Angry farmers park tractors in Brussels as EU summit opens

FEB 1, 2024 LISTEN

Protesting farmers clogged roads around Brussels on Thursday as they drove a convoy of around 1,000 tractors to the European Union headquarters, where leaders were gathering for talks. The move is part of a sustained push for better prices for agricultural produce and less red tape.

Tractors were seen around the European Parliament, while police cordonned off the commission and council buildings.

"There are 1,000 tractors or agricultural machinery" being kept away from the gathering of the European Union's 27 leaders, a police spokesman told French news agency AFP. He added that the farmers were mainly from Belgium.

Several hundred farmers have brought their grievances of the agriculture protest movement to the EU's doorstep – with the flood of cheaper Ukrainian imports triggered by the conflict high on their list of complaints.

The organisers explained that they wanted to denounce "the madness that threatens agriculture".

Distorted competition

French and Belgian farmers had blocked a border crossing point together late Wednesday to condemn trade bargains they say "distort competition".

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, whose country holds the presidency of the EU agrees that something has to give.

"We also need to make sure that they can get the right price for the high quality products that they provide. We also need to make sure that the administrative burden that they have remains reasonable," De Croo said.

Faced with the anger expressed throughout the continent, the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, announced plans Wednesday to grant a "partial" exemption from the fallow obligations imposed by the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) to promote biodiversity.

The rules decreeing that four percent of land must be left unused – an ongoing gripe for European farmers – were suspended in 2023 after Russia invaded Ukraine, to help offset the loss of grain supplies.

Farming groups and EU states including France had pushed for the exemptions to be extended when they expired in December.

"This is a partial exemption limited to this year," European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said in announcing the new proposal, which will be put to a vote by member states in the coming days.

The bloc is also considering a mechanism limiting imports from Ukraine such as poultry, eggs and sugar.

The commission's proposal on Ukraine imports has to be considered by the European Parliament and by member states, to be adopted by June when the current tariff exemption runs out.

Blockades maintained

But these initial gestures from the bloc have failed to calm demonstrations and road blockades that have dogged major agricultural powers, especially France.

French President Emmanuel Macron was to meet with the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen on the subject of the "future of European agriculture", his office said.

France has faced more than a week of protests by farmers who have blocked the major ringroads around the capital and other major cities.

While the gatherings have been largely peaceful, police arrested 91 protesters who forced their way into Europe's biggest food market in Rungis on Wednesday, according to the Paris police chief. 

More than 150 gatherings including blockades or demonstrations were recorded on Wednesday across France.

(with AFP)