Farmer protests: Violent clashes with police, three officers injured

Farmer protests: Violent clashes with police, three officers injured
A tractor attacks the police barricade, blowing straw over the officers. Credit: Belga / Nicolas Maeterlinck

Hundreds of tractors are taking over the streets of Brussels' European Quarter, with some even entering the historic Grand Place. As expected, the protest is disrupting traffic.

Almost one month after the first farmers' protest brought much of Brussels to a halt, farmers are returning to the capital on their tractors on Monday for a new demonstration on the occasion of a meeting of the European Council for Agriculture and Fisheries. The first tractors made their way to the European quarter at around 23:30 on Sunday 25 February.

"Consequently, this perimeter was closed," Ilse Van de Keere, spokesperson for the Brussels Capital/ Ixelles police zone, noted. Other tractors gradually joined them in the morning of 26 February, mainly via the E19 (from Nivelles), E40 (from Liège and Wavre) and the E411 (from Namur).

Credit: Belga

"To minimise the inconvenience, all the groups were escorted to the meeting point near the European Quarter and the Rue de la Loi by the motorcyclists of the police zone."

By around 11:00, there were around 900 tractors on several main axes, such as the European Quarter, Rue de la Loi, Rue Belliard and Luxembourg Square. "Some 700 international protesters were also present, mainly from Italy and Spain."

Situation turned sour

The police deployed more officers in the European Quarter and at critical points and entrance roads to make sure everything was calm, and the morning started out in relative peace. However, loud horns could soon be heard and the first smoke bombs were already being set off.

Later, some farmers managed to bypass one intersection and broke through a riot police blockade at the intersection of Avenue d'Auderghem and Rue Belliard to make their way towards Schuman Square. One farmer covered Chaussée d'Etterbeek with a layer of straw, which other farmers set fire to.

Protesting farmers also set fire to straw bales and tractor tyres on Rue de la Loi, but police managed to extinguish it with a water cannon. "We can confirm that a considerable quantity of car tyres and straw were set on fire at the barrage on Rue de la Loi," Van de keere said.

Credit: Belga/ Benoit Doppagne

Police officers in several locations were being bombarded by a handful of rioters with dung, little bombs and oranges, as well as stakes and bottles. "Tear gas was also deployed as tractors were used to force the police blockade. An investigation was immediately launched to identify the rioters based on the analysis of images."

Van de keere confirmed that three colleagues from the police zone were injured.

Credit: Belga/ Benoit Doppagne

The Flemish farmers' union Boerenbond on Monday distanced itself from the riots accompanying the farmers' protest in Brussels.

"The protests in Flanders in recent weeks have always been serene and safe. What we see today in Brussels is in stark contrast," said Boerenbond's spokesperson Elisabeth Mertens. "This is not our way of campaigning."

Disruption to traffic

As both the police and Brussels' public transport operator STIB warned last week, the protest disrupted traffic since the early morning. Several tunnels, roads and metro stations are closed off to the public.

The Reyers Centre Tunnel, Tervuren Tunnel, Cinquantenaire Tunnel and Arts-Loi Tunnel – all major entrance points to the capital – were closed off to traffic heading towards the centre since 06:00. Rue Belliard has also been closed off to traffic.

Mobility agency Mobiris noted around noon that traffic disruption is concentrated in the European quarter, adding that Rue de la Loi and Rue Belliard remain closed.

The Belliardtunnel in the direction of the centre is closed to all traffic but the Reyers-Montgomery tunnel in the direction of Ter Kameren (which was closed off for a while) has been reopened, as has the Belliard tunnel in the direction of the E40/Tervuren and the Porte de Hal tunnel in the direction of Basilica.

Two tractors pictured early on Monday morning on Brussels' Grand Place. Credit: Belga / Wim Demeulenaere

The Schuman and Maelbeek metro stations have been closed by police order. Bus lines 56 and 64 are being restricted to Ambiorix while bus lines 12, 21, 56, 79, and 60 have been diverted locally. "Use the (pre)metro if possible," STIB told passengers.

Several tractors also drove into the historic centre on Monday morning, including to the iconic Grand Place, honking their horns.

For some time, tractors were also blocking the A201 roundabout at Avenue de Vilvorde, creating traffic disruptions around and towards Brussels Airport. While the roundabout has been cleared since 14:00, traffic is still disrupted in the area. "We advise our passengers to travel by train to and from the airport," the airport announced on social media.

At around 15:00, the first protesting farmers turned their tractors around and headed home under police escort, however, on Rue de la Loi and the Schuman square itself, tractors were still present in large numbers.

Not addressing issues

Farmers have campaigned for several weeks against what they say are overly strict European environmental rules and falling incomes. The farmers' organisations are asking the European Union to withdraw from free trade agreements, and specifically on Monday, the focus is on the Mercosur agreement with South American countries.

The treaty between the EU and Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay will be discussed in Brussels on Monday and aims to allow cheap products into each other's markets. Farmers want to put a definitive stop to the negotiations on this agreement.

They argued that this is "pernicious for western European farmers who have been making great efforts for years to produce ecological, sustainable and safe food and will be put back under pressure by this deal to produce more cheaply."

Participants in the action are also once again demanding that the markets be regulated to guarantee fair and stable prices, a full agricultural and food policy to support agroecological practices and an adjustment of the nitrogen decree, among other things. The Walloon Farmers' Federation FUGEA noted that the measures announced by the European Commission ahead of the last major protest did not address these issues.

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"The Commission is only proposing to put certain environmental rules on hold (which we did not ask for) and to simplify administrative procedures. Admittedly, this is necessary for farmers, but it does not address our priority, which is to set fair prices," Timothée Petel, FUGEA's policy officer, told Belga News Agency.

A delegation of young farmers will be received mid-afternoon on Monday by the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU and by the Commission, at the end of the meeting of EU agriculture ministers.

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