Across more than 20 European countries this year, farmers have organized major—in some cases, spectacular—protests. In Spain, they destroyed truckloads of tomatoes imported from Morocco. In Poland, they drove some 500 tractors to a demonstration in Wrocław, where they threw eggs at a European Commission office. In France, about 1,000 protested in Toulouse, dumping rotten produce and manure in front of various government buildings. And in Germany, after weeks of organized protests, they strew manure on a highway outside Berlin, which ended up causing car crashes and seriously injuring five people.

Meanwhile, farmers have also managed to coordinate demonstrations across the continent. In February, they blocked roads in Spain, Belgium, Greece, Poland, Moldova, and Bulgaria, shutting down border crossings along with Europe’s second-largest port, Antwerp. The same month, farmers from a number of nearby countries drove some 1,300 tractors into Brussels, the seat of the European Union, throwing eggs and stones at the European Parliament; setting fire to hay and piles of manure in front of the building; and, in a variation on a theme, spraying local police with liquid manure. What is all this?

Matthias Matthijs is the Dean Acheson associate professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. As Matthijs explains, the farmers are responding to a set of interconnected issues, all tracing back to the continent’s difficult-to-sustain agricultural economy—even as the protests themselves target new climate policies that would drive up farmers’ already high production costs.

The protests are succeeding, too, with governments repeatedly agreeing either to delay or to soften the climate regulations the farmers oppose. In the meantime, farmers remain immensely popular across Europe, including its cities. They’re also increasingly popular with, and attracted to, Europe’s growing populist right. After decades of mostly backing center-right Christian Democratic parties, European farmers are responding more and more to populist-right emphatic support for traditional values and unrelenting opposition to foreign goods. And as the populist right prepares to become the largest bloc in the European Parliament after EU elections in June, the farmers’ priorities are apt only to feature more prominently among the EU’s.

Michael Bluhm: What set these protests off?

David Marcu

Matthias Matthijs: European farmers have felt under siege for a long time now. Without the massive government interventions supporting them—mandated by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy—they couldn’t compete with cheaper imports from lower-income countries with lower labor costs. So European agriculture isn’t what you’d call a free, competitive market. And for decades, the subsidies supporting it have gotten less and less generous. This was always going to come to a head.

Over the last few years, though, four big changes have really accelerated things.

The first is European farmers’ rising debt—significantly worsened by Covid, when farmers didn’t get nearly the government support the services sector did. Farmers who sold produce for export and to the hospitality industry were hit hardest, as those markets largely collapsed. But ultimately, all farmers were hurt by the drop in food prices caused by the glut of supply on the market.

The second is the war in Ukraine. As soon as Russia invaded, the EU granted Ukrainian grain access to the European single market without tariffs, triggering a huge drop in prices.

Third, there’s been increasing competition beyond Ukrainian grain. European farmers just can’t compete on price as imported food gets cheaper and cheaper.

There’s an enormous extent of sympathy for farmers. French public-opinion polls, for example, show support for them at more than 80 percent. Polish numbers are similar.

And finally, there are new Climate regulations. These regulations have been phased in slowly, so farmers weren’t worried about them at first—until the rules started hitting their bottom lines. Now the EU is getting more serious about controlling greenhouse-gas emissions—for instance, by lowering subsidies for diesel fuel and nitrogen for fertilizer. And Farmers are feeling squeezed.

Not only squeezed but targeted—they’re feeling their governments and fellow citizens in urban centers don’t have any investment in or respect for the life of the countryside. So the farmers’ anxiety and anger have started to turn into cultural grievances.

Bluhm: How do you understand their opposition to new European climate regulations? Do farmers tend specifically to oppose individual policies or do they tend generally to oppose climate policy and green technology as a whole?

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