'Protest is allowed, vandalism is not': Belgian PM wants to end farmers' blockades

'Protest is allowed, vandalism is not': Belgian PM wants to end farmers' blockades
Tractors drive slowly, blocking traffic, during a farmers' protest at the Daussoulx interchange with highways E40 and E411, Sunday 28 January 2024. Credit: Belga / Eric Lalmand

Farmer blockades on several key roads across Belgium should not be lifted unilaterally, but based on dialogue and consultation, said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo during a press conference on Tuesday.

Protests have been disrupting traffic, with farmers calling out the high administrative burdens, climate regulations and other issues for several days now. Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon (N-VA) previously called on Federal Interior Minister Annelies Verliden (CD&V) to "take the necessary measures" to end the blockades.

"It is important that the protest is peaceful. It is a good thing that the blockade on the Antwerp Ring Road has been lifted," De Croo said. He also spoke out in favour of ending the protests through consultations and thanked Minister Verlinden for the serene way the situation was handled.

"Protest is allowed, vandalism is not. And blocking people who just want to go to work or take their children to school is something we must do everything we can to avoid," he added. While the blockade around Antwerp has been lifted, several other key roads are still blocked.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. Credit: Belga / Hatim Kaghat

On Tuesday afternoon from 17:00, De Croo will receive a delegation of Belgian farmers. "It is important that they are listened to. Belgian farmers are among the most productive and innovative in Europe and they face enormous challenges, including in the field of sustainability."

Together, he wants to see how the farmers can be a partner in this. "A number of the issues they talk about have to do with rules at the European level. Belgium now has the European Presidency and there is a European summit on Thursday," De Croo said. "I would like to use that opportunity to discuss a number of issues with the European Commission."

Among these are "several short-term matters" that would for example have an impact on cultivation in the short term, as well as the administrative burdens. "These have become very large while farmers want to be occupied with their farming activities, not spend their time having to fill in all kinds of forms."

De Croo also stressed the importance of phasing in the transition, instead of dropping "a lasagna of measures" on farmers that are all imposed at the same time. "We need innovative, productive agriculture, in terms of food supply, as well as – more than ever – geopolitically and in terms of economic activity."

'Demonstrate safely'

In the meantime, Interior Minister Verlinden made it clear that she understands the frustration and uncertainty of farmers. The minister stressed that they are "of course" allowed to demonstrate, but stressed that it should not mean putting others at risk.

"My call is clear: demonstrate safely. Police and emergency services must be given access so that they can guarantee the safety of others," she said on social media. "Wild blockades make consultation difficult and increase the negative consequences for other road users."

Together with the Crisis Centre and the federal police, the local police and the local authorities and governors involved, the situation is monitored hourly by hour and the necessary working agreements are made, Verlinden added.

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