From the windows of my house, I can see Place Luxembourg in Brussels and last Wednesday, 31 January, dozens of tractors parked around and in the small park opposite. My Belgian neighbours (I wasn't there), all ardent pro-Europeans and environmentalists, came down in the evening with beer, fruit and sausages to discuss them in a lively but rather quiet atmosphere, and some of the farmers even found hospitality.
Little did we know that the next day the area, and in particular Place Luxembourg, next to the large esplanade of the Parliament, would be the center of violent actions, culminating in the demolition of one of the statues representing a steelworker, which stands on the pedestal of the statue of John Cockerill, a steel industrialist celebrated for his successes, successes that were also those of Belgium, which in the 19th century was one of the first economic and industrial powers in Europe.
In this context, it is also worth noting that, unlike the occasional demonstrations, whether inappropriate or welcome, which aim to highlight the seriousness of the climate crisis by blocking traffic, throwing harmless paint on walls or glass, or simply demonstrating, and which, in Italy at least, sometimes result in serious legal proceedings, the actions of occupation and roadblocks, if not outright vandalism by some farmers across Europe, are generally supported and encouraged by the media and tolerated by the public authorities. This seems to me to be a serious and very worrying inequality of treatment, which heralds the arbitrariness and repression of non-violent dissent that does not please those in power or important lobbies and corporations that are considered relevant to the consensus, regardless of the ways and methods of pursuing their struggles.
However, the situation has calmed down and the tractors have returned home, as in Germany and France, while in Italy and Spain the protest continues.
In any case, we can already make a preliminary assessment of the results of the farmers protests that have accompanied us in recent days.
The demands of the demonstrators have different characteristics and similarities in the different countries.
The commonalities are numerous and almost none of them really have anything to do with the Green Deal, the EU's grand plan to make the European economy and society climate-proof, which the propaganda of the right and the agribusiness and multinational distribution sectors blames for the difficulties of the agricultural sector. Instead, they have much more to do with the system that the Common Agricultural Policy has built up since the 1960s, with rules that, after the reforms (or supposed reforms) of November 2021, have managed to avoid most of the provisions of the Green Deal, and which are increasingly nationalizing the management of funds.
The Common Agricultural Policy absorbs 30% of the EU budget; it should be noted that it is the Council (according to Article 43 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the Union) and therefore the Ministers of Agriculture, who decide on agricultural prices, levies, aid and quantitative limits, who have long been acting in very close cooperation with the powerful agricultural lobbies, in particular Copa-Cogeca, which is dominated by the agrobusiness and large producers and has enormous influence on the Commission and Parliament. In other words, when people say that operators are not listened to in Brussels, they are completely untruthful. The problem is that only some of them are listened to.
It is no coincidence that 80 per cent of subsidies go to 20 per cent of producers and that the logic of the CAP has always been to produce more and more, with the indispensable help of pesticides and fertilizers, often derived from oil, and this still makes the sector highly dependent on fossil fuels. This is the system that increasingly crushes small-scale producers and fails to reward those who want to make a sustainable choice; this is the system that is running out of steam, furiously resisting change rather than expecting to be helped to bring it about.
Hit by the energy and climate crises, and by rising production costs that cannot be passed on to the big retailers who crush them, many small producers are working at a loss and see no future. This is nothing to do with the Green Deal. It is the CAP as it has worked so far, subsidising those who produce more and not focusing on product quality, which does not serve the interests of farmers, and the environmental rules are few and rather weak. Everyone is to blame for this situation: all mainstream parties have always supported the decisions and reforms of the CAP, except the Greens, who have always fought for a CAP that adequately remunerates the quality of production and farmers' incomes, as well as respects biodiversity and animals. Because, as we know, nothing grows on barren land.
But let us return to the farmers' demands and the results achieved so far. Of all the demands, the one that has the greatest impact on the lives of farmers, especially the smallest ones, is the gap between the prices they receive, and the prices charged to consumers by large retailers, who for some years now have even been able to count on supranational purchasing centers. This is the element that mobilizes practically all of them and which obviously has little to do with the Green Deal. France has tried to tackle this problem with a regulation, EgaLim, which aims precisely to improve this relationship and the remuneration of farmers, preventing speculation and sales below cost. But the multinationals do not respect these rules, and so far the government did not react. Now it has promised to improve the system and increase inspections, but the problem is not easy to solve. However, there are some rules, such as a 2005 directive against unfair practices, that could help if implemented.
