Farmers are protesting against the EU’s climate policies, but this doesn’t mean they should be scrapped.

Farmers across the EU have taken to the streets to raise awareness of the issues they face at the moment. They complain that the rising costs of energy and fertilisers have eaten away at their profits. This is compounded by extra bureaucracy being imposed by the EU in their attempts to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Farmers in Eastern Europe say cheap imports from Ukraine are undercutting their produce. These protests culminated in a demonstration outside the EU headquarters in Brussels on 1 February. The date was chosen to coincide with an EU summit about providing extra financial aid to Ukraine. 

In response to these protests, national governments and the European Commission have reversed several climate policies. Centrist politicians also fear the rise of far-right, anti-EU parties who argue against the threat of climate change.

This response though only addresses half of the farmers’ concerns and neglects Europe’s climate responsibilities. Instead, national governments and the EU should strive to involve farmers in their agricultural and climate policy-making. This would allow further progress to be made on countering climate change without alienating a vital industry.

Why are farmers protesting?

The reasons why farmers are protesting vary across the bloc. Criticisms of the EU centre around regulations they have introduced. For example, policies like the one mandating that 4% of farmers’ land be reserved for non-productive uses and insisting farmers use less fertiliser have proved controversial. These are part of the EU’s attempts to achieve net zero by 2050 but they have reduced farmers’ incomes. Rising fuel costs and inflation also reduce the benefits farmers gain the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) subsidies. Consequently, farmers face higher costs to produce less produce, making farming less profitable.

In Eastern Europe, the focus of protests has been the EU’s decision to allow Ukrainian food imports into the bloc following Russia’s invasion. This decision was intended to support the Ukrainian economy as their Black Sea ports were blockaded by the Russian navy. However, Ukrainian imports have deflated the prices of foods in Eastern Europe. Food produced by Eastern European farmers, subject to EU regulation, have become less competitive, reducing their incomes.

(Emagneto/ Pixabay)

French and German farmers are aggrieved at their governments’ decision to end tax breaks for diesel used for agriculture. The German and French governments argue this decision reduces fossil fuel subsidies which is a key element of tackling climate change. However, with fuel prices already high following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this has added to farmers’ production costs in these two countries. Protests here have caught the global media’s attention with French farmers spraying manure on government buildings.

Southern European farmers have been heavily affected by the consequences of global warming. Countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal have suffered dramatic changes to their weather patterns. Longer and more extreme heat waves followed by periods of intense flooding have damaged crops in this region. This has made farmers in the region less productive, whilst adapting to these changes has increased their costs. Therefore, extra bureaucracy introduced by the EU is particularly unwelcome.

How have governments responded to the protests?

With the EU elections coming up in June, national governments and the EU Commission have sought to end the protests. 

Out of 400 million eligible voters in the EU, there are only 9 million farmers. However, the farming lobby carries significant power, and the industry holds symbolic value across Europe. Those in power also fear the rise of the far-right across Europe who have been vocal in their support for the protests.

In response to the protests, the EU Commission agreed to limit the volume of imports from Ukraine and to loosen the restrictions around reserving farmland for non-productive uses. Not only is this a blow to the Ukrainian war economy but also signals a backtrack on the EU’s climate commitments. This is a step in the wrong direction at a time when climate issues should be at the forefront of the bloc’s policies.

However, the far-right’s rise in the polls and their recent successes in countries like the Netherlands are worrying governments. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are second in national polls whilst Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) top the French ones. Both parties support the farmers’ protests and argue their mainstream national and EU politicians are trying to destroy European agriculture. Last year, Geert Wilders Partij Voor de Vrijheid (PVV) won the Dutch elections on the back of farmers’ protests against the then-government’s decision to reduce nitrogen emissions.

These parties all oppose European integration and measures to tackle climate change. If they were successful in the EU elections in June, it is expected that climate commitments would be reversed. This would be harmful to European unity.

How can climate policies be protected?

For years there has been a consensus within the EU that climate change must be taken seriously. In December 2019, the European Council endorsed the goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. However, the cost-of-living crisis following the pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine has put the costs of climate policies under the microscope. These costs have been exploited by far-right parties stoking the culture war of climate science

Subsequently, centrist groups are likely to move their focus away from the climate crisis towards more traditional economic and social security issues instead. They worry that focusing on climate change will make them appear out of touch and lose them voters to far-right parties. Regrettably, policy makers within democratic systems cannot afford to prioritise climate policy where the electorate is ambivalent, hostile or disinterested in it. 

Taking such action though won’t necessarily appease farmers or prevent them voting for far-right parties. Farmers are affected by climate change more than most in Europe. It is not the principle of tackling climate change they are protesting. The issue is farmers feel the policies being devised by politicians lack awareness of the issues farmers are facing. Farmers feel their politicians are out of touch with them, evidenced by the agricultural policies being introduced. This is the sentiment that far-right groups are exploiting. 

Farmers in Germany support environmentally friendly farming but say sustainable farming must be rewarded fairly. Across Europe, farmers are united in calling for more input into the decision-making process. The EU should listen to these calls. This would aid the EU’s transition to achieving net zero by 2050 whilst countering the threat to the bloc and to the climate posed by the far-right.