Angry farmers have started fires outside the European Parliament building in Brussels in protest against taxes, rising costs and cheap imports.
About 1,000 tractors have blocked major routes through the city, police estimate, with one displaying a banner reading “if you love the Earth, support those who manage it”.
Another banner read “no farmers, no food”, while others in the crowd threw eggs at the European Parliament building.
Officers in riot gear are guarding barriers where leaders are due to meet near parliament, with tractors parked in a central square.
“If you see with how many people we are here today, and if you see it’s all over Europe, so you must have hope,” said Kevin Bertens, a farmer from just outside Brussels.
“We must have hope that these people see that farming is necessary – it’s the food, you know.”
Farmers say they are choked by taxes and green rules, face unfair competition from abroad and aren’t paid enough.
The heart of Brussels has been turned into a cauldron
Ahead of us, a ring of police protecting the European Parliament while acrid smoke billows over our heads. Firecrackers go off all the time, near and far.
The very heart of Brussels, normally populated by politicians, advisors and smooth-suited lobbyists, has been transformed into a cauldron.
A firecracker explodes too near for comfort. On the other side of Place Luxembourg, a hay bale is on fire. Next to it, a green flare has gone off. Then someone throws a rubber tyre on to the smouldering fire and thick black smoke starts filling the air.
To be in the middle of Brussels right now is a visceral experience of noise, smell, heat and sights. And lacing it all, a sense of tension between those who have come to protest, and those who stand in their way.
And amid all of this acrimony, Europe’s leaders are arriving in town.
At the European Council building, just a short stroll from the Parliament, the EU’s presidents and prime ministers are gathering to discuss a variety of topics, including their budget and their ongoing support for Ukraine – fitting, because the benevolent decision to allow Ukrainian agricultural exports to enter Europe is another recurring gripe among farmers.
What isn’t on the agenda of these EU leaders is the question of how to handle their angry farmers.
But in the margins, surely, it will come up.
Firecrackers are loud, and the smoke is thick. Even the most blinkered leader will find it hard to ignore what is happening on the streets outside.
The farmers have already secured several measures, including EU proposals to limit farm imports from Ukraine and loosen some environmental regulations on fallow lands.
In France, where protests have been ongoing for weeks, the government promised more aid and dropped plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel.
The impact of protests has been felt in France, with blockades across the country reportedly hitting work that relies on transport.
Eric Hemar, the head of a federation of transport and logistics employers, told franceinfo a poll among members showed they have lost about 30% of their revenue over the past 10 days.
Elections on horizon
While the issues around farming are not on the agenda for the meeting – which is focused on aid for Ukraine – Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo suggested leaders will now discuss the situation.
“We also need to make sure that they can get the right price for the high-quality products that they provide,” he added.
“We also need to make sure that the administrative burden that they have remains reasonable.”
European Parliament elections are set for June this year, with far-right parties – which increasingly attract farmers – possibly making gains.
Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, who EU leaders are trying to convince to back funding plans for Ukraine, met farmers overnight.
“We need to find new leaders who truly represent the interests of the people,” his spokesman sad.
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