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Frustrated EU Farmers Rebel   04/18 05:32

   

   ANDEREN, Netherlands (AP) -- Inside the barn on the flat fields of the 
northern Netherlands, Jos Ubels cradles a newborn Blonde d'Aquitaine calf, the 
latest addition to his herd of over 300 dairy cattle.

   Little could be more idyllic.

   Little, says Ubels, could be more under threat.

   As Europe seeks to address the threat of climate change, it's imposing more 
rules on farmers like Ubels. He spends a day a week on bureaucracy, answering 
the demands of European Union and national officials who seek to decide when 
farmers can sow and reap, and how much fertilizer or manure they can use.

   Meanwhile, competition from cheap imports is undercutting prices for their 
produce, without having to meet the same standards. Mainstream political 
parties failed to act on farmers' complaints for decades, Ubels says. Now the 
radical right is stepping in.

   Across much of the 27-nation EU, from Finland to Greece, Poland to Ireland, 
farmers' discontent is gathering momentum as June EU parliamentary elections 
draw near.

   Ubels is the second in command of the Farmers Defense Force, one of the most 
prominent groups to emerge from the foment. The FDF, whose symbol is a crossed 
double pitchfork, was formed in 2019 and has since expanded to Belgium. It has 
ties to similar groups elsewhere in the EU and is a driving force behind a 
planned June 4 demonstration in Brussels it hopes will bring 100,000 people to 
the EU capital and help define the outcome of the elections.

   "It is time that we fight back," said Ubels. "We're done with quietly 
listening and doing what we are told."

   Has he lost trust in democracy? "No. ... I have lost my faith in politics. 
And that is one step removed."

   The FDF itself puts it more ominously on its website: "Our confidence in the 
rule of law is wavering!"

   This story, supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, is part 
of an ongoing Associated Press series covering threats to democracy in Europe.

   'DON'T LET UP!'

   In March, protesting farmers from Belgium ran amok at a demonstration 
outside EU headquarters in Brussels, setting fire to a subway station entrance 
and attacking police with eggs and liquid manure. In France, protesters tried 
to storm a government building.

   In a video from another protest, in front of burning tires and pallets, FDF 
leader Mark van den Oever said two politicians made him sick to his stomach, 
saying they would "soon be at the center of attention." The FDF denies this was 
a threat of physical violence.

   Across the EU, over the winter, tractor convoys blockaded ports and major 
roads, sometimes for days, in some of the most severe farm protests in half a 
century.

   Farmers and the EU have had a sometimes testy relationship. What's new is 
the shift toward the extreme right.

   Destitute after World War II and with hunger still a scourge in winter, 
Europe desperately needed food security. The EU stepped in, securing abundant 
food for the population, turning the sector into an export powerhouse and 
currently funding farmers to the tune of over 50 billion euros a year.

   Yet, despite agriculture's strategic importance, the EU acknowledges that 
farmers earn about 40% less than non-farm workers, while 80% of support goes to 
a privileged 20% of farmers. Many of the bloc's 8.7 million farm workers are 
close to or below the poverty line.

   At the same time, the EU is seeking to push through stringent nature and 
agricultural 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.

   Cutting these emissions has forced short-notice changes on farmers at a time 
of financial insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic and surging inflation have 
increased the cost of goods and labor, while farmers' earnings are down as 
squeezed consumers cut back.

   And then there's the war next door. After Russia's full-scale invasion in 
February 2022, the EU granted tariff-free access for agricultural imports from 
Ukraine, many of them exempt from the strict environmental standards the bloc 
enforces on its own producers. Imports surged from 7 billion euros in 2021 to 
13 billion euros the following year, causing gluts and undercutting farmers, 
particularly in Poland.

   "Don't let up," Marion Marchal, the lead candidate for France's extreme 
right Reconquest! party in the June elections, exhorted farmers at a protest 
earlier this year. "You have to be in the streets. You have to make yourself 
heard. You have to ---" she tried to finish the sentence but was drowned out by 
shouts of "Don't Let Up! Don't Let Up!"

   FERTILE GROUND

   Farming in Europe is about more than just food; it touches on identity. In 
France, the far right taps into the love of "terroir," that mythical 
combination of soil, location, culture and climate.

   "The French realize that the farmers are the roots of our society," said 
Marchal.

   Such sentiments echo across Europe. In Ireland, where more than a million 
people died in the famine of 1845-1852, farming "is deep in our culture, in our 
psyche," said Environment Minister Eamon Ryan, a Green Party lawmaker.

   The far right has used farming as a way to attack mainstream parties. In 
Italy, the far right has mocked the EU's efforts to promote a low-carbon diet, 
playing on farmers' fears that lab-grown proteins and insects could one day 
replace meat.

   "Revolt is the language of those who are not listened to. Now, back off," 
warned far-right Italian lawmaker Nicola Procaccini in February. In a few 
months, he said, the European elections "will put people back in place of 
ideologies."

   Such calls fall on fertile ground. According to predictions by the European 
Council on Foreign Relations, the radical right Identity and Democracy group 
could become the third biggest overall in the next European Parliament, behind 
the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, but edging out the Liberals and 
Greens. The farm protests are providing vital leverage.

   A SPADE IS A SPADE

   One farmer sidestepping militant demonstrations is Bart Dochy in western 
Belgium. As the Christian Democrat mayor of the farming town of Ledegem and a 
regional parliamentarian in Flanders, he represents the traditional forces in 
European farming communities: Christianity and conservativism. When Socialism 
took the big cities, the countryside and its farmers remained staunchly 
Christian Democrat.

   That's now changed. Once, billboards with the cry, "Save our farmers!" would 
have come from his party; now, they bear the logo of the far-right Flemish 
Interest, predicted by polls to become the biggest party in Belgium in June.

   "In a sense it is only logical that the extreme parties have specialized in 
capturing that discontent. They call a spade a spade. And that is good," he 
said. But farming is complicated, he warned: nature, trade, budgets, commodity 
prices and geopolitics are all involved. Solutions will have to come from 
common sense, "not from the extremes."

   Dochy's Christian Democrats are part of the biggest group in the EU 
parliament, the European People's Party, once a strong proponent of the EU's 
Green Deal. Farmers, after all, are among the biggest losers from climate 
change, affected at different times by flooding, wildfires, drought and extreme 
temperatures.

   But ever since the demonstrations started, EU politics on agriculture and 
climate have shifted rightwards, outraging many of the center right's old 
allies with whom it set up the Green Deal. Measures to reduce pesticide use and 
protect biodiversity have been weakened, while the protesters' demands to cut 
regulation have been heard.

   But as the rhetoric heats up, so too does the climate. Data for early 2024 
shows record-breaking temperatures in Europe. In Greece -- where an estimated 
1,750 square kilometers (675 square miles) burned in 2023, the worst fire in EU 
records -- wildfires are already breaking out, weeks earlier than expected.

   The far right offers no detailed solutions to the climate crisis but it has 
proved adept at tapping into farmers' frustrations. In its program for the June 
elections, the Dutch far-right party, the PVV, is short on details but big on 
slogans about "climate hysteria" and its "tsunami of rules." Nature and climate 
laws, it said, "should not lead to whole sectors being forced into bankruptcy."

   Ubels made the case for farmers' realpolitik.

   "The government doesn't listen to us, but the opposition does," he said.

 
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