A farmer walks past his tractor parked in front of a government office building during a protest against European Union agricultural policies--grievances shared by farmers across Europe. March 7, 2024.

Blog Name

European farmer protests risk eroding the climate agenda


Photo Credit: REUTERS/Eva Korinkova


Thousands of tractors are blocking the streets in capital cities across Europe as farmers protest against EU policies on climate change and the influx of cheaper food imports from Ukraine. Right-wing politicians are voicing solidarity with the farmers, raising the threat of a euroskeptic, anti-climate group gaining large increases in the European parliamentary elections in June.

To avert that prospect, European politicians have hurriedly proposed various forms of relief, including flexibilities and exceptions to climate laws and new subsidies for farmers faced with loss of income. But whether such steps will be enough to avoid reversal of Europe’s progress on climate, or its support for embattled Ukraine, is unclear.

The Ukrainian perspective makes the battle over the farm vote especially challenging, as the European Union has bought grain from Ukraine and facilitated trade through Europe when the Black Sea route was blocked by Russia, steps to bolster its crisis-ridden economy and courageous fight against Russia. The cheaper Ukrainian grain is then sold in Poland and nearby countries.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is drafting its long-term budget to be approved in the fall while the European Union prepares for enlargement with up to ten countries, including Ukraine, making it likely that farmers in the current member states will be receiving less money in the future. Yet farmers, like everyone else in Europe, will need to face the reality of climate change, which will make farming livelihoods even harder than the green transition policies they are protesting. (Europe is not alone in being hit by farm protests—farmers in India have descended on New Delhi to protest market liberalization by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Farmers have also protested in Japan and Mexico.)

The Green Deal and the agricultural sector

The European Union is generally seen as the global leader in the fight against climate change. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has made the laws, strategies, and spending in the so-called Green Deal her landmark priority, aiming to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2040 compared to 1990 and for the European Union to become carbon neutral by 2050. The program includes policies that target energy, transport, housing, infrastructure, forestry—and agriculture, a sector responsible for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore subject to current and future limitations of carbon and taxes on pesticides, fuel, and fertilizers.

But farmers have long benefited from preferential treatment in the European Union, where nearly 8 million people work full-time in the agricultural sector. Though agriculture accounts for only 1.4 percent of EU GDP, farm subsidies designed to ensure food production and provide a stable income for farmers cost €387 billion (2021–27), a third of the total EU budget.

The farm protests are not pretty but they are effective. They clog Brussels and other cities in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Romania, Spain, and the Czech Republic, mobilizing tractors and mowers, often letting out liters of milk, live chickens, or stinking dung in the streets. Small wonder that political concessions flow in their wake.

Are the protests justified?

Farmers claim that the Green Deal is too complicated, expensive, and bureaucratic. Some of their arguments about lack of flexibility in the laws are persuasive.

Meanwhile, cheap grain imports from Ukraine are indeed threatening local jobs and business in the east. The European Union has sought to support Ukraine by importing wheat, sunflower seeds, maize, and other products since August 2022 at €13 billion a year since the invasion, up from €7 billion previously. Initially the imports compensated for bad harvests in the European Union, but these imports have grown increasingly unpopular in neighboring countries.

Last June, the Commission imposed a temporary ban on Ukrainian agriculture imports that, when it was lifted, led to several countries unilaterally introducing their own such bans, which is against EU rules. Recently, the European Union introduced an emergency brake again limiting imports. Ukraine has also taken measures to avoid grain surges and announced that they can accept some restrictions. Of course, this open fight is only making President Vladimir Putin of Russia happy. But protests have continued. In Poland, one of the firmest supporters of Ukraine in the war, farmers have blocked the roads used by Ukrainian vehicles transporting grain, while its new prime minister envisions a temporary closing of the border for goods traffic.

European farmers complain about the lower quality of Ukrainian products, even though Ukraine signed a free trade agreement with the European Union in 2014 that strongly aligns Ukrainian standards with the European internal market. Farmers’ claims about quality standards are unproven.

Ukraine is not the only target of protests, however. French farmers insist that the European Union´s trade deal with the countries in the Mercosur trade block—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—has hurt them, even though the agreement has not been signed or taken effect yet and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future, even if many other EU states support it.

The reality is that European agricultural products, especially French products, are actually doing well. The European Commission’s data demonstrate that the sector is competitive and that fears of foreign competition might be exaggerated. The trade in European agricultural products has a surplus of €33 billion.

Restore nature!

Why have farm protests erupted? The so-called Nature Restoration Law, adopted in February, is a likely culprit. A central pillar of the Green Deal, the law aims to restore at least 20 percent of the European Union’s land and sea areas—forests, rivers, and wetlands—back to “nature” by 2030. Farmers maintain that this transformation burdens them without compensation. It will remove some farmland from production, and it is unclear exactly how this would be carried out. The law passed by a slim margin and only after supporters adopted flexibilities and longer phasing in periods. Still, the right side of the political spectrum voted against it. As protests have accelerated, extreme right politicians have been fueling the debate, resulting in a rise in their polling numbers. They feel that the protests are reinforcing their message that climate change is exaggerated, that the European Commission is out of touch with ordinary people, and that globalization and free trade are a threat.

Climate is likely to be a dominant issue in the European parliament elections, when citizens of the 27 member countries will elect 720 representatives (divided according to a national quota) who legislate in Brussels and Strasbourg. If the center-right European People's Party Group (EPP) does well, they could command a majority allied with far-right parties. Lately, EPP has become increasingly skeptical toward the climate legislation, even though von der Leyen is a member of that political group.

To assuage the protesters, some proposals have been withdrawn or amended. For example, a planned increase in the diesel tax has been paused, and a proposed 50 percent cut in the use of pesticides in the agricultural sector by 2030 has been withdrawn. There have also been promises to cut red tape related to farming and reporting. The European Commission has also excluded different gases linked to farming (nitrogen, methane, and others) from the targets of a 30 percent cut for 2040.

The way forward will be bumpy

Some additional money, more exceptions to requirements, additional compensation farmers, and rule revisions are likely in the offing. But von der Leyen is seeking a second term as commission president, and her return to office will require approval by the 27 heads of state and an absolute majority of the votes in the newly elected European Parliament. She is thus walking a tightrope trying to balance the Green Deal, her personal project, against the uncertain support of citizens and politicians. Backing down from the ambitious climate policy agenda risks infuriating many voters, especially younger voters, who despair over the rise of global temperature and extreme weather, which they argue will hurt farmers first and most.

Von der Leyen is also a stern supporter of Ukraine, which needs all the moral, economic, and military support it can get. Backing down from the support for Ukrainian exports would not be popular in Kyiv.

The overarching reality to what is going on in Europe is that transition to a green carbon neutral economy will require societal changes. Every sector and every individual needs to do their part, even as political leaders strike a fine balance between radical reforms and maintaining popular support for them. For farmers, the case for simplifications, longer transition periods, and better coordination makes sense. But the European Union’s agricultural sector has been massively subsidized for decades. Every time there is a demonstration, there is more money coming.

This spring, the European Commission civil services are working on a new long-term budget to be proposed when the new Commission is installed in November. No doubt agriculture will again be demanding more subsidies. But with ten countries queuing up to become members, the EU Common Agricultural Policy will have to adapt, because current member states will be reluctant to pay more. And all the future members are poorer and more dependent on agriculture. It is no coincidence that protests are mounting as budget proposals are being drafted. That is the reality—with or without dung in the streets.

Data Disclosure

This publication does not include a replication package.

More From