Bønder protesterer i Tyskland
Bønder protesterer i Berlin Foto:

Neoliberal Limits – Farmer Protests, Elections and the Far Right

The ongoing farmer protests are the longest and most impactful of all the farmer protests in the history of the European Union and have led to dangerous changes in EU environmental policy and triggered a new rise of far-right political groups across the EU. In this interview, Natalia Mamonova talks about the limits of neoliberalism, the current state of farmer protests, changes in EU policy and the alarming forecast for the upcoming EU parliamentary elections in June.

The following material is republished with the permission of ARC2020 and was originally published on ARC2020’s website on April 30, 2024.

What is happening in Europe now regarding the farmers’ protests?

Protests are still ongoing, despite the farmers having already won some concessions from EU and national authorities. Farmer protests in January and February were largely peaceful. They blocked ports and major transport arteries in many European countries and, then, gathered at Luxembourg Square in front of the EU Parliament in Brussels to address their demands to EU politicians. The farmers called for an end to free trade agreements between the European Union and third countries, such as Mercosur. They also demanded that agricultural and environmental regulations be made more flexible and simplified. In response, Ursula von der Leyen promised to repeal the Sustainable Use Regulation, which aims to halve the use of pesticides on EU farms, and loosen green farming requirements under the Common Agricultural Policy.

This may have calmed some farmers, but protests flared up again in March. This time the protesters showed more violence. Farmers threw beets, eggs, potatoes, sprayed manure at police and set hay on fire as hundreds of tractors again blocked streets near the European Union headquarters, where agriculture ministers were trying to ease a crisis that has led to the farm protests across the EU. Police used tear gas and water cannons to keep farmers at bay. Farmer protests continued in different counties as well. They also became louder and more expressive, which required police intervention.

Why does this happen?

The problem is not just strict environmental regulations and free trade agreements. We witness the systemic crisis of neoliberal industrial agriculture. The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – with its modernising paradigm – aimed to “modernise” farmers by turning them into market-oriented capitalist entrepreneurs focused on constant growth and expansion. Nature became just one of the resources in this capitalist accumulation and is often sacrificed to economic growth. Under constant pressure to increase yields and improve competitiveness, farmers became trapped in the so-called “chemical dependency treadmill” following ever-increasing recommendations from agrochemical corporations to use pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Moreover, the agricultural subsidy system is very unfair: 80% of EU agricultural support goes to a privileged 20% of large farmers. Again, the very same logic: growth and expansion. Farmers are trapped in this process: they will either have to expand by increasing their dependence on banks, retailers, supermarket chains, or go out of business. In the last decade alone, the number of full-time farmers in the EU has fallen by one third, representing 5 million jobs. Many of the EU 8.7 million farmers and farm workers are currently close to or below the poverty line. Statistics show that European farmers earn around 40% less than non-farm workers.

The crisis of European neoliberal agriculture is exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Before that, the COVID-19 and inflation have already increased the cost of farm inputs and labor, while farmers’ earnings were down as squeezed consumers cut back. Now European farmers are finding it even more difficult to make ends meet as energy and fertilizer prices have risen sharply due to the war. Besides that, the EU granted tariff-free access for agricultural imports from Ukraine, many of them exempt from the strict environmental standards the EU enforces on its own farmers. Imports rose from 7 billion euros in 2021 to 13 billion euros the following year, causing gluts and undercutting farmers, particularly in Poland.

And finally, climate change. Extreme weather conditions– such as floods, wildfires and droughts – jeopardised harvests in many countries this and last year. This is part of the same problem – the crisis of neoliberal agriculture. Industrial farming methods contribute to biodiversity loss, soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. The EU agriculture accounts for 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions. The main polluters are: the nitrous oxide in fertilizers, carbon dioxide from vehicles and methane from cattle.

Of course, serious environmental measures must be taken at the EU level. However, the measures that were introduced follow the very same logic that caused the problem. They are oriented on growth and follow the principles of “green neoliberalism” – they aim to expand and invigorate markets through the sustainability movement, are based solely on economic calculations, and place the heaviest burden on farmers.

What are the responses from the EU government? And from national governments?

As I have already mentioned, the EU government withdrew the Sustainable Use Regulation, which aims to halve the use of pesticides by 2030. Now we can forget about this ambition. This will harm farmers in the long run and will only benefit the chemical giants. On the day of the announcement, the share price of Bayer – the EU’s largest pesticide producer – jumped by more than 5%.

Also, back in February, the European Commission promised loosening green farming requirements under the CAP. Previously, EU farmers have been required to devote 4% of their land to biodiversity and landscape protection such as hedgerows and fallow meadows if they want to access EU farming subsidies. Now this is no longer valid. These measures closed the book on the EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy that set the goal of making Europe’s food systems healthier and more sustainable.

