Rage against the European Union

By Andrew Joseph, Editor

Like a revolution 150 years ago, it began in France in 2024.

Or did it begin as early as 2023?

The issue: French farmers were upset with how little their efforts and products were valued by their government. While that may be an oversimplification, we’ll get to the crux of the matter soon enough.

During the protests, delaying tactics squeezed access in and out of France’s larger cities. It wasn’t a full-out denial of entry but rather just enough of a delaying tactic to be annoying and inconvenient.

As such, two of France’s leading farmers’ unions asked their members to end the protest blocking access in and out of Paris.

Please make no mistake: the French farmers did not enjoy harassing their compatriots. But their hold on the arteries going in and out of the capital appears to have worked, as the French government agreed to many of their demands.

Just three weeks into the job, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal failed with his initial attempt to quell the blockade that was starving Parisians of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. His second attempt went much better.

The protests began in France after farmers realized the government ignored their concerns.

French farmers were angry over rising input costs, increased taxes, falling income, and European agriculture policies.

Regarding its European neighbours, French farmers were upset about their government purchasing too many agricultural products from Ukraine.

Understanding that Ukraine is at war with Russia and can use financial aid, French farmers railed against its government for being too generous in flooding the market with Ukrainian agricultural goods. They also believe that many Ukrainian products are substandard to expected French food quality.

Even worse for the French farmers, the Ukrainian products sold cheaper than theirs. For French farmers, purchasing too many substandard and inexpensive Ukrainian agricultural products affected their livelihood while lowering the accepted food standards for consumers.

The French farmers said they had been raising their concerns to the government for years, but to finally get their point across, a tractor blockade at every roadway leading in and out of Paris caught the attention of the government and other European countries facing similar shortcomings.

Vive la France

One of the most challenging things for anyone—especially a government—is admitting they erred.

France’s Prime Minister Attal explained, “Have we responded to the problem? Evidently not. Have we made mistakes? Clearly.”

To apologize and correct the situation, Attal said the government wants French ag to come first—meaning French food products produced in France by its farmers.

The French government also announced a $162 million financial aid package for its farmers.

A financial aid package worth over $215,000,000 was promised for French livestock farmers.

The Prime Minister also banned the import of fruit and vegetables treated with thiacloprid, an insecticide that may be harmful to honeybee populations.

Thiacloprid has been banned in the EU since 2019, but Canada and the US allow its use, though only for limited purposes in Canada.

Most importantly, the French plan—which follows the UK and EU’s plans—to reduce pesticide usage has been put on hold. While pesticide reduction is still being considered, the French government wants to implement an easier way for farmers to reduce pesticide usage while maintaining their yield quantity and quality. It just doesn’t know how to do that yet.

It wasn’t all blocking traffic; some farmers dumped manure in front of local government buildings, while others dumped rotting fruit and bales of hay in public squares.

Although France’s Paris blockage is considered over as of February 2, 2024, 18 protesters were arrested on January 31. Those arrested tried to manoeuvre their ag vehicles to the Rungis wholesale food market south of Paris.

Rungis is a food terminal where many supermarkets, stores, and restaurants purchase ag supplies. After police turned back farmers from entering the 578-acre site, some continued to attempt to enter, resulting in those arrests.

Still later that day, some protesters made it into the food terminal, resulting in additional arrests, taking the total to 79 people.

Despite delaying French travel, the farmers appeared to have the support of much of the populace, with supportive car honking being the norm rather than angry horn blasting.

Around the World

Even as the French ag revolution sputters to a halt with the government capitulating to the farmers’ demands, farmers’ unions elsewhere in Europe are considering similar action.

Farmer associations in Italy, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Greece, and the Netherlands are also considering action ahead of the EU elections in June. These associations are railing against not only their own governments but also the European Union’s agricultural plans.

Farmers blocked the streets with tractors on February 1, 2024, in Brussels, Belgium. Then they had an even more violent argument with Belgian authorities, clashing with the police outside of the European Parliament building. Lots of thick black smoke from multiple fires marked the occasion.

Why Brussels? Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union.

Just hours later, the French farmer base reached an agreement with its government, which gave Belgium and the other European countries some hope that they might also see success.

For Belgium, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, et al., the ag communities face European farm subsidies, land-use policies, transport permits, export quotas, and tariffs.

While Canada and the US have these issues, European farmers are being hit harder. Then again, it’s all relative.

France wasn’t the only country concerned that Ukraine’s agricultural products were undercutting its livelihood. Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria also expressed their apprehension.

To help suffering Ukraine, the European Union had essentially shot itself in the proverbial foot.

The European Union waived duties on food imports from Ukraine and exempted Ukrainian truckers from requiring permits.

Yes, it helped money-starved Ukraine, but it also undercut ag in other countries where Ukrainian products were sold.

The above countries complained that it wasn’t fair that they had to abide by the EU rules and now had to compete against cheaper goods and services from Ukraine. And, as France pointed out, substandard products.

