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The farmers’ protest movements in France, Germany, Belgium and other European countries have quickly coalesced into a larger campaign against the European Union

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'We feed you, but we die,' reads the graffiti on a protester's tractor in Brussels on Feb. 1, when farmers from across Europe gathered to voice their anger at an EU summit.Yves Herman/Reuters

Europe’s farmers are not alone in feeling the pinch from worldwide extreme weather, war and the supply chain effects of each in the past two years. But in recent weeks, farmers’ protest movements – each with their own grievances in different countries – have quickly coalesced into a larger campaign against the European Union.

That anger boiled over in Brussels on Feb. 1, when farmers blockaded the streets with tractors and clashed with police outside the European Parliament building. Later that day, France, the continent’s No. 1 agricultural producer, announced concessions that led farming unions to call the protesters home. That offered Europeans some hope for peace, but the questions about how to address the farmers’ grievances are likely to continue as political factions jostle for supremacy in the European parliamentary elections coming in June.

At issue is a complex web of European farm subsidies, land-use policies, transport permits, export quotas and tariffs unlike those that North Americans live with. Here are some of the key developments.

  • Fires burn during a farmers protest in the European district in Brussels.DIRK WAEM/Getty Images

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How Europe’s farmer protests took shape

Anger at Ukraine’s border

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began two years ago, the EU’s efforts to help the war-torn country – such as waiving duties on food imports, or exempting Ukrainian truckers from permits – have rankled its neighbours in Eastern Europe, who say it isn’t fair that countries bound by EU rules must compete against cheaper goods and services from a non-EU country. In November and December, Polish truckers, angry that Ukrainian carriers were undercutting their prices, blocked roads to border crossings; Romanian, Slovak and Bulgarian truckers followed suit.

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A woman with French flags cheers on protesters with tractors near Saint-Arnoult, south of Paris, on Jan. 26.Christophe Ena/The Associated Press

Farmer protests in France and Germany

In Europe’s two biggest agricultural countries, farmers began blocking highways in mid-January when their governments announced plans to phase out tax breaks on diesel, which the EU is cutting back on to meet its climate targets.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had hoped the tax changes would help with a looming budget crisis, offered to soften the changes amid fears that “rage is being stoked deliberately” by far-right parties. France, too, made concessions and invited farmers to talks, but tractor barricades around Paris and other cities escalated through January, putting pressure on newly appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal.

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A protester throws a tire on a fire at Place du Luxembourg near the European Parliament building in Brussels on Feb. 1.SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images

Farmers converge on Belgium

Farmers from Belgium, France, Spain, Italy and other countries converged on Brussels on Feb. 1 for a previously scheduled summit of the European Parliament. Protesters lit fireworks near the parliament building, pelted it with eggs and rocks, and tried to tear down barriers around it before police repelled them with tear gas and water hoses. The situation calmed by the afternoon as tractors began leaving the city. Back in Paris, two of France’s two main farmer unions said protesters should go home as Mr. Attal promised farmers more import protections and aid.

Bertin Moret was among the farmers on France’s A4 highway on Feb. 1 in Jossigny, east of Paris. A day earlier, he was feeding goats on the farm in Tancrou he owns with his cousins. He says their costs rose more than 20 per cent in 2022-23. ‘I hope that this movement will make consumers aware that what is important is to promote French agriculture by purchasing products in France,’ he says. Stephanie Lecocq/Reuters

What are the farmers protesting against?

Rising costs

Farmers in France have argued that a push by the government and retailers to bring down food inflation has left many producers unable to cover high costs for transport, energy and fertilizer – the price of nitrogen, a main nutrient in fertilizer, increased 149 per cent between September, 2021, and September, 2022, in the EU.


Efforts to aid Ukraine by waiving quotas and duties for the country’s exports have raised concerns about unfair competition among farmers in neighbouring countries. When Russia’s invasion blocked traditional routes, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria offered to help transit Ukrainian grain to third-country markets. Farmers in transit countries say the promised out-channels are not working as planned, with goods flooding the market and putting pressure on European prices, while not meeting environmental standards imposed on EU farmers.

Negotiations to conclude a trade deal between the EU and South American bloc Mercosur have also fanned discontent about unfair competition in sugar, grain and meat, with farmers in Spain calling for the negotiations to be halted.

EU regulations

The EU introduced new rules aimed at improving biodiversity and addressing climate change, such as requiring farmers to leave 4 per cent of farmland fallow, meaning not planting anything in it for a season. On Wednesday, the commission responded by exempting EU farmers for 2024 from the requirement while still being able to receive EU farm support payments, but they would need to instead grow crops without applying pesticides.

The largest farmers’ groups in Spain claim that environmental regulations are undermining the profitability of crops and increasing food prices, and protesters in France say that some of the climate-focused policies are seen as contradictory.

Diesel costs

In Germany and France farmers have railed against plans to end subsidies or tax breaks on agricultural diesel. Greek farmers want a tax on diesel to be reduced. Paris and Berlin have both relented to the pressure and rowed back on their plans.

Red tape

In France, farmers are protesting against what they see as the country’s overcomplicated system for implementing new EU regulations, citing paperwork and requirements like restoring hedges and arable land as natural habitat.

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French farmers at a highway blockade in Chilly-Mazarin, near Paris, watch Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announce new measures on Feb. 1.Christophe Ena/The Associated Press

What the farmers’ protests have achieved so far

In March, 2023, the EU responded to farmer’s protests about the influx of grain from Ukraine flooding their markets and dropping prices with €56.3-million ($81.9-million) in compensation to affected farmers.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced plans Wednesday to shield farmers from cheap imports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons.

Thursday, Mr. Attal said France would enshrine in law the principle that it should be self-reliant in food, announcing new measures including tens of millions of euros in aid, tax breaks, plans to tighten import controls and a promise not to ban pesticides in France that are allowed elsewhere in Europe.

In response, France’s main farmer union leaders called on their peers to lift roadblocks, saying the government has listened to the protests and it was “time to go home.” It was unclear if the angry farmers on France’s streets followed the guidance given by the country’s two main sector labour representatives. Many farmers are not union members or support smaller, more radical labour organizations.

Portugal announced an aid package worth €500-million for the country’s farmers in a bid to avoid protests. The package included a 55-per-cent reduction in the tax on agricultural diesel fuel, funding to support organic agriculture and mixed farming and mitigate the effect of a long-running drought on farmers’ income.

The EU’s plans still need to be approved by member states and parliament.

With reports from Reuters and Associated Press

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