Most recently (23 April), EU leaders approved new amendments to the CAP in response to farmers’ demands to simplify the EU’s agricultural subsidy program. The amendments weaken rules and regulations in areas like crop rotation, soil cover protection and tillage methods. The mandatory environmental requirements in the CAP become voluntary, as well as more power shifted into the hands of member states. For example, member states are now allowed to grant specific exemptions to preservation of permanent grassland if this contradicts the national objectives, or lift requirements for crop rotation in certain areas. In addition, the changes will affect the use of pesticides, which will now be permitted for use in former Ecological Focus Areas. An estimated 9 million hectares of pesticide-free land will be lost. Small farmers below 10 hectares will be exempt from some controls and penalties.

Environmental organisations, climate activists, organic farmers unions and those who are concerned with the sustainable development of EU agriculture have criticised these legislative changes. They say the short-term concessions will come to haunt the EU in a generation when climate change will hit the continent even harder. Meanwhile, COPA-COGECA – the largest farmers’ union in Europe representing industrial farmers – was rather in favor of these legislative changes.

At the national level, most of the governments are also responding to the farmers’ demands. The Meloni government in Italy extended state aid for the agricultural use of diesel fuel this year and is considering a longer-term tax relief. The German government has extended tax exemptions and reduced tax breaks on diesel fuel used by farmers for another three years. In Greece, the government prepared a new support package that includes tax rebates, a five-month discount on electricity rates, and debt relief. Poland, as some other Eastern European countries, imposed the ban on the import of Ukrainian grain.

So the trend is very clear: we are moving towards a polarised Europe with very little support for the environment and sustainable development. It is also visible in the EU Strategic Agenda for 2024-2029, which is currently under discussion between EU leaders, and will be adopted in June 2024. Every five years, EU leaders agree on their political priorities for the future. While the Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 aimed to build a “climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe”. The current draft of the new agenda is largely focused on ensuring “food security through a vibrant agriculture sector” with no mention of “sustainability” or “green transition”.

How do the right-wing political parties and movements respond to the farmers’ protests? What solutions do they offer? And how does it impact the political preferences of the farmers and EU society in general?

Far-right groups certainly benefit from the farmer protests, although farmers have repeatedly stated that they are not right-wing and do not share any xenophobic or nationalist sentiments. However, the label of “right-wing” stuck to the farmers. Personally, I don’t think the farmers’ protests should be called “right-wing”. The problem is that farmers feel their voice has not been heard by mainstream politicians for many years. This is a failure of representative democracy. Meanwhile, opposition leaders and parties – often on the right of the political spectrum – are doing their best to show their support for the farmers’ cause. For example, far-right Nicola Procaccini said during the farmer protests in Italy: “Revolt is the language of those who are not listened to. Now, back off.” The Italian far right has derided EU efforts to promote low-carbon diets, playing on farmers’ fears that lab-grown proteins and insects could one day replace meat.

Farmers’ dissatisfaction with EU environmental regulations is exploited by many populists. In its program for the June election, the Dutch far-right party PVV is sparse on details but full of slogans about “climate hysteria” and its “tsunami of rules.” Nature and climate laws, it said, “should not lead to whole sectors being forced into bankruptcy.”

The far right doesn’t offer detailed solutions to the climate crisis or farmers’ problems, but they have proven adept at tapping into farmers’ frustrations.

What is the impact on the EU elections? What is your prognosis?

According to predictions by the European Council on Foreign Relations, the radical right Identity and Democracy group – which includes the RN (National Rally) and Alternative for Germany party – could become the third biggest overall in the next European Parliament, behind the Group of the European People’s Party and the Socialists, but ahead of the Liberals and Greens.

Identity and Democracy calls for decision-making power to be given back to member states, portraying agriculture as a part of national European identities to be preserved. And we see this already present in several proposals being discussed in the EU Parliament. Knowing that national governments are likely to cut environmental regulations, leaving decision-making power to member states means curtailing many green projects.

Of course, there are the European People’s Party and the Socialists that could oppose this. But they also don’t seem eager to take a stand for the environment. The centre-right European People’s Party – a party with which EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is associated – is trying to earn the title of “farmers’ party”, but most of its approaches are rather top-down. In the upcoming mandate, the party is emphasising more direct dialogue with farmers, offering more incentives and fewer regulations for the sector. The party promises a stronger CAP for 2028-2034 that will guarantee farmers’ incomes in turbulent times. Likewise, the Party of the European Socialists promises to reinforce the CAP, protect farmers’ incomes and jobs, and fight against “unfair competition” from third countries. Environmental protection was left out of the spotlight.

The upcoming elections in EU countries will most likely lead to increased influence of the right. Thus, according to the polls, the far-right Flemish Interest will become the biggest party in Belgium in the parliamentary elections in June. In Poland, protests sparked by the glut of Ukrainian grain have been seized upon by the far-right Confederation party, which hopes to rebound this year in local and EU elections after last October’s setback in national parliamentary elections.

Farmer protests thus provide vital leverage to right-wing parties at both national and EU levels. The forecast is not promising, but of course we can still hope that the Liberals and Greens will block some anti-environment proposals. Yes, one thing is clear: we are going to adapt to climate change rather than try to stop and reverse it.