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Tractors throng Brussels as ministers meet on farm rules

Farmers parked their tractors in front of the European Commission building in Brussels
Farmers parked their tractors in front of the European Commission building in Brussels - Copyright AFP DAVID GRAY
Farmers parked their tractors in front of the European Commission building in Brussels - Copyright AFP DAVID GRAY

Hundreds of tractors thronged streets around the EU’s headquarters in Brussels on Monday as ministers met to seek ways to streamline farming rules and red tape fueling protests around the bloc.

Police estimated that 900 tractors were clogging the European quarter of the Belgian capital — targeted for the second time in a month — with officers firing water cannon as farmers burned tyres and set off fireworks in the street.

Farmers from Spain, Portugal and Italy joined their Belgian counterparts for the latest show of force in the Europe-wide movement spurred by what they see as excessive EU environmental requirements and unfairly cheap imports.

Elsewhere thousands of Spanish farmers protested outside the agriculture ministry in central Madrid on Monday, holding placards that read: “The countryside is in the abyss and the government doesn’t care.”

Maria Villoslada Garcia, a 43-year-old winegrower from northern Spain, told AFP: “We expect solutions, but quickly” from the EU and Spain “because we are being suffocated” and “our work costs more than what it pays.”

Victor Iglesias, a 24-year-old grain farmer from central Spain, said: “There are fewer and fewer young people (in the profession) and that’s a consequence of… the costs.”

The rolling protests — which saw French President Emmanuel Macron angrily heckled over the weekend — have unnerved EU leaders concerned they could prove a boon for the far-right at European elections in June.

Ministers were gathered Monday to examine proposals for simplifying the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) — unveiled last week by the European Commission in the latest attempt to try to assuage the farm movement. 

“We need something practical, something operational,” France’s agriculture minister Marc Fesneau told reporters upon arrival.

While arguing there was room for adjustments “within the current rules,” Fesneau also said that meeting some demands “would require changing the legislation.”

“Whether that happens before or after the European elections does not matter — what matters is moving forward,” he said.

“We need to set a goal, lay the foundations of a CAP that reassures people.”

The proposals by the European Commission would relax some environmental constraints for farmers, include easing demands for former livestock farmers to convert their land into grassland.

The commission also envisions simplifying administration and changing the way on-site inspections work in a bid to cut the number of visits farmers face by 50 percent. 

Added leeway could also be granted to farmers who fail to meet the CAP’s requirements because of extreme weather events.

Brussels has given ground to protesting farmers with a string of concessions in recent weeks.

These include extending a suspension of rules on leaving a share of land fallow, and safeguards to stop Ukrainian imports flooding the market under a tariff-free scheme introduced after Russia’s 2022 invasion.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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