'Sowing despair and misery': Farmer protests denounce EU's free trade agreements

'Sowing despair and misery': Farmer protests denounce EU's free trade agreements
Credit: Belga/Benoit Doppagne

Over 900 tractors took to the Brussels' EU Quarter on Monday to express their displeasure with European agricultural policy and their anger against "a neoliberal policy in which everything is being sold off," farmers' organisations said.

The European Union should take a completely different tack, abandoning "cold numbers" for a policy that includes "the socially disadvantaged," Farmers' Forum President Tijs Boelens told Belga News Agency.

"They just want to give us crumbs, but we want bread and even the whole bakery," Boelens said. "By this, I mean that the real solution lies in a different trade policy, keeping the food strategy in our own hands."

"If you carry farmers to the grave economically and then put the knife to their throats ecologically, you get this frustration. If Europe chooses to sow despair and misery, it will reap anger."

Frustrated since the 1980s

Boelens dismissed the commitments already made by the European Commission, such as further permitting pesticide use and postponing the compulsory set-aside of part of the agricultural land, and instead advocated a new 'New Deal', in which wealth is redistributed within Europe.

The negotiations with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay for a new free trade agreement – the Mercosur agreement – is just "the latest outgrowth of a policy that sees economic gain as the sole objective," according to the Farmers' Forum.

Farmers fear that cheap agricultural products, which also do not meet European requirements, will flood the European market while farmers within the EU have to abide by a set of strict measures.

Previous examples include the free trade agreement with Canada and measures regarding cheap crop imports from Ukraine. In fact, farmers' frustrations date back to the 1980s, Boelens stated. Farmers have also repeatedly expressed these frustrations peacefully, "but we are only listened to reluctantly when we stir things up."

Farmers continue their protest across Europe as they demand better conditions to grow, produce and maintain a proper income. Credit: Belga / Benoit Doppagne

Meanwhile, the European agriculture ministers support the Commission's proposals to reduce the administrative burden on farmers in the short term, but added that the European response to the crisis in the sector should not stop there.

Ahead of the summit on Monday, the European Commission had already set out a number of short-term measures to ease the administrative burden on farmers, such as having fewer arable areas converted to permanent pasture and reducing the number of farm visits by national authorities.

"The Council believes that these proposals go in the right direction. It is a first step to provide a quick response at European level to the situation farmers are facing, but it is not enough," Belgian Agriculture Minister David Clarinval said afterwards. "The Commission is being asked to quickly add new, even more ambitious measures to its proposals."

Decent income for farmers

However, the Walloon farmers' federation FUGEA made it clear that their one number demand was a guaranteed decent income for farmers. "To achieve this, we have no choice but to move away from the policies of free trade and market deregulation," Timothée Petel, FUGEA's policy officer, told Le Soir.

The federation wants the European Commission to take "strong action on these issues" and considers its recent decisions to be "largely insufficient."

"The Commission is proposing to put certain environmental rules on hold (which we did not ask for) and to simplify administrative procedures," Petel stressed. "Admittedly, this is necessary for farmers, but it does not address our priority, which is to set fair prices."

Farmers continue their protest across Europe as they demand better conditions to grow, produce and maintain a proper income. Credit: Belga / Benoit Doppagne

In several places around Schuman Square, the farmers started fires with plastic, tyres and straw, leading to jet-black plumes of smoke and a penetrating stench in the European Quarter. The police deployed water cannons several times to extinguish the fires and the fire brigade also intervened.

Near the Chaussée d'Etterbeek, a cat-and-mouse game between a dozen hotheads and the police took place for hours. By using tractors and projectiles, farmers tried to approach a police blockade, to which the police responded by deploying water cannons several times and firing tear gas.

As well as empty bottles and street furniture, the police also had eggs thrown at their heads. Three officers were injured during the clashes, a spokesperson for the Brussels-Capital/Ixelles police zone confirmed.

Extensive damage

Around 15:00, the first tractors started heading home. Police sent away the last farmers still standing around a pile of plastic and tyres that were set alight on Rue de la Loi some two hours later, so that the fire brigade could put out the blaze.

They left behind straw, (burnt-out) tractor tyres and empty cans on and around the Schuman Square. The damage was surveyed and cleaned up by Brussels Propreté, said the Executive Director for road maintenance in Brussels, Dimitri Strobbe.

"There is a huge mess and the damage is quite extensive. First repairs will happen as early as tonight! Thank you to the fire brigade, police, contractors, Brussels Propreté and City of Brussels," he said on Monday.

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