Why European Union officials are taking angry farmers so seriously before Thursday’s summit

HALLE, Belgium (AP) — The writing of angry farmers was on the Paris-to-Brussels highway in giant yellow letters visible from up high: “Ursula, We are here!”

It was chalked onto the road with an equal measure of defiance and desperation, warning European Commission Ursula von der Leyen not to ignore farmers’ concerns for better prices and less bureaucracy.

The European Union is holding a summit on Thursday — and von der Leyen or any other EU leader in attendance can only disregard the plight of farming at their peril.

Here’s why European farmers are taking their anger to the streets:

THE HISTORY

World War II had spread hunger on a bountiful continent. When the war ended, Western European leaders knew that the way to people’s hearts was through their stomachs. So farming became a profession that stood at the cradle of what is now the EU.

Agriculture was promoted and heavily subsidized to eradicate any thought of famine.

Because of it, many family farmers escaped poverty. Some major land owners turned into global food giants.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Today’s harvest for small and family farmers doesn’t look like anything which was sown then, with all too many facing financial plight or worse.

Instead of a benefactor, the EU is now seen as the enemy for many, aloof in an ivory tower imposing bureaucratic rules on small-time farmers, while leaders are seen happily relaxing import restrictions for global farming powerhouses or the likes of wartime Ukraine.

“Ursula has the audacity to go to Kyiv, but she doesn’t have the courage to come and see us,” complained farmer Jean-Francois Deflandre from beside the chalked highway message in Halle, close to Brussels.

WHY ANGER IS SPREADING?

The same anti-EU message can be seen from Lithuania and Belgium to France, Spain and Italy.

At a motorway exit near Rome, farmer Paolo Pepponi was part of a crowd that blocked the road.

“It’s not the Europe of the people, it’s not the Europe of those who work,” Pepponi said. “It’s the multinational corporations that rule Europe. That’s why we are all in the middle of the road.”

The vision of EU farming from early on was economy of scale — bigger farms, bigger holdings, setting standard rules across borders. And as long as subsidies were aplenty, complaints were contained. Instead of hunger, there was waste with “butter mountains” and “wine lakes” created, because farm produce was paid for regardless of customer demand.

But there quickly was an undercurrent of unease between farmers who lived by the fickleness of seasons and climate, and EU officials who had rulers and calculators at the ready.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

Every revision of the EU’s so-called Common Agricultural Policy stirred grumblings as small farmers felt ever more alienated from new policies, but were forced to adapt if they wanted to survive.

In 1971, 100,000 farmers converged on EU headquarters in Brussels, and during a violent protest, one person died and dozens were injured.

Then pollution, much from industry but some from farming itself, also started to play tricks on them over the past few decades. Because of farming, nitrates were seeping into the earth and cattle pumped methane into the skies. Again more rules, involving more costs, were imposed on farmers and widened the gap further between the pastures and political offices.

TECHNOCRATS AND GLOBALIZATION

Benoit Laqueue, a farmer from Sedan in northern France, pointed towards the EU offices during a protest last week and railed “The technocrats are the problem and they listen too much to the ecologists.” Instead, he said, “It is us who have the farming common sense.”

As if there weren’t enough problems from within, increasing globalization opened doors to ever more, and cheaper, imports from places like New Zealand and Chile. People feel they have to farm with their hands tied behind their back. When they are faced with all kinds of stringent, expensive rules, importers don’t necessarily have to abide by those same regulations and make it much easier to undercut prices.

“They can flood our markets with products that are really not of the same quality,” said Nicolas Abbeloos, a farmer from southern Belgium. “We are forced to sell our products at a very low price.”

WHY NOW?

Over the past two years, problems reached a critical mass for farmers.

Unprecedented droughts, fires and floods blamed on climate change lay waste to crops. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the economy. Russia’s war in Ukraine sent energy prices sky high. There was runaway inflation, with farm produce often failing to keep pace.

“European farmers have found themselves under increasing pressure from many sides,” European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said. He said in southern Spain that some water reservoirs stood at only 4% capacity. Wildfires wiped out about 20% of Greek annual farm revenue.

In hard cash, Šefčovič said that the value of cereal production dropped by 30 % last year — from 80 billion euros to less that 60 billion euros. “So you have to reflect on the fact that incomes for the farmers are getting lower,” he said.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

One thing is working in favor of the farmers. The EU has parliamentary elections across the bloc in June, so this is a golden opportunity.

The continent is struggling with threats to democracy, and the EU in particular with inroads of the far right into the political mainstream. Hard-right politicians are seen at many farm protests, and the generations-old link between farmers and the conservative traditional parties are under strain.

So things are moving. On Wednesday, the European Commission made two key proposals — one to shield EU farmers from cheap Ukrainian imports and one to sidestep an environmental measure. On Tuesday, France came with promises of help, from emergency cash aid to controls on imported food. President Emmanuel Macron has promised to stop a trade deal with South American nations if it hurts farmers too much.

Compared to the violent clashes of 1971, these protests are handled with kid gloves. In Belgium, authorities even let a fries stand set up shop on a main highway that farmers had blocked to keep them well fed.

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