Home Society Fires and a toppled statue: Farmers clash with police by EU Parliament
Fires and a toppled statue: Farmers clash with police by EU Parliament

Fires and a toppled statue: Farmers clash with police by EU Parliament

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Fires and a toppled statue: Farmers clash with police by EU Parliament

BRUSSELS — Police fired water at protesting farmers who clogged the streets of Brussels with tractors, set bonfires and toppled a statue in front of the European Parliament on Thursday.

As EU heads of government met nearby in the capital, farmers from Belgium, Italy and Spain arrived at Place du Luxembourg to protest over their economic plight, which they say is being worsened by ever-stricter green rules handed down by Brussels.

Clouds of black smoke blanketed the normally quiet square, where farmers toppled one of the five statues from a plinth of the central statue of British 19th century industrialist John Cockerill.

To the piercing sound of explosions and tractor horns, farmers with muddy faces and dirty boots hurled insults at armed police who erected a barbed-wire barrier in front of the Parliament. Nearby farmers steadily added to a large bonfire, several of which burned across the square, and police fired a wobbly water hose in their direction.

Eddy Wax/POLITICO

The rowdy gathering followed weeks of protests across Europe by farmers who complain that the EU is tying them up with green bureaucracy as they struggle with falling incomes, high costs, and competition from cheap imports. Beyond the European capital, farmers in France seized and dumped Spanish produce, and blocked highways in Italy and Greece.

A Flemish farmer who refused to give his name said the “Irish” and “some French” farmers had pushed over the statue, the head of which was slowly roasting in one of the bonfires. Straw covered the streets and the grass on the square had been churned into a muddy mulch.

Italians from farmers’ lobby Coldiretti chanted: “This is not the Europe we want” and sang a call and response of, “No farmers! No food!”

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola sent a message to the farmers from the European Council meeting: “We see you, we hear you. If you want your voice to be heard, make it heard also in June, when you vote for the European Parliament elections,” she said.

The Maltese lawmaker argued that the farmers’ protests show that “we need to listen more” to some sectors of society before the election.

Taking a tougher line, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo condemned the toppling of the statue as “totally wrong.”

“We need to get away from the clash between agriculture and industry,” he posted on X. “Farmers and entrepreneurs are not opposites. We need both for a strong and sustainable economy.”

Border trouble

Protests around Europe have escalated too, with French farmers resorting to direct action to make themselves heard.

Seventy-nine farmers were arrested on Wednesday after breaking into the country’s largest wholesale food market on the outskirts of Paris. In the Drôme region, south of Lyon, farmers blockading the highway have stopped and emptied trucks coming from Spain and Italy in order, they say, to give away the food to charitable organizations.

“We want to show that goods which could be produced in France are being imported,” Vladimir Gauthier, a local member of the Young Farmers movement, told POLITICO.

Italian farmers have joined their counterparts across Europe, blocking motorways, historic centers and wholesale vegetable markets from Calabria to Lombardy, with their tractors. And in Greece, farmers converged on the northern city of Thessaloniki.

“There is no liquidity at the moment, the cost of production is exorbitant,” Efthimis Mamekas, a farmer from Trikala, told state TV. “Most of Greece is rural families, they must understand us.”

Do not approach

In Brussels, police with handguns and riot shields guarded the EU assembly, where officials were warned not to attend due to the unrest. “It is recommended to telework,” staff were told in an email seen by POLITICO. “It is strongly recommended not to approach the demonstrations and not to take photos,” the institution informed them in another email.

The center-right European People’s Party canceled a meeting of its heads of government and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen due to security concerns created by the protests.

Despite the chaotic scenes, there was a festive atmosphere at the protest. A woman from a Belgian workers’ union joked: “In my old age, I’m going to find an Italian farmer.”

Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Flemish farmers sat near the bonfire where the fallen statute was lying, drinking Jupiler beers, laughing and sitting on metal chairs taken from nearby cafés.

But it also had a darker edge.

A Flemish farmer, who gave his family name as Brecht, said he was waiting for a permit to grow organic green table grapes, said: “I’m a victim of the regulation soup and the tyranny coming from the ivory towers.”

He admitted he didn’t know much about the EU’s Green Deal, a raft of regulatory measures to make the Continent climate-neutral by 2050, which has given exemptions to agriculture. Holding an EU flag, he said that he had perched a placard on the statue of Cockerill that says: “People of Europe say no to despotism.”

Farmers across Europe hope to secure concessions from EU governments. The European Commission announced Wednesday a one-year pause to the requirement for farmers to leave a small section of land unplanted on their farms, one of the EU’s requirements for farmers to receive subsidies under the giant Common Agricultural Policy.

Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Rainbow alliance

The farmers present were as politically diverse as the MEPs who sit inside the chamber. Left-leaning farmers from the umbrella organization Via Campesina protested against the EU’s liberal trade policy and warned about the rise of the far-right across Europe. Traditional farmers’ lobbies such as ASAJA from Spain were also out in force.

French Green MEP Benoît Biteau said he wanted the EU to put a stop to negotiations on the giant Mercosur trade deal. “We hope that [French President Emmanuel Macron] will not only ask for postponement until the election, but for true stop in the negotiation,” said Biteau, who is himself a farmer in southwest France.

Far-left MEPs like Spain’s Manu Pineda and far-right MEPs like Estonia’s Jaak Madison also took to the square to be filmed in front of the bonfires.

Not all of the farmers who turned out in Brussels wanted to lay bonfires or trash monuments: Camille Cossement, a 24-year-old Belgian dairy farmer, said she felt out of place but acknowledged that “problems are common for everyone.” 

As cameras captured images of the fires and vandalism, Cossement said it was time to restore the dignity of her profession. “Nowadays, farming is not really a job that makes you human,” she said. “Human dignity is kind of lost in all of this.”

Additional reporting by Victor Goury-Laffont in Paris, Hannah Roberts in Rome and Nektaria Stamouli in Athens.

This story has been updated.

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