‘They’re drowning us in regulations’: how Europe’s furious farmers took on Brussels and won

Mass demonstrations across the EU against environmental directives have become a politically charged issue

By Jon Henley in Paris
and Sam Jones in Pamplona
Sat 10 Feb 2024

On the outskirts of the northern Spanish city of Pamplona, a green, red and blue stream of New Holland, John Deere, Massey Ferguson, Fendt and Deutz-Fahr tractors trundled forwards, horns honking and orange lights flashing.

Under drizzly grey skies and escorted by navy blue Policía Nacional vans, few were in the mood to explain the motives for their demonstration, but a young farmer from the nearby town of Estella threw open his cab door to share his grievances. “They’re drowning us with all these regulations,” he said. “They need to ease up on all the directives and bureaucracy. We can’t compete with other countries when things are like this. We’re … drowning.”

If Europe’s farmers have called a temporary halt to their protests in France and Germany – awaiting what one French farmer called “proof of love, not just words of love” from their respective governments – they have only just got going in Spain.

In scenes now familiar from Poland to Portugal, angry farmers last week blocked roads, a port and a large wholesale market, and plan to continue through February. Italian farmers also took to their tractors last week, converging on the outskirts of Rome and staging a symbolic drive-past of the Colosseum on Friday.

In recent weeks, large conurbations including Paris and Lyon have been blockaded. City centres in Brussels and Berlin have been choked to a standstill. Farmers have closed down motorways, dumped manure, hurled eggs, trashed supermarkets, set fire to hay bales and pallets, and clashed, sometimes violently, with police.

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Away from the heat of the protests, in TV interviews and parliamentary speeches, their cause has been enthusiastically adopted by a resurgent populist far right, which sees in the farmers’ revolt a promising new front in its long-running war on “out-of-touch elites”, “radical environmentalism” and “Brussels diktats”.

Months from European parliament elections in which far-right and “anti-European” parties are projected to make big gains, farming – which represents just 1.4% of EU gross domestic product – has climbed, suddenly, to the top of the political agenda.

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