The farmers travelled across Europe to make their presence known in Brussels, but they needn’t have bothered.
The EU is already painfully aware of the populist rebellion bubbling up against its net zero plans after a string of dramatic tractor protests that threaten to mushroom into a continent-wide movement as June’s European elections approach.
Disruptive farmers’ protests are nothing new in Europe, but this is different.
Tractors are or have been on the march in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Belgium, and, crucially, the Netherlands.
Would tractor protests have become so ubiquitous were it not for the Dutch farmers, whose fight captured the attention of the likes of Donald Trump and Elon Musk?
While grassroots uprisings like France’s “gilets jaunes” inspired their share of copycat movements, they did not enjoy the same success as the Dutch last year.
Dutch voters headed to the polls in regional elections in March for a vote that was overshadowed by demonstrations against EU climate targets for nitrogen reduction.
The farmers – in the world’s second-largest agricultural exporting country – were particularly incensed at the plans of Mark Rutte, the prime minister, to buy out and shut down farms to hit the targets.
Their demonstrations, despite occasional outbreaks of violence and accusations that the far-Right had infiltrated the movement, struck a chord far beyond their rural base.
Urban voters were tired of Mr Rutte, the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history, and the elections became an effective referendum on his 13 years in office.
Political earthquake in Netherlands
In them, voters turned to the Farmers-Citizen Movement (BBB), a party closely associated with the protests.
Launched in 2019, it had a single MP, its leader and founder Caroline van der Plas, a journalist and farmer’s daughter.
But it won a landslide victory in the regional elections to become the largest party in all 12 Dutch provinces.
The political earthquake shook Mr Rutte’s coalition government, which collapsed in a row over migration in July, leading to a general election in December.
That brought another major upset. The winner by a distance in the general election was veteran Right-winger Geert Wilders.
The anti-migrant nationalist is a fierce critic of Islam, and of the EU. A supporter of a Nexit referendum, Mr Wilders has also called for the Netherlands to quit the Paris climate change agreement.
The BBB were leading in the polls before Mr Rutte resigned, but lost ground to the controversial Mr Wilders.
Nonetheless, it won seven seats, a jump of six, in the Dutch parliament and is in the mix to be part of a future Wilders-led coalition government of Right-wing parties.
That success was even sweeter for the BBB because of the defeat handed to Frans Timmermans, who led an alliance of Left-wing and green parties in the election.
Mr Timmermans quit his job as the EU’s climate chief to fight the campaign but was beaten into a distant second place by Mr Wilders.
“The farmers’ actions, which gave birth to the BBB, and their success, has inspired other farmers’ organisations abroad,” said Andre Krouwel, who teaches political science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Social media and the dominance of the populist Right on those platforms had played a part, he added.
“The narrative of farmers has become connected to a more general story about decline of national symbols, of national landscapes, of national traditional ways of life […] a kind of nostalgic nationalism,” he added.
This, he said, had combined with the cost of living crisis and the rising cost of food to transform once popular green policies into “bread and butter” economic policies.
“The reason why we see this enormous mobilisation and support for farmers is the economic vulnerability of people assuming these environmental policies will hit them in their wallets,” Mr Krouwel said.
He predicted the movement would continue to spread across Europe from its source in the Netherlands, which he said was “a Petri dish for political experiments” thanks to its low vote threshold, which encourages new parties.
Once the genie escaped from the Dutch political laboratory, there were swiftly copycat anti-nitrogen cut protests among farmers in neighbouring Flanders.
Macron fears rise of ‘gilets verts’
Those were dwarfed by demonstrations that have erupted in France, which have already left two dead. A car rammed into a famers’ roadblock on Tuesday, killing a woman and her teenage daughter and seriously injuring her husband.
Emmanuel Macron, the president, has ordered Gabriel Attal, 34, the country’s new prime minister, to focus on quelling a potential “jacquerie” (peasant’s revolt).
He fears the threat of a “gilets verts” movement, a revolt among farmers along the lines of the “gilets jaunes” rebellion that saw protests against fuel tax hikes around the country in 2018.
On Monday, a group of farmers blocked access to the Golfech nuclear power plant in the southwestern Tarn département. Farmers have also been blocking the A62 and A20 motorways in southwestern France for the past four days.
An explosion damaged a government building near Carcassonne related to the environmental transition ministry last weekend. Graffiti with the word CAV, a militant wing of wine unions notorious for violent action, was found inside.
The country’s second biggest union, CGT, has promised “spectacular action across France” while FNSEA, the biggest farmer’s union, also said it was mulling protests.
Against a backdrop of fears that the farming unions are being “overwhelmed by grassroots” anger, one minister cited by Le Parisien spoke of a “wind of panic” in the cabinet.
After this unprecedented week of protest action, Mr Attal on Friday announced a series of concessions to the farmers in hopes of ending their rebellion. Among them were an end to rising fuel costs and the simplification of regulations.
“We will put agriculture above everything else,” he said at a cattle farm in a mountain village near the border with Spain. “You wanted to send a message, and I’ve received it loud and clear.”
But the farmers were unmoved by the concessions, and on Saturday they vowed to continue protesting.
Farmers across Europe cite red tape, government tax on tractor fuel, cheap imports, water storage issues and price pressures from retailers among their grievances. They also complain of the over-zealous application of EU law and environmental regulations.
