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Farmers converge on EU’s headquarters in fresh show of force

Police carrying riot gear patrolled near barricades set up at the main entry points to the European Council building.

A protest by farmers outside a meeting of EU agriculture ministers in Brussels (Sylvain Plazy/AP)
A protest by farmers outside a meeting of EU agriculture ministers in Brussels A protest by farmers outside a meeting of EU agriculture ministers in Brussels (Sylvain Plazy/AP) (Sylvain Plazy/AP)

The European Union’s headquarters has been surrounded by concrete barriers and barbed wire as farmers angry at red tape and competition from cheap imports drove their tractors into Brussels in a fresh show of force.

The action by the farmers came amid a meeting of the bloc’s agriculture ministers.

Police carrying riot gear patrolled near barricades set up at the main entry points to the European Council building, where the 27-nation bloc’s agriculture ministers were gathering.

Scores of tractors adorned with flags and banners were ranked in lines, halting city traffic.

Police face farmers and tractors at a security checkpoint in Brussels (Nicolas Landemard/AP)
Police face farmers and tractors at a security checkpoint in Brussels Police face farmers and tractors at a security checkpoint in Brussels (Nicolas Landemard/AP) (Nicolas Landemard/AP)

Some lamented what they see as the slow death of working the land.

“Agriculture. As a child you dream of it, as an adult you die of it,” said one.

Farmers dumped a trailer load of tyres close to the European Council building, and police brought in water cannons before the piles of rubber were set on fire.

At the start of the month, a similar demonstration turned violent as farmers set fire to hay bales and threw eggs at police near a summit of EU leaders.

“We are getting ignored,” said Marieke Van De Vivere, a farmer from the Ghent region in northern Belgium.

Tractors parked behind a blockade during a protest in Brussels (Nicolas Landemard/AP)
Tractors parked behind a blockade during a protest in Brussels Tractors parked behind a blockade during a protest in Brussels (Nicolas Landemard/AP) (Nicolas Landemard/AP)

She invited the ministers “to be reasonable to us, to come with us on a day to work on the field, or with the horses or with the animals, to see that it is not very easy… because of the rules they put on us”.

The protests are the latest in a series of rallies and demonstrations by farmers across Europe.

On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron was greeted with boos and whistles at the opening of the Paris Agricultural Fair by farmers who claim that he is not doing enough to support them.

Spain, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have been hit by protests in recent weeks.

The movement has gathered pace as political parties campaign for Europe-wide elections on June 6-9.

It has already had results. Earlier this month, the EU’s executive branch shelved an anti-pesticide proposal in a concession to the farmers, which make up an important voting constituency.

On the other side of the barriers in Brussels, ministers were keen to show they are listening.

Protesters light fires during a demonstration by farmers in Brussels (Harry Nakos/AP)
Protesters light fires during a demonstration by farmers in Brussels Protesters light fires during a demonstration by farmers in Brussels (Harry Nakos/AP) (Harry Nakos/AP)

The EU presidency, currently held by Belgium, acknowledged that the farmers’ concerns include the burden of respecting environmental policies, a drop in assistance from the bloc’s agricultural subsidy system and the impact of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s grain supplies.

“We hear, clearly, their complaints,” said David Clarinval, Belgium’s agriculture minister. Still, he urged them to refrain from violence. “We can understand that some are in difficult circumstances, but aggression has never been a source for solutions.”

French agriculture minister Marc Fesneau told the few reporters who were permitted by police to enter the building that “there’s a need to send signals immediately to tell farmers that something is changing, not only in the short term, but also in the medium and long term”.

Irish agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue said the priority must be to slash administrative red tape.

The EU should ensure that policies are “straightforward, that they’re proportionate and they’re as simple as possible for farmers to implement”, he said.

Mr McConalogue underlined that “we do respect the massively important work that farmers carry out every day in terms of producing food”.