EU Agriculture Ministers Meeting: The farmers' protest in Brussels escalates

Tires burn, tractors break through barricades: Accompanied by farmers' protest, the EU agriculture ministers discussed the problems of agriculture in Brussels.

EU Agriculture Ministers Meeting: The farmers' protest in Brussels escalates

Tires burn, tractors break through barricades: Accompanied by farmers' protest, the EU agriculture ministers discussed the problems of agriculture in Brussels. All member states are firmly convinced that the situation cannot remain as it is, said Belgium's head of department, David Clarinval, after the meeting, which was protected by a large police force and took place largely behind closed doors. Belgium currently holds the six-monthly rotating EU Council Presidency and therefore chairs, among other things, the ministerial meetings.

Burning tires

After violent scenes broke out during farmers' protests in Brussels at the beginning of February, the situation escalated again. A total of 900 tractors blocked roads in the EU district, the Belga news agency reported, citing the police. Protesters set tires on fire, poured manure onto the streets and pyrotechnics were directed at police officers. The officers used water cannons. In addition to loud honking, smaller explosions could be heard again and again.

Protest with manure

Police set up numerous roadblocks around the EU institutions. Some farmers managed to break through barriers with their tractors, Belga reported. Accordingly, police officers were also pelted with manure and other projectiles, including eggs, sticks and bottles, and some had to retreat. Police responded by using tear gas and water to disperse the protesters.

Water cannon use

"We always condemn violence"

When asked, Clarinval emphasized: "Whether it's farmers, football hooligans or the Covid protests, we always condemn violence." The authorities are doing everything necessary to ensure security for citizens and the EU institutions. The Flemish farmers' association Boerenbond also distanced itself from the violent protests.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski did not condemn the violence by protesters. “We are focused on finding solutions that address farmers’ key concerns.” He thinks tensions will decrease.

In many countries in the Union, farmers are on the streets to protest against EU trade agreements, bureaucracy and environmental regulations. The EU Commission then promised relaxations and withdrew a proposed law for less use of pesticides. The challenge of producing food in a more environmentally friendly way in the face of advancing climate change is likely to also play a major role in the upcoming European election campaign.

The German department head Cem Özdemir sees farmers' protests as an opportunity for fundamental reforms in EU agricultural policy. The protests have opened up a window of opportunity that should be used for long-overdue reforms, said the Green politician before the meeting. "Everywhere where farmers protest, there is a lot of approval, a lot of sympathy." With regard to the protests, he also spoke of “free riders” who do not care about the interests of agriculture. "They want to cause coups or something else."

The protests showed not only in Germany, but throughout the EU that a lot of anger has built up over promises that were not kept, said Özdemir. A restructuring of agriculture and financially attractive offers are needed in order to be able to earn good money with biodiversity. The implementation of reforms must be “with as little bureaucracy as possible” because the current European agricultural policy is “a bureaucratic monster”. It means that climate and species protection is not attractive for farmers.

A quarter of the time at the desk

An average farmer spends a quarter of his time at a desk, Özdemir said. "This urgently needs to go down. Get rid of excessive bureaucracy, concentrate on the essentials. Field work instead of paperwork is the motto of the hour." Digitalization could help, as could fewer unnecessary reporting requirements. As the "tageszeitung" (taz) reported, the information on the workload caused by bureaucracy is based on interviews with only ten agricultural companies.

The underlying report from the Federal Statistical Office emphasizes that the selection was made consciously in order to obtain the most reliable results possible. It literally says: "The criterion for the selection was that all relevant subject areas were taken into account in the project so that the associated bureaucratic burdens could then be examined in detail."

On Thursday, the EU Commission presented plans for further relief. Accordingly, up to 50 percent of on-site checks by national authorities should be eliminated. In addition, certain standards that are intended to ensure the good agricultural and ecological condition of areas are to be simplified. Farmers must comply with these standards in order to benefit from EU agricultural subsidies worth billions. Extensive exceptions for particularly small farms are also planned. It remains to be seen which measures of these proposals will actually be implemented.

According to Özdemir, he wants to implement a slightly older proposal from the Commission to relieve the burden on farmers. The authority had proposed suspending, retroactively to January 1, the requirement that four percent of arable land be left fallow or used unproductively. In return, farmers should grow more nitrogen-fixing plants such as lentils or peas or catch crops. Member States have until the end of February to declare whether they want to make use of the option or not.

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