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Farmers set fires and attack barriers near EU summit as anger spreads

In World
February 01, 2024

BRUSSELS – Farmers threw eggs and stones at the European Parliament on Feb 1, starting fires near the building and setting off fireworks amid protests to press a summit of European Union leaders to do more to help them with taxes and rising costs.

Small groups tried to tear down the barriers erected in front of Parliament, a few blocks from where the summit was taking place, but police fired tear gas and sprayed water at the farmers with hoses to push them back.

A statue on the square was damaged and major thoroughfares in Brussels were blocked by around 1,300 tractors, according to a police estimate. Security personnel in riot gear stood guard behind barriers where the leaders were meeting at European Council headquarters.

“If you see how many people we are here today, and if you see it’s all over Europe, so you must have hope,” said Mr Kevin Bertens, a farmer from just outside Brussels. “You need us. Help us!”

Farmers from Italy, Spain and other European countries took part in the demonstration in Brussels, as well as continuing their protests at home.

In Portugal, farmers made their way to the Spanish border at the crack of dawn to block some of the road links between the two countries.

In France, farmers headed towards the Lower House of Parliament in Paris, while drone footage showed a huge convoy of tractors on a motorway near Jossigny as others blocked highways around the French capital.

Farmers say they are not being paid enough, are choked by taxes and green rules, and face unfair competition from abroad.

The protests across Europe come ahead of European Parliament elections in June in which the far right, for whom farmers represent a growing constituency, is seen making gains.

While the farmers’ crisis is not officially on the agenda of the EU summit, which so far has focused on aid to Ukraine, an EU diplomat said the situation with the farmers was likely to be discussed later in the day.

EU elections

Farmers have already secured several measures, including the bloc’s executive commission proposals to limit farm imports from Ukraine and loosen some environmental regulations on fallow lands, which several EU leaders welcomed as they arrived at the summit.

In France, where farmers have been protesting for weeks, the government has dropped plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel and promised more aid. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal was due to announce new measures.

But farmers say that was not enough, and they want more from EU leaders.

“You know what’s happening: European elections are coming, and politicians are super nervous and also the European Commission, and I think that this is the best moment that all the European farmers go to the street,” said Mr Jose Maria Castilla, a farmer representing the Spanish farmers’ union Asaja.

One tractor displayed a banner saying “If you love the earth, support those who manage it” as farmers from Belgium and other European countries try to make themselves heard by EU leaders meeting later.

Another banner read: “No farmers, no food.”

Mercosur trade talks

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said: “To the farmers that are outside. We see you and we hear you.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in disagreement with other EU leaders on many issues, made a point of meeting farmers overnight.

“We need to find new leaders who truly represent the interests of the people,” his spokesman quoted him as saying, referring to the European Parliament elections.

As he arrived at the summit, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said farmers’ grievances should be discussed.

“They offer products of high quality, we also need to make sure that they can get the right price for the high quality products that they provide,” he said.

Meanwhile, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar echoed French President Emmanuel Macron’s opposition to signing a trade deal with the Mercosur group of South American countries in its current form – another key demand for farmers.

In France, where farmers stepped up protests at the start of the week, the impact of dozens of blockades is starting to be felt, said Eric Hemar, the head of a federation of transport and logistics employers.

“We did a poll among our federation members: All transport firms are impacted (by the farmers’ protest) and have lost over the past 10 days about 30 per cent of their revenue, because we are not able to deliver on time or with delays,” he told franceinfo broadcaster. REUTERS

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