Fear of the Far Right Torpedoes EU Environmental Policies

European farmers successfully protested a plan to curb emissions

Fear of the Far Right Torpedoes EU Environmental Policies
Farmers protest in Toulouse with a placard that reads “No farming, no food.” (Alain Pitton/Getty Images)

On a cold January morning, farmers from several European countries descended on Brussels and made a lot of noise. First, they parked their tractors on main streets, strolled around European Union headquarters in their rubber boots and sat around a bonfire they lit in front of the Parliament, drinking beer from bottles.

At some point they toppled a statue of John Cockerill, one of Belgium’s steel pioneers, which stood in front of the European Parliament; he had become a target of the farmers’ wrath toward presiding parliamentarians. The protesters set off firecrackers, the sound echoing across several blocks and creating a sense of urgency, as if demanding the lawmakers pay attention and listen to them.

The scene was festive, high on energy as most protests are. But a noticeable threat of violence bubbled just beneath the surface. Police officers, armed with batons and shields, guarded all entry points to the Parliament.

“No farmers, no food,’’ read one banner, which proclaimed that farmers in Europe grew food for more than 448 million inhabitants of the European Union. “This is not the Europe we want,’’ read another, alluding to trade deals being negotiated with agricultural powerhouses on faraway continents that could bring down demand for local products and their prices.

The protest remained peaceful, but for this outsider it was a strange sight. In large parts of the world farmers can only dream of the subsidies their European contemporaries receive. The European Union (EU) spends one third of its budget on its Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) — that’s billions of dollars a year — to guard European farmers against the vagaries of nature and to encourage them to opt for sustainable practices. European farmers receive more care and consideration than their peers anywhere else in the world.

That’s not how they see it. A group of Belgian farmers in their late 20s and early 30s stood near a row of tractors. They told New Lines that, while they were committed to agricultural life, it was no longer financially viable.

“My father, his father, her father are all farmers, so we too chose farming,’’ said a 34-year-old who did not give his name. “You need to invest your whole life in this, but there are just too many rules and deals that are making it unviable.’’

Of the long list of demands from French, German, Italian and Belgian farmers, some were country-specific while others crossed borders. The protesting farmers opposed cumbersome regulations that they said were drafted in Brussels by officials who had no clue about farming. And most of these regulations were linked to the EU’s green deal that envisages a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050.

To pursue that goal the EU wants to cut emissions by 90% relative to 1990 levels by 2040. Reductions in agricultural emissions play an important role in reducing overall carbon footprints, because agriculture alone is responsible for an estimated 14% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The EU has called on the agricultural sector to obey a slew of measures, with the goal of lowering emissions from farming by at least 30% by 2040.

While some of the farmers I spoke to acknowledged the importance of combating climate change, they didn’t think measures to accomplish this goal should come at their expense. They opposed a cut in fuel subsidies, as well as demands to reduce nitrogen emissions, slash pesticide use and leave land fallow.

The EU can’t meet its environmental goals without the compliance of the farmers, who demand that the policymakers rethink their plans. The EU’s agricultural sector supports 22 million people, but farmers wield an outsize influence on national and EU politics. They are aware of their political leverage, particularly during the months before EU elections, which will take place in June.

According to data collected and analyzed by the European Council on Foreign Relations, in the upcoming election far-right parties are likely to come in first in nine of the 27 EU member states and are expected to gain seats in the European Parliament. According to a poll conducted by Politico Europe, the right-wing group of parties Identity and Democracy will win enough seats to become the third-largest of the eight groupings running in the upcoming elections.

An expansion of the far right in the EU Parliament will deeply destabilize, if not entirely upend, the union’s still relatively liberal social and green policies. Experts say other political groups, from conservatives to socialists, understand that the far right must be restricted for the larger common good even as climate goals are delayed, or worse abandoned, to appease the farmers.

Over the past year farmers’ protests in the EU have intensified. Some say the current rounds of protests began with farmers in Poland objecting to the importation of cheaper Ukrainian grain, sugar and poultry. They said their Ukrainian counterparts had an unfair advantage over them, not only because the EU cut duties on Ukrainian imports to help Ukrainians combat the economic impact of Russia’s invasion, but also because Ukraine is not a member of the EU and Ukrainian farmers don’t have to follow the EU laws that make production itself more expensive.

Others say the November 2023 face-off between farmers and environmentalists in the Netherlands lit the spark of the international agitation. In 2019, thousands of Dutch farmers protested against the government’s decision to shut down livestock farms to cut nitrogen emissions. This led to an uproar among farmers who tacitly supported the far right and played a significant role in the surprising strength shown by far-right leader Geert Wilders’ party in elections last year.

In Germany, farmers protested against a proposal to cut diesel tax breaks. German farmers are exempt from paying tax on farming vehicles and also receive fuel subsidies. But Germany’s ruling coalition government of social democrats, the Green Party and the liberal Free Democratic Party decided to slash subsidies contributing to climate change. They calculated that the farmers were politically expendable as they burnished their environmentalist credentials. But the German farmers — already being courted by the far-right party Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) — drove in their tractors to Berlin and brought Germany’s capital city to a standstill as they demanded the government change its plan.

Belgian farmers protested cumbersome regulations, a demand to halve pesticide use by 2030 and a provision to leave fallow 4% of cultivable land to allow the soil to recover and protect biodiversity. Keeping a part of their land fallow is a condition for procuring funding through CAP.