They all face the challenge of inflation – caused in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and what some see as unfair competition from Ukrainian agricultural imports.
As elsewhere, their plight has become a political hot potato as the European Parliament elections loom. The hard-Right National Rally (RN) party is polling to come first ahead of Mr Macron’s Renaissance group.
Visiting a dairy farm in the Quercy in south-western France, Jordan Bardella, the RN party chief and European campaign director, said farmers were sick of the strictures imposed by “Macron’s Europe”, which he claimed wanted “the death of our agriculture”.
Italians feel ‘betrayed by Europe’
In Italy, another founder member of the EU, farmers and their tractors took to the streets on Monday.
They are angry about rising fuel costs, inflation, EU legislation and the low prices they say they receive for their produce.
They are also concerned about the threat posed by synthetic, lab-grown meat and food products, such as flour, made from insects, blaming Brussels for promoting the initiatives.
In Bologna, in the wealthy northern region of Emilia-Romagna, around 200 tractors blocked the streets. One tractor had a large sign attached to its front which read “Traditi dall’ Europa” – Betrayed by Europe.
There were also protests in Lazio, the region that encompasses Rome, as well as Abruzzo in the centre and Calabria in the south.
Many of the tractors flew Italian flags from their cabins. The Dutch farmers had flown the flag of the Netherlands upside down from their cabs.
One of the protest organisers, Danilo Calvani, president of an organisation called the Committee of Betrayed Farmers, said farmers were struggling to make ends meet.
Mr Calvani was one of the leaders of the Forconi, or the Pitchforks, a populist, anti-establishment movement that sprang up in Italy a decade ago before fizzling out. At its height, in 2003, the movement staged angry protests against politicians, the euro, the EU, austerity policies and high taxes.
He said the farmers’ protests are destined to grow and to spread across the whole country in a “national mobilisation”.
Spain’s climate change law in Vox sights
In Spain, the Union of Unions, which brings together the country’s farming associations, has announced fresh protests for Feb 21, with tractor columns expected in 15 citiesto demand the ditching of green policies
The climate-sceptic far-Right Vox, Spain’s third-largest party, has said it would repeal Spain’s climate change law, with its targets for net zero.
And Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the president of the Madrid region, has rebelled against energy-saving rules limiting the use of air-conditioning and shop window lighting.
Tipped to one day be leader of the centre-Right Partido Popular, Ms Ayuso has flirted with climate scepticism.
In 2022 she called the net zero agenda “a big scam [that is] impoverishing more and more citizens”.
German plans watered down
In Germany, the EU’s largest economy, thousands of tractors descended on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in January as part of nationwide protests that shut down motorways and city centres.
These demonstrations were triggered by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s plan to cut certain tax breaks for farmers as well as their subsidies for polluting agricultural diesel.
Even after those plans were watered down, with the tax breaks restored and the phase-out of diesel subsidies to take place gradually over several years, farmers took to the streets anyway.
Piles of dung were dumped at the constituency offices of parties in Mr Scholz’s ruling coalition and some of the demonstrations were attended by members of far-Right extremist groups.
EU feels pressure in run-up to polls
In Brussels, there is already much discussion about what such widespread discontent could mean for the European Parliament elections.
The EU has set itself a goal of reaching net zero by 2050, a target championed by Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president.
But Mrs von der Leyen is already under pressure from her own centre-Right European People’s Party to water down green legislation.
She has already moved to weaken strict EU protections for wolves and to shelve animal welfare legislation over cost of living concerns, while the bloc’s nature restoration law was heavily amended by conservatives.
The latest polls predict anti-EU parties are set to win the European Parliament elections in nine of the member states – Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia – and come second or third in another nine countries.
The hard-Right Identity and Democracy Group (ID), which includes Marine Le Pen’s RN and the Alternative for Germany party, could go from being the fifth to the third-largest bloc in the EU parliament this year, which experts warn could weaken support for net zero in the European Parliament.
In Brussels, Véronique Le Floc’h, the president of Coordination Rurale, the French farming group, said, “French farmers are united in their opposition to absurd, extreme and unworkable environmental policies dreamt up by the EU and zealously implemented by the Macron government.
“Those in power do not spare a thought for the impact of these policies on the livelihoods of farmers, the food security of the nation and the cost of living crisis facing ordinary people.”
Some farmers see their plight in terms of a battle with globalist forces seeking to force them off their land; a view zealously promoted by online conspiracy theorists.
“It is time for the entire population of Europe to stop this dictatorship so that we do not lose our freedoms. It starts with erasing agriculture, and then they will start restricting citizens’ freedoms,” added Bart Dickens, president of the Farmers Defence Force Belgium.
Fast green programme is ‘an easy target’
For political scientist Mr Krouwel, it’s clear the elections will be fought on the platform established by the tractor protests in the Netherlands and increasingly adopted by the mainstream Right.
“The elections will be very much about the pushback against the rather fast programme of green policies that the EU has,” he told The Telegraph.
“That’s an easy target for ‘nostalgic populists’ who see it as another way of destroying our culture and our traditions.”
“There is now a clear anti-elite, identity policy dimension to opposition to the European Green Deal,” said Susi Dennison, the senior director of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
“It is likely to be weaponised by the Right to signal that pro-Europe, progressive politicians do not have the interests of everyday voters at heart.”