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Europe’s Farmer Protests: the intersection of agriculture, climate policy, far-right politics, and EU legitimacy

Marina Daley

Source: Hatim Kaghat via AP Images

Farmers all over Europe are protesting in droves, rolling their tractors into cities, protesting based on perceived excessive regulation, notably climate and environmental measures and unfair competition from non-European Union (EU) imports. These protests have emerged as the first significant opposition to the ambitious climate policies of the EU. Agricultural workers in 11 European countries have disrupted traffic, including blocking borders, spraying manure, and dumping rotting produce, to express their discontent. These protests are likely to influence the June 2024 European Parliament elections, as they could reshape European policy, potentially rolling back the ambitious green transition policies that the EU has been embarking on. For the elections, there are expectations of a shift to the right, with increased support for populist, far-right parties, as they take advantage of the outrage highlighted through the farmers against EU overreach, with its ambitious action to tackle climate change. This fracturing of consensus around enforcement of policies around the European Green Deal demonstrates the farmers’ influence and highlights the risks of other groups, who similarly see themselves disadvantaged from the transition, to impact European politics. This also sparks the debate on the future of the green transition and the need for a more inclusive transition rather than one splintered by political division.


Why are the Farmers Protesting?


The protests highlight a range of grievances among farmers, including concerns about the ambitiousness of EU climate targets, as it aligns policy with its 2050 climate neutrality strategy and nature restoration laws to protect biodiversity. As the EU needs to reduce emissions by 55 percent by 2030, there is pressure to cut emissions in agriculture, especially considering that it comprises 11 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions in the EU since 2005. This has cascading implications on domestic government policies, such as the proposed tax cut removal on diesel for farmers and obligation to maintain four percent of unused farmland, with farmers objecting to the burdens arising from rising sustainability ambitions in this sector. They also claim that low costs imports from Ukraine are reducing farmer’s incomes, and are concerned around the revitalised interest in concluding a trade deal with Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, as it would open the market to goods that farmers claim do not meet strict EU standards, reaffirming how it would make their products uncompetitive. Although agriculture is a small part of the EU economy, contributing 1.4% of total EU GDP, 4.2% of EU’s employment, their protests resonate in rural Europe, where EU scepticism is significantly higher than in cities. France, Germany, Spain, and Poland are the biggest sellers of agricultural products, seeing the largest amount of protest activity during recent times. These protests reflect an emergent concern regarding the costs and effects of the green transition, especially by those who fear they will be left behind.


Implications for European Parliament Elections


With upcoming European Parliament elections in June, mainstream parties have backslided on many climate policies to hinder populist and far-right party support. As the European Parliament elections are the only way that citizens can directly influence EU institutions, the outcome of this election is important in shaping the EU and influencing its legislative agenda. To placate the angry farmers and receive rural support, the EU has withdrawn regulations which halve the use of pesticides by 2030 and delayed new anti-deforestation policy alongside weakening other green policies. Through retrenching the ambition of green regulation, the EU is aiming to avert the predicted shift to populist radical right parties. However, it may be too late as their increasing support cannot be ignored, already demonstrated by the ruling governments of Italy, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands. Additionally, the far-right has successfully co-opted farmer’s indignations to be propelled into the mainstream against the burdens around the green transition. This reflects a larger trend of far-right parties using policies towards climate as a political tool to win support through misinformation. The recent electoral gain for Alternative for Germany (AfD) centred around opposition over the phaseout for heat pumps to align Germany with its emissions targets, where it was able to argue about the costs of green technology, twisting a debate about heat pumps for electoral success. This reflects the trend in climate backsliding across Europe, denouncing climate policies they see as expensive and harmful to the average voter and taking advantage of established parties unable to manage farmer’s dismay. Overall, if populist and far-right parties do win support in the elections, it will make parliamentary approval processes more difficult, but also potentially more democratic, as they would be able to voice the desires of their constituents to influence policy. Nonetheless, this would mark a change in the EU – its previous pro-climate policy consensus is likely to shift in a new direction, alongside policies on immigration, undermining the core values that underpin the EU.


Challenges to EU’s Legitimacy and a Just Transition


The expected changing tide may surprisingly increase the EU’s legitimacy. The mainstream parties which have historically formed the majority in the EU have been facing challenges in maintaining legitimacy in light of the increasing belief that they are not providing relevant policy alternatives. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, support for both soft and hard Eurosceptic parties have been increasing, from 12 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2022. Although the failures of Brexit allayed support for leaving the EU, support for mainstream parties decreased, seeing a rise of far-right and green parties. The rise of the far-right can also be attributed to the blowback of the green parties’ success in the 2019 European Parliament elections which influenced the leadership of the EU towards more progressive green policy. Although the rise of the far-right is attributed to economic inequality, increasing xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment, the discontent with the status quo can also be attributed to shortfalls in democratic participation between citizens and the EU as they feel distanced from institutions and policy makers. The EU’s reactionary initiation of Strategic Dialogue on the Future of Agriculture in January and rollback in green policy as a result of the farmer protests demonstrates the blindingly obvious neglect of democratic participation in the climate transition. Although the EU has provided greater funding to offset the costs of the climate transition, there is a need for more democratic participation in the green transition to ensure fairness through minimising the losers. The protests highlight the importance of a just transition to a green economy, ensuring that all stakeholders are considered and that there is broad consensus on climate policies. It is likely that as non-European countries transition their economies, there will be similar climate backlash from interest groups unless efforts towards developing broad consensus through democratic consultation are enacted. Japan's Green Growth Strategy, the UK's Net Zero Strategy, and the US’ Green New Deal may see similar obstacles to enforcement. Here, the recognition of the need for consensus and cooperation to address the challenges of climate change and transition to a sustainable future is needed.


Conclusion


The European farmers’ protests paint a complex picture of the politics surrounding agriculture, climate policy, and democratic engagement in the EU, thus highlighting concerns over the ambitious climate targets set by the EU and their impact on agriculture. These protests reflect broader challenges to democratic engagement within the EU, as mainstream parties navigate the political landscape ahead of European Parliament elections. As populist and far-right parties exploit discontent over climate policies to gain support, it is likely that the outcome of the European Parliament elections will signify a decline in the EU's pro-climate policy consensus. These protests underscore the importance of a just transition to a green economy, ensuring the inclusion of all stakeholders and broad consensus on climate policies, and countries navigating potential reversals of climate policy ambition. This is likely to be a salient issue, as the world transitions to a net-zero 2050.


 

Marina is a recent Master of International Relations graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she also completed a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Politics. Currently based in Madrid, where she completed an exchange year at the Autonomous University of Madrid. Her interests are in political economy, specifically trade, and sustainability. She completed an internship with EY in their sustainability and climate change team and was a member of AMP’s Youth Advisory Committee.

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