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Why EU conservatives are targeting the farmers’ vote

Why EU conservatives are targeting the farmers’ vote

by host

Of the nearly 400 million eligible voters in the EU, only about 9 million work in agriculture — but their vote is the one to get ahead of next year’s European election.

As political parties across the bloc switch into campaign mode ahead of the 2024 ballot, European conservatives are mounting a campaign to secure the farmers’ vote in a bid to capitalize on discontent with green policies.

The European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament and an umbrella for the political center right, has seized on new legislation to boost nature restoration — which is currently under negotiation — as a way to portray itself as defending farmers’ interests in Brussels.

The campaign is a strategic one, experts say.

Farmers are a tiny constituency, but they are an incredibly vocal and powerful one, said Wouter van der Brug, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam.

Their plight also attracts sympathy — and taps into broader discontent over the rapid pace of change as Europe pushes through green legislation aimed at tackling climate change.

“Many people sympathize with farmers, not just in rural areas, but also in smaller cities, in more peripheral areas,” increasing their importance in elections, said van der Brug.

“The proposed reforms of the farming industry are a symbol of those rapid changes that people object to,” he explained.

Defending farmers has already proved to be an election winner in the Netherlands, where the farmer-friendly FarmerCitizenMovement landed a major victory in provincial elections in March off the back of a campaign against the government’s clampdown on nitrogen emissions from farms.

Europe’s center-right parties — after dominating EU politics for decades — “are afraid they’re losing support, not just among the farmers … but among a wider segment of their voters,” said van der Brug. “They’re losing to new parties or to the radical right.”

According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, the EPP could get 161 seats in the 2024 European election, down from its current 177 seats. The European Conservatives and Reformists, meanwhile, stand to win an extra 13 seats and the far-right Identity and Democracy group could gain five.

Dutch EPP MEP Esther de Lange denies that her group is pushing back against the nature restoration law for electoral gain. “I’ve heard this line, it’s a very easy line,” she told a press conference Wednesday.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

“If I wanted to be a populist and score easy points in the elections in the Netherlands, I would have gone full frontal against the Green Deal. I didn’t,” she added, referring to the EPP’s overall support for the Commission’s Fit for 55 package of climate legislation.

‘Center of attention’

Nature restoration measures have also become a hot topic in national and regional elections across Europe — including in Belgium and Spain — suggesting that the EPP has hit on a hot-button issue.

“You cannot deny that the farmers vote, but more broadly, that rural areas are becoming very much a center of political attention for political parties across Europe,” said Tom Vandenkendelaere, a Belgian MEP who sits with the EPP and is a member of the Flemish conservative party CD&V.

“There is nothing wrong with” going after the farm vote, Vandenkendelaere said. His party, the CD&V, is trying to provide solutions to a perception that quality of life in rural areas is in decline, he added.

Farmers in his constituency complain about “ever more obligations coming their way and not as much compensation for the efforts they’re doing” in implementing new climate regulations.

“If you throw into that volcanic situation free-trade agreements, nature legislation, rising energy prices, general market insecurity,” he said, “you get a toxic mix.”

The EPP says twin proposals to restore the bloc’s natural areas and reduce pesticide use threaten Europe’s food security, while burdening farmers with new green obligations and taking away their land — something the European Commission, backed by scores of scientists, disputes.

Last month, the party banded together with the Parliament’s more fringe right-wing groups — the Euroskeptic European Conservatives and Reformists and the far-right Identity and Democracy — to reject the proposal in the agriculture and fisheries committees, then walked out of negotiations in the environment committee.

Risky tactic

The EPP’s decision to move right in its search for allies to block the EU’s nature restoration rules — a key part of the Green Deal — has ruffled feathers.

Terry Reintke, who leads the Greens group in the Parliament, called it a “very dangerous move,” stressing that the Green Deal is not only about fighting climate change but also biodiversity loss.

Iratxe García Pérez, the head of the Socialists & Democrats group, warned that “land conservation and agricultural activities cannot be election bait.”

Right-wing politicians are posing a “false dilemma” between “supporting farmers and protecting the environment,” she added, asking: “What kind of future will agriculture have if climate change denial is turning our ecosystems into deserts?”

The EPP’s tactics also put it at odds with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a fellow member of the conservative group who has staked her legacy on pushing through the Green Deal.

Some warn that the EPP’s anti-Green Deal strategy could prove counterproductive, as it risks turning off other key demographics.

“The EPP strategy could backfire because, thanks to the Green Deal, the group has also gained voters — especially among younger people and people living in cities,” said Filipe Ataíde Lampe, project manager at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank.

“The war in Ukraine will play a major role in the European elections, but climate and biodiversity will as well,” he added.

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