the accord among South Americans. In 2023, Brazil was the organisation’s president, which increased its vote power. During the latter part of 2023, Spain, a country that naturally supports the Southern Common Market, had the presidency of Europe. Perhaps more importantly, however, were the geopolitical shifts brought about by Russian aggression in Ukraine, which forced EU policymakers to strengthen ties with alternative international allies.

A proposed deal between the European Union and the Mercosur trade group in South America would save billions of dollars in export taxes, but it would also allow items that farmers are protesting allege do not adhere to strict EU criteria to be sold in the EU.

What are farmers demanding? Here are the most important demands, many of which actually concern the EU’s agricultural policy, against which farmers from Western Europe are also protesting:

  • Rejection of EU requirements on fallowing. In order to maintain subsidies, farmers should leave 4% in 2024. leave your land fallow or grow legumes there, but without the use of agricultural chemicals;
  • Introduction of legal regulations that will protect profitability in plant production and protect farms against sudden increases in production costs and drops in purchasing prices;
  • Changing the date for the use of nitrogen fertilisers from March 1 to February 1. Farmers claim that this change is justified because changing climatic conditions allow work to start earlier;
  • Subsidies compensating for losses due to the inflow of Ukrainian grain and food to Poland;
  • Restoring the possibility of using certain pesticides;
  • Establishing the animal breeding sector as a strategic sector for the development of the agricultural economy in Poland;
  • Giving up the idea of ​​limiting or banning animal husbandry in Poland.

What’s more when it comes to Ukraine, Mercosur and Europe agricultural relations, this slogans are present in Poland and other Central-Eastern European countries: 

  • Reparation of Ukraine’s accession strategy to the EU in the area of ​​agriculture, divided into sectors;
  • Establishing customs duties and tariff quotas in trade in agri-food goods between the European Union and other countries. This is a return to the situation before the abolition of customs duties and quantitative restrictions on trade between Ukraine and the EU;
  • Development of infrastructure, including port and railway, which can help in the transit of goods from Ukraine;
  • End of talks between Mercosur and the European Union.

In response to this pressure, Brussels is removing a few environmental standards. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced during a debate in the European Parliament that the EC is withdrawing the project to limit the use of pesticides in agriculture in the EU.

Political struggle ahead

As von der Leyen said in Strasbourg, the EC proposed a draft of new regulations for the noble purpose of reducing the risk posed by chemical plant protection products. This already means a significant victory for farmers, which, interestingly, was only possible after farmers from Western Europe joined the protests, at a time when protests in Central and Eastern Europe had already lasted almost or more than a year!

However, this change is also political, it aims to shift the debate towards ecological directions, while they are not limited to that. As if farmers were naturally unaffected by the climatic catastrophe, commentators characterise their ire as a protest against environmental standards. 

But this is exactly what protests across Europe are criticising: the absurdity of a system that forces them to defend pesticides, of which they are the first casualties, the productivity gains that force them to replace themselves with robots, and the alteration of the environment that is necessary for their activity, all of which contribute to their own destruction. 

As it was put by Benoît Bréville in Le Monde Diplomatique there are three horizons that the future of the peasant-agricultural world fluctuates between. Disappear as a result of the European division of labour and the big cereal-producing states’ admission into the Union. Survive at the expense of human and environmental destruction, which is already sparking periodic upheavals, by following the frantic industrialization route mandated by bureaucracy and investment money. Or strive to enforce peasant agriculture, which would guarantee the workers’ sovereignty while regaining its sustaining vocation. 

Moreover, the protests are not going anywhere. On February 13th the operation of the port in Antwerp, one of the largest in Europe, was disrupted on Tuesday morning as a result of agricultural protests. Furthermore, we can expect further escalations of protests across Europe as the European elections approach. Rolling demonstrations against a decision in the Netherlands that reduced nitrogen emissions predicted and probably contributed to right-wing populist Geert Wilders’ unexpected triumph in November’s national elections. With the support of often violent farmer demonstrations, the far-right AfD party in Germany has attacked Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz, propelling the anti-immigration party to second place in national surveys. Additionally, as the anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Rally party looks to rank first in the EU-wide election, its head, Jordan Bardella, is using the same script to charge centrist head Emmanuel Macron of intending to “kill our agriculture” in France.

Vital questions 

The following questions will be the most important in the near future. Will the agricultural crisis turn into something more? Will it not be a catalyst for further revolts due to the increase in the costs of everyday life? Regardless of the two previous questions, who will accumulate these protests into a political mission and possibly consume them at the European level? 

This year has only just begun, and it is already becoming dangerously more interesting than the previous one, with a possible change in Washington and Ukraine’s problems with defending its independence. 

Cover photo: Tractors participating in a protest in Poland, February 2024. Photo by Piotr Lewandowski.

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