Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland across Europe farmers have taken to the streets, they drive trucks, tractors block the streets leading to the main intersections. On February 1st, the farmers' movement has shaken the heart of the European Union, while the leaders held a summit on Ukraine inside the European Parliament building, outside they camped, threw eggs at the building, set fire and blew up.

According to the latest statistics, Agriculture accounts for only 1.4% of the EU's GDP and why these farmers are acting like this. Let's start with Spain. Three farmers' associations have blocked roads in eight autonomous regions. In just the first three days of the movement, authorities fined over 5000 people, including at least 799 violations of public order, notably in SAS Real citizens poured over 25,000 liters of golden wine onto the street, right in front of the local water management agency to protest water usage restrictions. In Italy, 1600 tractors gathered at the entrance to Rome, farmers in Milan even pulled cows to mock on the road. In Greece, thousands of farmers demand financial support while the government says there is no budget left to help. However, true to the tradition, the most intense farmer movement is still in France, where tractors block major highways leading to Paris, as well as cities like Lyon.

Under the cold weather, farmers set up tents, light fires, keep warm while holding their ground on the roads leading to the capital. Some are more friendly, they throw freshly baked chocolate cakes to the police outside Paris, while many farmers block a milk transport to protest against what they consider to be low wholesale prices. Now, how are all these stories related? According to analysts, there are at least four reasons behind the farmer movement erupting in Southern Europe.

One is the EU's climate policy. Two is the increasing cost of living. Three is the competition from imported goods and four is the gap between rural and urban areas. So now let's explore each reason one by one.

EU's New Climate Policy

Recently, the EU has implemented reforms to its common agricultural policy as part of the European Green Deal in July 2023. In general, the new policy introduces stricter regulations to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. As I mentioned, Agriculture only accounts for 1.4% of the GDP and 4.2% of employment in the EU. However, it contributes to 11% of the bloc's greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the Green Deal sets ambitious targets that the agricultural sector must achieve by 2030, including cutting in half the use of chemical pesticides, antibiotics, and reducing fertilizer use by 20%.

In summary, it aims to push farmers towards more sustainable agricultural production, however, farmers feel that many new regulations are too strict to the point of being unreasonable, they feel squeezed by environmental protection laws. Furthermore, they believe that many procedures are overly cumbersome, paperwork-intensive, and sustainability must be compromised at least in the short term because if they comply with strict regulations, production costs will surely increase.

Increasing Costs, Europe is facing a very complex situation.

Due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, prices for many goods and services, especially energy, fertilizers, and transportation, have soared. At the same time, governments are trying to curb rising food prices to control inflation. According to Eurostat data, the prices farmers receive for agricultural products peaked in 2022. However, since then, this figure has dropped by nearly 9% from the third quarter of 2022 to the same period in 2023.

However, the chart also shows that input prices have decreased. But it's true that avoiding one problem leads to another, farmers in Southern Europe are facing more extreme weather events, and it's ironic and sad that they are becoming more frequent due to climate change. For example, Spanish farmers are facing an unprecedented drought, leaving many water reservoirs with less than 15% of their water reserves. The northeastern region of Italy, which has the highest agricultural productivity in Europe, is also at risk of becoming a dry land due to record droughts and heatwaves occurring more frequently.

Competition from imported goods

While European farmers have to comply with stricter regulations and higher production costs, they believe that products from outside Europe are competing with them without having to apply similar rules. Farmers, especially in Eastern Europe, continue to protest against the import of cheap agricultural products from Ukraine, including cereals, sugar, and meat. After the conflict erupted in February 2022, Ukraine's grain exports via the Black Sea were disrupted, the EU then facilitated the transport of Ukrainian grains through the Union to other countries. However, some of Ukraine's grains got stuck in Eastern European countries, seriously affecting the domestic market.

Furthermore, agricultural imports from Ukraine are exempt from quotas and tariffs by the EU. Poland is an example, it is one of the most supportive countries of Ukraine when the conflict broke out in February 2022. However, two years later, in Poland, farmers organized protests against Ukrainian agricultural products in hundreds of locations across the country. Social media images show Polish farmers carrying national flags standing near train cars carrying Ukrainian grains and singing the national anthem, some farmers open the train cars and pour Ukrainian grains onto the railroad tracks, while others drive tractors with banners saying Polish farmers will go bankrupt because of the flow of Ukrainian grains.

This led to Ukrainian drivers also protesting at three border crossings with Poland, social media images show them holding banners saying "Ukraine is damaged, Poland is also damaged. Ukraine's betrayal of European values". At this time, news of trade agreement negotiations between the EU and the South American bloc only adds to the discontent of European farmers, they fear cheap agricultural products from South America, especially cereals, sugar, and meat, will compete unfairly with domestic products.

In this context, France seems to have changed course, President Emmanuel Macron announced that the country wants to take clear measures against imports from Ukraine because there are some products in the EU that are causing market instability in terms of quantity and quality, whether it's chicken or cereals. This statement marks a change in France's perspective as the country previously opposed restrictions on agricultural imports from Ukraine.

Urban and Rural Divide

In general, the farmer movement partly reflects the general sentiment in rural communities in Europe, that is the feeling of being neglected by their own government and the EU authorities. Indeed, in recent years in many European countries, the wealth gap between rural and urban areas has been increasing. From 2012 to 2022, the income gap between these two areas has increased by nearly 20%, surveys also show that people in rural areas feel more neglected by their national government, they also have less trust in the EU government, the gap is also reflected in the voting behavior of rural residents who tend to vote for candidates skeptical of the EU, conservative and anti-immigration parties.

In addition, each European country has its own concerns, for example in France, the government's plan to increase diesel taxes in agriculture to promote clean energy has caused outrage. Faced with strong reactions, the government announced the cancellation of the plan and committed to relaxing environmental regulations, or in the Netherlands, the specific issue is taxing nitrogen affecting pig and poultry farming. So what will happen next at the national level, some governments have compromised outside France, Germany has also withdrawn part of its plan to cut diesel subsidies, or Greece has announced an extension of the special diesel tax reduction for agriculture for another year.

At the EU level, the Union will also postpone regulations requiring farmers to set aside land to enhance biodiversity and organic farming. However, many farmers still feel they haven't gone far enough and call on their fellow tractor drivers to continue their actions, I don't know what will happen next, but surely both the EU and national governments will have to be much more cautious when formulating policies. What I mean is not only agricultural policies but any climate policies, it also shows that even for Europe, the green transition is not a simple issue. They can do the easy things first, fill in this and that, but there will come a time when they have to tackle more difficult questions like How to produce more and sustainably while still ensuring the livelihoods of producers. How to not trade off the environment for economic benefits, setting ambitious goals is easy, but how to achieve them is the real issue.

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