POLITICS

Tractors rumble in streets again ahead of EU polls. Farming is a big issue and the far right pounces

Jun 3, 2024, 9:08 PM

BEERSEL, Belgium (AP) — The far-right Flemish Interest party had set up the demonstration in the picture-pretty rolling fields south of Brussels, ahead of the four-day European Union election starting Thursday. The goal was clear: Decrying how farmers would lose fertile land to what they see as overbearing environmentalists trying to turn it into a chain of woods, killing off a traditional way of life.

It was also another show how agriculture has been instrumentalized by the populist and hard right groups throughout the 27-nation bloc.

In a final push on Tuesday, militant agricultural groups from more than a half dozen nations were converging on Brussels in a show of force that they hoped would sweep the progressive Green Deal climate pact off the table and give farmers the leeway they had for so long in deciding how to till the land. There too, the impact of the far right was clear, with representatives from several EU nations attending the protest that drew hundreds of tractors.

At last week’s small protest south of the capital, farmer Eduard Van Overstraeten was growling. “As a farmer, you have just been turned into a number,” he said. Of the 60 hectares (148 acres) he used to farm for wheat, corn and potatoes, he said he was forced to sell a quarter of it — including his farmhouse — to help make a string of distinct woods around Brussels to become one continuous nature zone to improve biodiversity and fight pollution.

Similar stories of discontent, centering on limiting use of manure and pesticides to forcing parts of farmland to be kept pristine nature zones for the benefit of birds and bees — and eventually the population at large — have driven this influential electoral base of conservative Christian Democrats further to the fringes of the right.

“Nobody defends us, so others have to come to power,” said Van Overstraeten.

And just as a wealthy think tank funded by the self-proclaimed illiberal Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has helped Tuesday’s and previous demonstrations in Brussels, it is the surging Flemish Interest party that does so at a local level.

“They are looking for another party that brings a credible story. And that is us,” said Klaas Slootmans, a parliamentarian for the Flemish Interest. “It is common sense that you need to protect farmers and food supplies.”

It is the crux of the political issue that pits farmers against environmentalists, the greens and much of the left against the populist and far-right forces: do you protect farmers and food supplies by giving farmers free rein to work as they see best? Or by hemming them in and imposing strict regulations to cut pollution and promote a life closer to nature that would contain the excesses of climate change?

Over the past year though, scientific arguments have taken a second seat to the rumble of the street.

Crucially, the center parties, especially the Christian Democrats, have started to dither and waver toward the right following months of unrelenting demonstrations across the bloc, with hundreds of tractors often blocking essential economic lifelines or many of the Europe’s great cities like Paris and Madrid.

As climate change, with droughts, heat waves, floods and fires, started to increasingly wreak havoc, the EU sought to bring tough laws as part of its Green Deal to make the bloc climate-neutral by 2050. Agriculture accounts for more than 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions, from sources such as the nitrous oxide in fertilizers, carbon dioxide from vehicles and methane from cattle.

For years the EU became the globe’s trendsetter which earned plenty of plaudits on the international stage, but lost its farming base, which was increasingly lost in myriad rules that sometimes pinpointed when could be sowed and reaped, and even had satellite surveillance to check on it. It was fodder for the extreme right, which railed in the European Parliament and in countless demonstrations about bureaucratic interference.

And at EU and national level, ambitious plans have already been curtailed. In the Netherlands, the new coalition plans are rife with measures that largely meet the demands of farmers and counter those of environmentalists. The coalition is dominated by the extreme right party of Geert Wilders.

The groundswell of defiance has driven many to a level of farming militancy not seen in decades. The Dutch Farmers Defense Force, which was behind Tuesday’s match, often calls its members “fighters,” and some of the demonstrations have resulted in violence.

Tuesday’s march was supposed to be the culminating point of the months of protests, with rumors of up to 100,000 protesters coming. It was a fraction of that.

Jos Ubels, the No. 2 of the FDF, blamed nature’s intervention. Much of Western Europe is going through its wettest spring in living memory and even in early June, land is unsown and blights are ravaging it, he said. “The weather has made it impossible.”

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Tractors rumble in streets again ahead of EU polls. Farming is a big issue and the far right pounces