Italian farmers were driven to protest for a similar combination of reasons, including the high cost of diesel and fear of cheaper imports. The Italian farmers in particular are upset about the prospect of lab-grown meat being sold in Europe. They oppose it not only because it would be grown in a lab, but also because it would be competition for cattle farmers.

Matteo Salvini, the head of Italy’s right-wing populist Lega party, was quick to support protesting farmers and assured them of his support in Italy and in Brussels. He said his party, which is a part of the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) political group in the European Parliament, “will always be on the side of Italian farmers against the follies chosen in Brussels.”

The loudest and the largest in number, however, are the French farmers. In January they dumped truckloads of manure and rotting produce in front of regional authority buildings in central Toulouse, all but shutting down the city as they threatened to besiege Paris. French farmers protested against everything from onerous EU regulations to a trade deal with Latin America’s Southern Common Market (Mercosur). Their biggest fear is that cheaper, lower-quality Brazilian and Argentinian beef will flood European supermarkets and run them out of business. The French farmers were backed by Emmanuel Macron, France’s centrist president, who directed their anger at Brussels in an effort to prevent them from being swayed by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party. On Jan. 28 Le Pen accepted a ride on a tractor at a protest organized by the National Federation of Farmers Unions (FNSEA). Later, she posted “Support our farmers!” on her X account.

Farmers do not make up a high proportion of Europe’s population, so their vote is not decisive in bringing to power any particular political party. But they can consolidate popular discontent and add to the protest vote, which benefits the far right in national and EU-wide elections.

Ursula Von Der Leyen, president of the European Commission, is mindful of the political costs of ignoring the farmers and relented on nearly every demand. “Our farmers deserve to be listened to,” she told the European Parliament.

She restricted food imports from Ukraine and, reportedly under pressure from Macron, put the trade deal with the Mercosur nations on hold. To the detriment of her administration’s green goals, Von Der Leyen withdrew legislation on slashing pesticide use and delayed the condition of leaving a percentage of cultivable land fallow for farmers wishing to access funds through CAP.

Politico Europe reported that the EU executive reworked the 2040 climate roadmap, excluding passages that called on the agricultural sector to reduce its pollution by 30% by 2040, and even deleted parts that encouraged less consumption of meat and references to ending fossil fuel subsidies.

In February Von der Leyen announced that she would run again as lead candidate of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which would position her for a second term as president of the European Commission. Her political background is as a politician from Germany’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU). While the CDU has historically been seen as a conservative pro-farmer party, it is currently competing with the far right to keep its traditional voters and is increasingly advocating not just an anti-immigrant worldview but also fewer climate policies.

Meanwhile, the EPP and the Greens are at loggerheads in the European Parliament as the far right is expected to surge. Benoit Biteau, a French Green member of the European Parliament and a farmer by trade, described the French government’s decision to roll back on reducing pesticide use as “terrible news’’ for both consumers and farmers. In an email response to questions sent by New Lines, he wrote that there are “links between pesticides and the increase in certain neurological diseases,’’ which is bad news for farmers, “who are the primary users of these chemicals and the first victims of their effects. The government’s announcement is extremely cynical and highlights a complete lack of political courage to protect people and the environment.”

Herbert Dorfmann, an Italian politician and member of the EPP, said the EU’s earlier directive on halving pesticide use was “driven by left-green ideas and deemed unrealistic.’’ It posed “a significant threat to food security in Europe’’ and was rightly dropped by the European Parliament after the farmers’ protest.

“It is now the responsibility of the European Commission to present a more viable proposal,’’ he told New Lines.

Dorfmann also supported the decision to cancel the requirement to leave a percentage of cultivable land fallow, saying he believed that the farmers “recognize that sustainability is a priority and are prepared to actively contribute to it.’’ However, he added, the farmers as a group are “reluctant to endorse purely ideological ideas promoted by NGOs and certain political factions.’’

At the protest in Brussels, several farmers told New Lines that they too were worried about global warming but cannot afford to let the EU’s green deal reduce their earnings further. Green activists said that richer farmers were exploiting the suffering of the genuinely affected smaller farmers to keep their margins intact.

Benoit said the current protests by French farmers were different from previous farmers’ movements. The current agitation, he said, “started in a livestock farming area in the Toulouse region where farmers have very low incomes.’’ But in the end there was no reprieve for them. The FNSEA, the leading farmers’ umbrella organization in France, “took the tractors back to the farms’’ after a few concessions, he said, “without ever really discussing the central issue of income with the government.’’

But both the farmers and the environmentalists agreed that CAP — the heart of the EU’s agricultural system — needs urgent reform. According to a November 2019 New York Times report, in Bulgaria the European agricultural subsidies have become “welfare for the elite,” with up to 75% of the country’s CAP subsidies ending up in the hands of 100 entities. In Hungary many of the land holdings that receive these funds are closely linked to the country’s leader, Viktor Orban. In Italy the mafia has been keeping a cut of the subsidies, while farmers in several other EU nations allege that big farmers, who control 80% of farmland, and big retailers, who decide the price of products, benefit most.

Von der Leyen has said that a paper on consultations with farmers and environmentalists will be ready by late summer and that it will inform the broader agricultural policy of the union. By then the EU’s elections, scheduled to be held in June, will be over. Europe will have chosen representatives whose worldview has a global effect. If the far right surges, as polls have predicted, and affects the policy of the center-right EPP, the EU’s climate goals will be derailed with global consequences. The farmers, also victims of global warming, will have to share the blame either way — whether their calls for easing environmental regulations are self-serving or justified.

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