Another recurring theme is that of Ukrainian wheat, particularly for eastern countries, and free trade agreements with third countries in general. Apart from the fact that European agriculture is the most subsidised in the world, with distorting effects on prices, especially for developing countries, and that European agricultural market is the most difficult to enter, here we can clearly see the different interests of the various producers. The balance between exports and imports is in surplus: the EU agri-food trade surplus reached 6.7 billion euro in September 2023, an increase of 18% compared to the previous month. The cumulative trade balance (January to September 2023) reached EUR 51 bn and is EUR 8.5 bn higher than in the same period of 2022; and the 'flagship' products are cereals, dairy products and wine. It is therefore clear that the problem is not the opening of borders in general, which is very much needed in agriculture, but the redistribution of profits between supply chains. In short, blocking trade would hurt European farmers first and foremost, but the conditions defined in the treaties must take account not only the interests of big producers and not only of Europeans, but also of the countries or regions (such as Mercosur) with which we are negotiating.
Another complaint that keeps coming up is the obligation to keep 4% of the land uncultivated in order to receive subsidies, introduced by the 2021 reform: this is not about "set-aside": it is about maintaining a small part of the cultivated area in order to promote biodiversity, which is known to be under serious threat, with hedges or other elements that can also help manage erosion risks and make the soil more resistant to extreme phenomena, from droughts to floods.
Faced with growing protests, the European Commission proposed on Wednesday 31 January to introduce safeguard measures to limit imports of certain Ukrainian food products, while keeping the market open to support the country under attack, and accepted France's proposal for a partial derogation from farmers' set-aside obligations. More seriously, on 6 February, when presenting its communication on climate targets for 2040 to the European Parliament, it announced that the agricultural sector would be largely exempted from the reduction targets and that it would be left to the 'strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture', which was launched some time ago and is supposed to bring together all stakeholders, from farmers to consumers and the processing industry. This is a short-sighted and misguided move that will do nothing to rebuild a consensus, but rather will further legitimise the populist propaganda of intensive agribusiness, according to which the problem of agriculture is the Green Deal.
Finally, pesticides: in the same debate on 6 January, Commission President von der Leyen also announced the withdrawal of the pesticides regulation. A move with little concrete effect, given that the regulation had already been rejected by the European Parliament and stalled in the Council; despite the words of warning that agriculture still needs to become more sustainable, this decision marks a point in favor of those working to maintain an agricultural system heavily dependent on chemicals and oil.
The Commission's proposal for a regulation was based on a popular legislative initiative to halve the use of pesticides, supported by more than a million European citizens; and had already been blocked by the agribusiness lobbies and the right-wing, which managed to completely empty it with the result that an overwhelming majority (including the Greens) rejected it in Parliament last November.
On this issue, as on others, the only answer is a new broad mobilisation of the people and of the greenest sector of agriculture, which has already shown that it is possible to produce in a different way.
As we have said, farmers are also protesting for reasons related to national policies. In Germany, the main issue was the new national regulations to reduce diesel subsidies, and after direct negotiations an agreement was reached to postpone the reduction for several years and to restore the exemption from the motorway toll for agricultural vehicles. In Belgium, Flemish farmers complain about nitrate reduction obligations, Walloon farmers about low income due to low resale prices and the growing phenomenon of land purchases by supermarkets.The government and its complex regional alliances, all of which will be put to the vote in June, have promised to review some fiscal and administrative obligations and to respond to concerns about prices.
In Italy, the government is trying to respond to the end of tax exemptions for agricultural income with new rebates and has announced a further 3 billion from the PNRR. This is in fact money that was already largely known and received with the revision of the PNRR in November, to which 1.2 billion has been added from the supplementary fund set up by Draghi. Incidentally, in Italy, as in many other countries, people are complaining about the duty-free import of Ukrainian products, which leads to lower prices and speculation, but they ignore the fact that in 2023 Russia was Italy's second largest supplier of wheat...
