Protesting Farmers Spray Police with Liquid Manure

The clashes coincided with a meeting of the EU's agriculture ministers.

Protestors light fires during a demonstration in the European Quarter, Brussels, Feb. 26, 2024.
Protestors light fires during a demonstration in the European Quarter, Brussels, Feb. 26, 2024.
AP Photo/Harry Nakos

BRUSSELS (AP) — Farmers clashed with police in Belgium on Monday, spraying officers with liquid manure and throwing eggs and flares at them in a fresh show of force as the European Union's agriculture ministers met in search of ways to address the protesters' concerns.

The farmers are angry at red tape and competition from cheap imports from countries where the EU's relatively high standards do not have to be met.

Brussels police said that 900 tractors had entered the city, many bearing down on the European Council building where the ministers were meeting. Smoke drifted through the air near where police in riot gear sheltered behind concrete barriers and barbed wire, firing tear gas and water cannons at the protesting farmers. Scores of tractors also lined up down main roads leading to the city's European quarter, snarling traffic and blocking public transport.

A few tractors forced their way through barriers, sending officers scurrying. Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden urged police to identify "rioters" who hurt people or disobeyed instructions from officers.

"The right to protest is dear to us so it must be used with respect," she said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

At the start of the month, a similar demonstration turned violent with farmers torching hay bales and throwing eggs and firecrackers at police near a summit of EU leaders.

Some of the tractors were draped with signs lamenting what farmers see as the slow death of working the land. "Agriculture. As a child you dream of it, as an adult you die of it," said one.

"We are getting ignored," Marieke Van De Vivere, a farmer from the Ghent region in northern Belgium, told The Associated Press.

She invited the ministers "to be reasonable to us, to come with us on a day to work on the field, or with the horses or with the animals, to see that it is not very easy … because of the rules they put on us."

The protests are the latest in a series of rallies and demonstrations by farmers across Europe.

On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron was greeted with boos and whistles at the opening of the Paris Agricultural Fair by farmers who claim that he's not doing enough to support them. Spain, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have been hit by protests in recent weeks.

The movement, which has gathered pace as political parties campaign for Europe-wide elections between June 6-9, has already produced results. Earlier this month, the EU's executive branch shelved an anti-pesticide proposal in a concession to the farmers who make up an important voting constituency.

On the other side of the barriers in Brussels, the ministers were keen to show that they were listening, and a group of farmers' representatives were allowed in for talks.

The EU presidency, currently held by Belgium, acknowledged that the farmers' concerns include the burden of respecting environmental policies, a drop in assistance from the bloc's agricultural subsidy system and the impact of Russia's attacks on Ukraine's grain supplies.

"We understand that this situation is difficult," said David Clarinval, Belgium's agriculture minister.

"The 27 member states are firm in saying that things cannot remain as they are," he told reporters after chairing the meeting. "It's necessary to take rapid measures as well as measures in the longer term at the European level."

French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau told the few reporters who were permitted by police to enter the building that "there's a need to send signals immediately to tell farmers that something is changing, not only in the short-term but also in the medium and long-term."

Irish Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue said the priority must be to slash administrative red tape.

The EU should ensure that policies are "straightforward, that they're proportionate and they're as simple as possible for farmers to implement," he said. McConalogue underlined that "we do respect the massively important work that farmers carry out every day in terms of producing food."

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