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Farmers’ protest: Police use tear gas and water cannons to quell violent Brussels demo

Farmers’ protest: Police use tear gas and water cannons to quell violent Brussels demo

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Farmers’ protest: Police use tear gas and water cannons to quell violent Brussels demo

BRUSSELS — One person was arrested and two police officers were injured in Brussels’ European Quarter on Tuesday during a rowdy farmers’ protest which turned violent as demonstrators started throwing firebombs and debris at law enforcement. 

About 250 tractors arrived in Brussels in the early hours of Tuesday morning, in a new demonstration against policies which they say are whacking their business.

A ring of tractors circled Place du Luxembourg outside the European Parliament, where farmers milled around a blazing fire while “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees blared from loudspeakers.

Other tractors blocked several access roads around the European institutions, halting traffic along Rue de la Loi — one of the busiest thoroughfares in Brussels, which was shrouded in black smoke on Tuesday.

Farmers across Europe have been protesting for months against EU red tape, global trade deals and new green requirements under the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

It was a smaller demonstration than previous ones this year, but no less rowdy, as farmers threw eggs at police officers, set piles of hay and tires ablaze, honked their tractors’ horns and set off firecrackers. 

By midday, tractors were parked all along Rue de la Loi, with a crowd of protesters coming face to face with a police barricade halting them from reaching the European Commission.

“Farmers are desperate. We do not come here for our fun,” Leonardo van den Berg, board member of European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), told POLITICO. “The situation for farmers in Europe is really bad. We’re being marginalized.”

Tensions further escalated as the day went on, as protesters set fire to Schuman metro station, throwing debris down the stairs leading to the entrance. Police also deployed water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd and tame fires. 

Police said Tuesday that one person was detained “for throwing Molotov cocktails at the security forces” and that “several projectiles were thrown at the fire department and law enforcement officers.”

“Tear gas was also used and tractors were immobilized because people wanted to use tractors to force a police disposition,” Brussels Capital-Ixelles police said in a press release. “In addition, significant amounts of car tires, straw … were set on fire in various places.”

Police also confirmed that two police officers were injured and taken to the hospital. 

Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden condemned the riots Tuesday, saying that the “violence, arson and destruction” was “unacceptable.”

“I call for every effort to be made to identify the perpetrators as soon as possible,” she said. “This also allows the judiciary to send a clear signal to the perpetrators.”

By 4 p.m., police said tractors had started to leave.

Tuesday’s demonstration, which included members of the Federation of Young Farmers (FJA) and the left-wing United Federation of Breeders’ and Farmers’ Groups (FUGEA), a partner of ECVC, is the third to take place in Brussels this year alone. During February’s protest, farmers stormed police barricades as officers repelled them with water cannons.  

“We’re still here today because we think it’s important to keep the pressure and I hope that now they will finally listen to our demands,” van den Berg added. Those requests include a demand for fair prices for agricultural products, an end to free-trade agreements and a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

While farmers said some progress has been made since the protests began, it is still not enough.

“I feel they’re not listening,” van den Berg said. “They have made a step by starting to monitor now the price of agricultural production and also the margins that are being made on these products. What we want is that they also implement legislation that forbids the selling of products below the cost of production.”

A few steps away, EU agricultural ministers were meeting Tuesday to discuss the ongoing farmers’ struggle and strains on the agricultural market. It was a “busy agenda,” said Belgian Agriculture Minister David Clarinval, but one “which I hope will provide farmers with a concrete response.”

“Before the European elections, the aim is obviously to ensure that our agriculture remains competitive and that food sovereignty is maintained at European level, while ensuring fair remuneration for farmers,” Clarinval said.

Ahead of the ministerial meeting, deputy ambassadors — with the exception of Germany — endorsed the Commission’s proposal to relax green requirements linked to EU farming subsidies. European Parliament lawmakers will now pick up the file with the hope of approving the proposal in plenary by the end of April.

Several environmental and consumer rights organizations, however, have started questioning the legal validity of the process to overhaul the bloc’s farming subsidies, which “completely disregards established democratic principles of EU decision-making,” according to a letter sent on Monday to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

This story has been updated.

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