Farmer protests: One person arrested, two police officers hospitalised

Farmer protests: One person arrested, two police officers hospitalised
Farmers protesting on Rue de la Loi in Brussels, Tuesday 26 March 2024. Credit: Belga / Gregory Ienco

The tractors are back in Brussels for the third time in less than two months. The day-long demonstrations will cause severe disruptions to traffic and public transport. While the atmosphere turned hostile for some hours, calm returned as farmers started to leave the capital.

The demonstration was due to start at around 10:30 at the crossroads between Rue de la Loi and Rue des Taciturnes, but police already intervened earlier in the day. Between 04:30 and 05:00 in the morning, some farmers tried to break through police blockades at Schuman. In response, police deployed tear gas and confiscated several tractors.

"We can confirm that tear gas was used and tractors were immobilised because people wanted to force a police blockade," the Brussels Capital/Ixelles police zone said in a press release.

The demonstration coincides with a meeting of the European agriculture and fisheries ministers in Brussels. Up to 500 tractors are expected. At 11:30, some 250 tractors were present, according to an official police count.

Many farmers moved on to the Rue de la Loi, where tensions rose as tractors unloaded beetroots and wooden pallets in front of a police blockade and farmers were pelting officers and press with straw, eggs, manure and fireworks. The large 'The Future is Europe' mural was also sprayed with manure.

Wooden pallets were set on fire in front of the police blockade at Schuman, causing the police to deploy the water cannon to extinguish the flames. Further down Rue de la Loi, some hay bales were also set ablaze. Near Place du Luxembourg, street cameras were reportedly taped off.

Peace returns

By 14:00, calm seemingly returned to Schuman Square and Place du Luxembourg, according to the police. While many farmers hoped the demonstration would be peaceful this time, confrontations with the police soon occurred. In the afternoon, however, it became fairly quiet on the squares and the havoc caused by the farmers became visible.

Several media outlets reported that demonstrators were seemingly "afraid" of camera people and the press during the protest, as they believe undercover police officers were posing as journalists and photographers. In the morning, several members of the press were pelted with eggs, dung and firecrackers and cameras were taped off at Schuman.

This, however, was likely not (only) due to the alleged presence of an undercover agent, but also as a precaution to avoid being prosecuted on the basis of video footage. A journalist who wanted to photograph the farmers was also hit in the face, Belga News Agency reports.

The police will remain active to monitor the situation for the time being and to nip a possible revival of a more violent protest in the bud.

Credit: Belga/Timon Ramboer

Around 16:30, the Brussels Capitale/Ixelles police announced in a press release that one person was judicially arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails at security forces.

"Tear gas was also used and tractors were immobilised because they wanted to force a police blockade with the vehicles. Additionally, significant quantities of car tyres, hay bales and other things were also set on fire in several places."

Two officers from the Brussels Capital/Ixelles police zone were injured and transferred to hospital for further examination. They will be unable to work for 11 and 13 days respectively. "Various projectiles were thrown at the fire brigade and security forces."

The police are also drawing up various reports in the context of violations of the motorway code.

Traffic disruptions

Disruptions to traffic are expected until late afternoon, and police have advised against travelling by car, bus or tram. The metro and train are recommended instead, but certain entrances at the Schuman metro station are closed for the day. While several entrances to the Maelbeek metro station were still open in the morning, the police closed the entire station around noon.

Rue de la Loi (between Schuman and the R20), the Reyers tunnel coming from the E40 towards the centre and the Cinquantenaire tunnel towards Loi have been closed since 06:00 and will remain so for the entire day. The inner Brussels ring road may also be inaccessible at certain times.

Bus lines 12, 21, 36, 56, 59, 60, 64 and 79 may be severely disrupted, according to public transport operator STIB.

The several hundred tractors are due to arrive in Brussels via several different access points. Throughout the day, people can follow all information and updates in real-time via the police's social media channels.

Farmers protesting on Rue de la Loi in Brussels, Tuesday 26 March 2024. Credit: Belga / Gregory Ienco

'Armed rebellion'

The last farmer's rally on 26 February saw violence erupt between protestors and police. Some farmers broke through a riot police blockade at the intersection of Avenue d'Auderghem and Rue Belliard, while others set fire to haybales and threw manure and other materials at police.

In a statement on Monday, police confirmed that three people have since been taken in for acts carried out on the day. One suspect who targetted police with manure has received a summons to appear before the Brussels Criminal Court charged with "armed rebellion, defamation and degrading treatment".

A second suspect threatened the police during a television interview and a third kicked a police officer in the chest. Both will appear in court and the police stated that "The Public Prosecutor's Office will respond severely to any offences committed in the context of demonstrations."

Farmers attend a protest action in the European district in Brussels, organised by several agriculture unions from Belgium but also other European countries on Thursday 1 February 2024. Credit: Belga / Dirk Waem

Farmers are continuing to mobilise to demand changes to European agricultural policy, to call for an end to free trade agreements such as Mercosur, and to highlight the need for fairer remuneration.

The first Brussels protest on 1 February saw a turnout of around 1,200 tractors. Part of a monument to John Cockerill was toppled at Place du Luxembourg, but damage was "relatively limited". Around 900 tractors rolled into the city for the second round of protests on 26 February.

Tuesday 26 March will see protests carried out to align with an AGRIFISH council meeting. "Some progress has been made to ensure fair prices for farmers but there has not been adequate action taken to address most of our demands and many environmental measures have been removed," international farmers' organisation Via Campesina stated. "This goes against our call for a transition to agroecological, more sustainable farming models.

"We want measures that protect and support farmers' incomes in a way which respond to current climate and environmental challenges and can offer concrete proposals and solutions."

This article is being updated as the demonstration continues.

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