NIAS Europe Studies

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NIAS Europe Studies
Farmers' protests highlight economic stress and a rising far-right in the EU

  Rosemary Kurian

About the Author
Rosemary Kurian is an Undergraduate Scholar under the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy at St Joseph's University, Bangalore. Her research interests include Middle East, Europe, Energy and Climate.

Farmers protests highlight economic stress and a rising far-right in the EU
By Rosemary Kurian

The beginning of 2024 is marred with protests by farmers in several EU states. German farmers crowded the streets in all 16 federal states of Germany, expressing their disapproval of the government’s decision to phase out subsidies for diesel used in farmyard vehicles. Berlin was brought to a standstill when farmers made a political statement by blocking the streets in front of the Bundestag. Germany joined a series of farmer protests across Europe, including Poland, Spain and France, over unfavourable subsidy cuts, budget hikes, EU green policies and ripple effects of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
 
Similarly, farmers in Romania returned to the streets of Bucharest after failed negotiations over concerns of high tax rates and delayed compensation of loss suffered during droughts. The Russian blockade of the export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea has opened Romania up as a transit hub for Ukraine, which has threatened local produce over displacement by Ukrainian companies. Polish farmers implemented blockades to force Donald Tusk’s government to regulate the import of Ukrainian grains into the EU border, highlighting the need for greater EU regulation of grains from Ukraine to protect EU markets.
 
Why are the European governments under stress?
Germany’s centre-left coalition government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz continues to experience an economic crunch after the pandemic, followed by its decision to support Ukraine, and a war-triggered energy crisis. Germany, often considered  Europe’s superpower, was on its way to become the only G7 country with a shrinking economy in 2023. Additionally, Germany is grappling with an emergency spending freeze after the Constitutional court prohibited the diversion of an unused Covid fund towards climate goals. Amid the budget crisis, the Green Party in the coalition denies compromising on the government’s climate goals and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) insists on major budget cuts.
 
In the case of Romania, the concern remains securing a deal with the EU, much like most eastern European countries, to prevent the free trade of grain from Ukraine, which could address some demands for compensation by the farmers. Whereas in Poland, the newly appointed Prime Minister Donald Tusk, struggles to strike a balance between his promises of a pro-EU approach and support for protesting farmers. The previous government headed by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) was highly Eurosceptic, whereas Tusk vowed to better his relations with Brussels, but faces challenge from the PiS with a risk of overturning their policies. Therefore, while Tusk has decided to reject the EU proposition of avoiding tariffs for Ukrainian imports, his path remains one of strategic compromise. For the time being, a deal has been reached, granting compensation to Polish farmers through corn subsidies, and maintaining agricultural taxes at 2023 levels. The unregulated border with Ukraine remains a point of contention.
 
What role does the EU play?
Farmers across Europe, spanning from France and the Netherlands to Germany and Poland, are protesting to reinstate the status quo. While each protest is independent and rooted in domestic policy complexities, the larger questions of economic sustainability and environment regulations place the EU policy at the centre of the crisis, especially its ambitious climate targets by 2030 that farmers refuse to implement. The EU’s ambitious ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy urges halving the use of fertilisers and doubling organic production in farmlands. To the EU, the agricultural sector is the “problem child” in its green ambitions. Governments had urged the shutting up of certain farms due to nitrous oxide emission rates (the Netherlands) and allowed free import of produce from Ukraine post the war began, under common EU policy guidelines. However, the protests have urged independent governments to scale back on such policy decisions, even if it meant a conflict with the EU’s vision.
 
How are far-right parties utilising the protests?
When farmers’ protests first began in the Netherlands, it created a new rural political party under the banner of the Farmer-Citizens’ Movement that won in the local elections. In Germany, far-right parties like the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) are gaining support through slogans of “Germany first” in its Eurosceptic and populist approach. Many believe that the AfD aims at bringing down Scholz’s government by using the momentum of
the protests. Most farmers are conservative and in Germany, their support extends to the Christian Conservative parties in a bid against climate policies. Far right groups like AfD have used the protests opportunely, the most shocking being the ferry attack of Robert Habeck, the German Vice-Chancellor, and his family. He saw potential of the far-right “jeopardising the law and the rule of law”. While the farmers have denied any interest towards fringe groups, the far-right continues to piggyback on their cause. The fear of most
centre-left governments is to prevent the spread of the far-right, a trend that has set foot across Europe.
 
What does it mean for EU Parliament elections?
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission's President, is a staunch proponent of the European Green Deal, the EU’s green transition deal rejected by farmer unions due to demands of halving fossil fuels and doubling organic production. Ahead of the EU Parliament elections in June, von der Leyen aims to appease farmers through a “strategic dialogue” on 25 January, to heed to their grievances and cater to their needs. The farmers’ protests have become a focal election agenda among parties across the EU, and an opportunistic far-right has forced governments to recentre their strategies, one that von der Leyen too, wishes to utilise. While the AfD backs the farmers in their election agenda in Germany, Macron’s France is assessing candidates agreeable to the farmers’ cause. For the sake of elections, he is projecting himself as a traditionalist, and balancing green plans with the farmers’ cause. Aware of the threat that Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally poses under the circumstances, officials suggest Julien Denormandie, the former farmer-friendly agriculture minister who left politics to join the private sector.
 
A report by the European Council on Foreign Relations predicted a right-leaning European Parliament in 2024, based on a poll. In states like Austria, France and Poland, the far-right are predicted to lead, with a close second in Germany, Spain, Sweden and Portugal. This could significantly raise euroscepticism among EU countries and hamper all climate policies. Amid economic concerns, potential democratic backsliding, momentum for the far-right parties and waning popularity for centre-left governments in Europe, the farmers’ protests could be a tipping point to achieve the above result.

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