As Tractor Protests Grow, EU Offers More Concessions to Farmers

The bloc's executive arm proposed weakening even more climate and environmental measures.

Protesting farmers in tractors rally outside an agricultural fair in Thessaloniki, Greece, Feb. 1, 2024.
Protesting farmers in tractors rally outside an agricultural fair in Thessaloniki, Greece, Feb. 1, 2024.
AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos, File

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union's executive arm on Friday proposed weakening even more climate and environmental measures in the bloc's latest set of concessions to farmers apparently bent on continuing disruptive tractor protests until the June EU elections.

Angering environmentalists across the 27 EU member states, the Commission proposed to further loosen rules imposed on agriculture which it said, not so long ago, were instrumental to the bloc's strategy to become climate neutral by 2050. That iconic challenge put the EU in the global vanguard of fighting climate change.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that the EU's overall climate goals remained intact, even though she stressed she would "continue to stand steadfastly by our farmers, who maintain EU food security and serve at the frontline of our climate and environment action."

Under the proposals, the conditions to move farming to become more climate friendly were weakened or cut in areas like crop rotation, soil cover protection and tillage methods. Small farmers, representing some two-thirds of the workforce and the most active within the continent-wide protest movement, will be exempt from some controls and penalties under the new rules.

Politically, the bloc has moved rightward over the past year. The plight of farmers has become a rallying cry for populists and conservatives who claim EU climate and farm policies are little more than bureaucratic bungling from elitist politicians who have lost any feeling for soil and land. The Christian Democratic European People's Party of von der Leyen has been among the most vocal and powerful in defending the farmers' cause.

"I would actually call it populism," said Green MEP Thomas Waitz, saying the Commission proposals would cut deep into the agricultural commitment that is part of the EU's vaunted Green Deal to reach climate neutrality. "Now they try to deflect the anger of the local farmers and instrumentalize it against the Green Deal."

Scientists and environmentalists from around the globe, though, have insisted drastic measures are necessary just to prevent global warming from getting worse, and have pointed to Europe as one of the places with the bleakest prospects.

The Commission proposals must still be endorsed by the member states, but considering previous concessions, they stand a good chance of being accepted quickly, observers said.

Friday's plans were the EU's latest concessions in reaction to protests that have affected the daily lives of tens of millions of EU citizens and cost businesses tens of millions of euros due to transportation delays. Others have included shelving legislation on tighter pesticide rules and requirements to let some land lie fallow.

On top of the EU itself, member states have also caved in to several demands as the tractor protests shot up the political agenda. Complaints have centered on excessive bureaucracy, intrusive environmental rules and unfair competition from third countries, including Ukraine.

The Commission said that even though more flexibility measures for farmers were now proposed, the overall EU climate goals remained valid.

"We are the first continent to have made a binding legal commitment to reach climate neutrality by 2050. Not only have we done that," said Commission spokesman Eric Mamer, "but we actually fixed a roadmap to 2030 with the legal act to ensure that we are on the right path to meet that objective."

He insisted Friday's proposals would not veer from that commitment, even though "that we ... adapt from time to time to changing circumstances is obvious."

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