Hundreds of tractors will gather in Luxembourg Square in the Belgian capital on Thursday.
On the Paris-Brussels motorway, angry farmers wrote in huge yellow letters visible from afar: “Ursula, we are here!”
It was chalked on the road with equal parts defiance and desperation, warning European Commission Ursula von der Leyen not to ignore farmers’ pleas for better prices and less bureaucracy.
The European Union is holding a summit on Thursday – and von der Leyen, or any other EU leader in attendance, will be looking out their windows at the crowd of farmers protesting in the street.
Hundreds of tractors will gather in Luxembourg Square in the Belgian capital on Thursday to call on European leaders to put an end to free trade agreements between the European Union and third countries.
They want a review of agreements such as Mercosur, for imports to be subject to the same rules as European agricultural products, and for the “costly” bureaucracy of agricultural and environmental regulations to be made more flexible and simplified.
On Wednesday evening, the first tractors had already begun to pull up around the European Parliament headquarters in Brussels, and from early morning the caravan’s horns could also be heard near the European Commission’s main building, opposite the Council, where European leaders are meeting.
Across Europe, outrage continues
Farmers blocked more roads in Belgium, France and Italy on Wednesday to disrupt trade at major ports and other strategic sectors, ramping up pressure ahead of an EU summit in Brussels.
French police arrested 91 protesters who stormed Europe’s largest food market on Wednesday, police sources said. Armoured vehicles blocked the entrances to the sprawling Rungis market, south of the French capital.
The big question is: why are farmers protesting now?
Over the past two years, the problems facing farmers have reached critical mass.
Unprecedented droughts, fires and floods blamed on climate change devastated crops. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the economy. Russia’s war in Ukraine sent energy prices soaring. There was runaway inflation, with agricultural products often unable to keep pace.
“European farmers have been under increasing pressure from many sides,” said European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič. He said that in southern Spain, some water reservoirs were at only 4% capacity. Forest fires have wiped out around 20% of Greece’s annual agricultural income.
In hard cash terms, Šefčovič said the value of grain production fell by 30% last year – from €80 billion to less than €60 billion. “So you have to think about the fact that farmers’ incomes are getting lower,” he said.
European Commission plans concessions
The rallies are part of farm protests across the 27-nation EU that have shown how just a few hundred tractors can bring traffic to a standstill in capitals from Berlin to Paris, Brussels and Rome.
Millions of people across the bloc have faced disruption and struggled to get to work, or had doctor’s appointments cancelled because protests blocked their way.
“It obviously has a big economic impact. Not just for our company, but for a lot of companies in Flanders and Belgium,” said Sven Pieters of transport company ECS in the Belgian North Sea port of Zeebrugge.
“It is important that we listen to them,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. “They face huge challenges,” from adapting to climate change to tackling pollution, he said.
The plans still need to be approved by the bloc’s 27 member states and the European Parliament, but they represent a sudden and symbolic concession.
The European Commission has announced plans to protect farmers from Ukraine’s cheap war exports and allow them to use some land that has been left fallow for environmental reasons.