Many major arteries connecting Europe have been obstructed or brought to a standstill in recent days by a wave of protests by farmers against what they claim are overly burdensome environmental targets and unsustainable levels of bureacracy associated with EU and national farming regulations.
The warning shots of this showdown between policymakers and farmers had already been fired on 1st October 2019, when more than 2,000 Dutch tractors caused traffic mayhem in the Netherlands in response to an announcement that livestock farms would have to be bought out and shut down to reduce nitrogen emissions. Early last year, Polish farmers blocked the border with the Ukraine demanding the re-imposition of tariffs on Ukrainean grain.
But it was not until early this year that an EU-wide protest was ignited. German and French protests and tractor blockades made international news, and the blockades were soon replicated in Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Greece, Netherlands, and Ireland. Major highways and ports were blocked and manure was poured over government buildings, as farmers across Europe expressed their frustration at rising farming costs, falling prices for their produce, and crippling environmental regulations that made their products uncompetitive in the global market.
It seems the farmers have European elites rattled, which is hardly surprising, given that EU elections are just around the corner. While the European Commission announced Tuesday it was still committed to achieving a 90% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 2040, it conspicuously omitted any mention of how the farming sector would contribute to that ambitious target. Even more tellingly, the Commission has backed down or fudged on key climate commitments, at least temporarily.
According to Politico, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Tuesday that “she was withdrawing an EU effort to rein in pesticide use.” The climbdown on this and other Commission proposals relating to farming was rather embarrassing for the Commission but politically inevitable, given that the protests were spreading rapidly and farmers were showing no signs of going home until their demands were met. As reported by Politico,
A note on the possibility of agriculture cutting down on methane and nitrous oxides by 30 percent, which was in earlier drafts of the Commission’s 2040 proposal, was gone by the time it came out on Tuesday. Similarly excised were missives on behavioral change — possibly including eating less meat or dairy — and cutting subsidies for fossil fuels, many of which go to farmers to assist with their diesel costs. Inserted was softer language about the necessity of farming to Europe’s food security and the positive contributions it can make.
The EU Commission is playing a dangerous game. On the one hand, they are attempting to placate farmers by making expedient short-term concessions to them. On the other hand, they are holding fast to their commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 90% by 2040, while fudging on the fact that a 90% emission cut in 16 years would have drastic implications for farming.
It is clearly politically expedient, especially in an election year, to put out this fire of farming discontent as soon as possible, and buy some peace ahead of June’s European elections. But there is no avoiding the fact that the Commission’s long-term environmental goals, as currently conceived, almost certainly require sacrifices that farmers are simply not willling to accept.
Independently from the merits of EU climate policy, two things are clear: first, EU leaders and environmental activists appear to have vastly underestimated the backlash their policies would spark in the farming community; and second, the apparent success of this dramatic EU-wide protest sets a spectacular precedent that will not go unnoticed among farmers and transport companies, whose operating costs are heavily impacted by environmental regulations like carbon taxes.
The Commission’s embarrassing concessions are proof that high-visibility, disruptive tactics can be effective. As such, we can expect more of this after June’s EU elections if the Commission doubles down again on its climate policy goals.