In France, where the demonstrations have always been more violent, the government announced on Thursday the measures it had decided on, after which the protests were "temporarily" suspended:The farmers obtained from the government measures which mainly intervene in national regulations and which will cost more than 400 million euros, such as the renunciation of the increase in the tax on non-road diesel, the immediate reimbursement of the tax rebate on this fuel, the promise of improvements to the Egalim law, which rebalances prices and farmers' incomes, and stricter controls to ensure compliance, announcing massive inspections in supermarkets; measures to facilitate the succession of farms and various types of financial aid were also announced. They also secured guarantees to renegotiate grain imports from Ukraine, to continue opposing the Mercosur treaty and to take action against 'unfair competition' from imported products that are less safe than European ones. The government then suspended the regulations on pesticides, giving in to the demands of the FNSEA, the main agricultural union confederation, which has always opposed the reduction or elimination of pesticides: in fact, in a system strongly based on payment by quantity, the reduction of pesticides does not allow production to develop, despite the health of people and the soil, it does not want any pesticide reduction plan and has practically suspended the regulations already in force.
Despite the fact that the most virulent phase of the protests is dying down - although we will see what happens in Italy and Spain - there is, as mentioned above, a clear enemy that has been identified by everyone, and that is the European Green Deal. Thanks to uninformed and manipulated propaganda, supported by the fossil fuel and agrobusiness lobbies, the idea is being spread that the policies introduced for the green transition are responsible for the agricultural malaise. But this is a hoax of Cyclopean proportions.
The Green Deal is just a convenient scapegoat, because for the agricultural sector it is virtually non-existent. Let’s see why.
The Green Deal for agriculture, announced in May 2020 with the nice name "From Farm to Fork", aimed to make Europe's food and production systems more sustainable than they are today by involving the entire food chain, from production to consumption, including, of course, distribution.
Unfortunately, most of the European program of green reform in agriculture has simply remained a dead letter, demolished with the contribution of the same organisations and lobbies that are now leading the revolt in many countries, and cleverly recovered in an anti-European key by the right. And with systematic efforts, the Commission's proposals, not only on pesticides, but also on the promotion of organic farming, nature restoration, industrial emissions, packaging, have all been watered down, leaving the huge problem of agricultural emissions virtually untouched, an almost unique case among production sectors. It is important to point out that all the proposed rules are not based on abstract ideology, but on careful studies and compromises reached in lengthy consultations, especially with the categories concerned; and they take into account the fact that agriculture is responsible for more than 30% of emissions and most of the ammonia; pesticides, livestock and intensive farming have serious impacts on health, food quality and biodiversity. In short, agriculture is not the business of one aggravated sector, it affects us all.
As many farmers have been arguing for years, a reform of the CAP that makes European agriculture less dependent on intensive practices in terms of energy, water and pesticides - in a word, more sustainable, less dependent on large-scale distribution and therefore less industrial and closer to the consumer - is the only way to save its quality and economic sustainability. And it is paradoxical that the same forces that helped to push the system to its limits are now the champions of its defence.
To sum up, the justified revolt of many farmers against the CAP has been skilfully transformed into a revolt against the Green Deal and the EU, in line with the interests of the agrobusiness, which has made billions from a productivist model based on intensive and fossil-based breeding and cultivation that is no longer sustainable, and of the populist right, which sees denial of the climate crisis and its consequences as an easy way to build consensus. The demand for more and more subsidies, rather than addressing the growing hardship caused by climate change (€6 billion in damages in 2023 in Italy) by tackling its causes and making agriculture more resilient, is therefore unsustainable, both for the public budget and for the agricultural sector itself.
It is therefore a fact that the CAP must be reformed, also because its excessive bureaucracy favours intermediaries and corporations, because the criterion of quantity rather than quality still applies, despite many attempts at reform, and because the many farmers who have decided to "go green" have no specific advantages or support.
The protests blocking our roads must therefore be met with reason and empathy, because so many people can no longer bear the fatigue and costs of an activity that is essential for everyone: but without giving in to the propaganda of those who think that agriculture can flourish in a destroyed environment and that agriculture can continue to treat animals and plants as cogs in a factory.
6th February 2024