To make matters worse, Ukraine is not a member of the European Union.

Blockages in Germany (and France) began in mid-January 2024 after the countries announced they would phase out a diesel fuel tax break. In the two countries, it was hoped that the removal of the tax break would encourage more people to switch to an alternative fuel source, primarily where vehicles are concerned, to affect better GHG emission results per the United Nations Paris Agreement.

In Germany, the plan to remove the diesel fuel tax break angered those in the far-right parties. Realizing that Europe doesn’t want to see that again, Chancellor Olaf Scholz made concessions, noting that a car tax exemption for farming vehicles would be retained and cuts in the diesel tax breaks would be staggered over three years.

Despite Chancellor Scholz stating his belief that extremists were fanning flames of discontent, German farmers opted to continue their blockade actions.

The German farmers said they want a complete reversal of the diesel fuel subsidy cuts.

Bargaining in good faith, Chancellor Stolz added that they will see “what else we can do so that agriculture has a good future.”

We Need More Cowbell

Spain is fighting against strict EU regulations and the perceived lack of support from the Spanish government for what Spanish farmers want.

Spanish farmer groups say the EU environmental regulations cut their crop profitability and force them to raise prices, increasing consumer costs.

The country has been hit hard by drought in the 2022 and 2023 growing seasons, affecting olive and rice yields.

Spanish truckers moving goods between Spain and France said the French blockade delayed about 200 trucks a day. Fenadismer, a Spanish transport association, noted that the delay caused Spanish companies to lose an estimated CDN$10.84 million daily.

Along with the standard complaint against cheaper Ukraine goods flooding Spain, the government wants to tell the EU to halt negotiations with the Mercosur trade bloc—an economic and political group featuring Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—and trade agreements with Chile, Kenya, Mexico, India, and Australia.

Another Spanish complaint against the EU is that it has banned pesticides farmers say they rely on to produce rice.

Bomba rice is a type of pearly white short-grain rice used exclusively by the Spanish to make its national dish, paella. Because of the pesticide ban, Spanish farmers say a fungus threatens the entire rice crop.

Spanish farmers took to the streets in early February with all their protesting ire.

Unlike the French farmer demonstration, in which the ag community essentially blocked arteries in and out of the capital city of Paris with their tractors, Spanish farmers are doing things their way.

On February 8, 2024, Spanish farmers from northern Vitoria drove their tractors through its streets, disrupting traffic. Stopping in front of the Basque regional parliament, guarded by police in riot gear, the protesting farmers rang cowbells to disturb the government proceedings.

In Barcelona, dozens of farmers spent the night in the city centre before moving to surround the regional parliament buildings in the morning.

The day before, convoys of tractors slowly moved on major highways, disrupting traffic flow, but were led by an armada of police vehicles.

Since Tuesday, Spanish farmers have blocked highways and ports in Malaga and Castellon on Spain’s east coast, too—this time physically blocking roads—some 15 main roads—and setting up tire fires across the roads and staging a sit-down protest. Although the sit-in was quickly ended by police and the small, fiery staging of tires across the roads was extinguished and dismantled, no arrests were made as the protest was loud but peaceful.

But when protestors trespassed into multiple large goods distribution centres, police felt it necessary to detain a dozen people.

Despite the protests and delaying actions, the government and retail associations in Spain said they did not expect imminent food shortages. No one expects the Spanish food shortages.

More Protest Action on the Way

Portugal also said it would organize protests, though no dates were proffered.

The European Union also has plans to stem the tide of member dissent.

The EU had previously created rules for its member countries’ farmers to follow to improve biodiversity while addressing climate change.

Just before the European farmers’ revolt against the EU broke out, an early draft of a report from the European Union that was viewed by news agency Reuters claimed that member country agriculture must cut non-CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions by 30 percent by 2040, whatever their country’s 2015 levels were, to comply with the overall climate goal.

At least the EU could partially read the room of farmer protests across the continent and scrape that “goal” from the final report draft.

However, the EU had other plans, including one where crop farmers had to leave four percent of their farmland fallow, not planting anything for one growing season. This “resting” of the soil was meant to prevent it from becoming weak and ineffectual.

Yet, at the same time, the EU plan affects farm yield, meaning less farm income and less food for a hungry planet.

Not admitting defeat, on January 31, the European Union announced it was “fallow,” exempting its farmers for 2024.

Farmers would still be able to receive EU farm support payments, but as a concession, they would need to grow crops without applying pesticides. And that’s precisely what the European Union wants, even though Spain is railing against it.

Fewer to zero pesticides are wanted as European farmers transition to organic farming.

Conceptually, organic farming is wonderful, except it takes more land to grow the same amount of fruits and vegetables. The United Nations also asks countries to produce more food while polluting less. The United Nations and all 196 agreeing countries following suit have not instructed their respective ag sectors how to do that.

As in Canada, other governments worldwide request technical assistance from private businesses to produce products or methodologies to lower GHG emissions while increasing farm yield without increasing farmer input costs.

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