Farmers in convoys of tractors created chaos outside the European Union’s headquarters on Thursday, pelting police with firecrackers, eggs and beer bottles as they demanded leaders at an EU summit provide relief from rising prices and bureaucracy.
With thick smoke from burning bales of hay hanging over parts of Belgian capital, security forces used water cannons to douse fires and keep a farmer from felling a tree on the steps of the European Parliament.
Thursday’s are the culmination of weeks of protests around the bloc, whose farmers say it’s becoming harder than ever to make a decent living as energy and fertilizer costs surge because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, more and cheaper farm imports make it hard to compete, and climate change-fueled droughts, floods or fires destroy crops.
Farmers are a key electoral group — both at the EU and national levels — and leaders have scrambled to respond to their demands ahead of EU parliamentary elections in June. In recent weeks, populist and hard-right politicians have latched on to the farmers’ plight.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced plans Wednesday to shield farmers from cheap imports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons. Earlier in the week, the government in France, where the protests have been particularly disruptive, showered farmers with promises of help, including emergency cash aid and controls on imported food.
The farmers also pushed their way onto the agenda at Thursday’s EU summit, which was supposed to be laser-focused on providing financial aid to Ukraine for its war against invading Russia. Leaders managed to quickly seal a deal on giving the war-torn country a new 50-billion-euro ($54 billion) support package — but Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the farmers’ demands need to be addressed.
“We also need to make sure that they can get the right price for the high quality products that they provide. We also need to make sure that the administrative burden that they have remains reasonable,” said De Croo, whose country currently holds the presidency of the EU.
It was not clear, however, if any concrete proposals would emerge from the meeting of the 27 leaders.
Jean-Francois Ricker, a farmer from southern Belgium, braved the winter night close to EU headquarters.
“There will be a lot of people. … We are going to show that we do not agree and that it is enough, but our aim is not to demolish everything,” he said as the rumble of tractor engines and blaring horns pierced Brussels’ early morning.
Similar protests — mostly attended by young farmers supporting families — have been held across the EU for much of the week. French farmers maintained traffic blockades Thursday on eight highways around Paris as well as on other major roads across the country. In Greece, farmers rallied outside an agricultural fair.
While the days of mushrooming discontent have been largely peaceful, French police arrested 91 protesters who forced their way into Europe’s biggest wholesale food market Wednesday, the Paris police chief said. Most have been released, though investigations will continue to identify those who caused damage, authorities said.
In addition to EU plans announced earlier this week, leaders have proposed other ways to help farmers.
On Thursday, some said they would not approve a trade deal with South American nations that is under consideration unless any imports would meet the same regulatory standards that EU farmers face, a key demand from the sector. And many promised to ease the red tape that often keeps farmers off their fields or barns.
“The priority for us should be implementing existing rules and regulations and not imposing new additional ones on farmers over the next couple of years,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, adding to a chorus of soothing words from leaders on the subject.