Across Europe it seems 2024 will be another year of farmer protests with one of the largest coordinated protests we’ve probably ever seen in the form of the German protest.
It was organised partially by Deutscher Burenverband (DBE – the German farmers’ association) with broad support by Bund der Deutschen (BDL – German young farmers’ and rural youth association) and other established farming groups.
This follows on from French farm groups hosting a number of protests across 2023, not entirely unusual for French farmers of course, who have begun protesting again this week.
Protesting is somewhat a core character trait to French national identity. More unusual were the normally adverse Dutch farmers protests of 2022 that stretched well into 2023.
The protests also happening in Lithuania particularly gathering around the capital Vilnius resulting in bonfires and farm machinery on the streets have been completely under-reported.
Protests across Europe
Some have suggested these movements all have the same cause and more extreme commentators have even labelled them a rebellion of sorts.
But beneath the rhetoric, it’s worth taking a look at the grievances individually and seeing if there is a central theme.
I spoke to Anne-Katherin Meister, vice-president of BDL, who was involved in the protests in Berlin in the weeks leading up to it to understand better the exact cause.
“There was a very spontaneous protest then (in December) with a promise to be back in January so there was peace over Christmas,” Meister told me.
German farmers’ largest concern is around taxation on agricultural diesel and plans to cut the amount German farms can claim back in excise duty.
Unlike the Dutch situation, which was caused by a court case on pollution from nitrogen and government inaction, this case was actually against the environmental measures Germany’s government had planned.
The case was heard in November in front of the German Constitutional Court and found that the plans to spend €60 billion to increase renewable energy and stimulate the economy violated a constitution debt limit on governmental budgets.
This shock ruling meant the German government became desperate to increase tax take to balance the badly needed spend without violating its own constitution. This directly led to proposals to cut farmers’ diesel tax relief.
The plan to do so has triggered deep divisions in the German coalition government.
Defenders of farmers on diesel tax included, somewhat bizarrely, the agricultural minister Cem Ozdemir, a Green Party member, who has pointed out farmers have no alternative to agri-diesel.
These divisions between government parties along with the extent and relatively unprecedented nature of the German farmer protest have the potential to bring the already strained government down.
The scale of the German protest has only grown with much of the public consistently polling in support of farmers.
“When it all started in December it was mainly farmers, now it changed,” Meister continued.
“At my local demonstration last week, there was my baker, there was butcher, there is plumbers, and just people in general that are not happy with the government.”
Despite some reporting in English-speaking media, farmers are firm that this is not part of a greater right-wing movement with farm protest organisers pushing back on efforts to co-opt their movement.
“There have been attempts on doing that but they weren’t success,” Meister added.
“We make our members very aware to check whose on their demonstrations. There’s a sign we have in Germany, ‘agriculture is colourful, not brown’ and many farmers are putting that on their tractors,” she said.
Nor are protests in France again unrelated triggers to a political ideology, taking place regionally.
These protests are coordinated by their national organisations FNSEA (National Federation of Agricultural Holders’ Union) and Jeunes Agriculteurs (French Young Farmers) but often the issues vary.
Overarching, is deep anger over the level of regulation and red tape, but frequently features France’s position on glyphosate and failure to secure derogation from the 4% crop fallow requirement set by the EU.
All longstanding issues for the French farmers, stirred to the point where they have sprayed manure and dumped dung on the street.
Lithuania’s issues are similarly long standing and farmers there have taken to bringing tractors to the capital of Vilnius and burning bonfires.
Their issues related to an ongoing dairy price ‘crisis’ since the Russian invasion and EU sanctions kicked in.
Along with this, farmers object to government plans to increase tax on gas pushing up nitrogen fertiliser.
Farmers also opposed expanding natural meadows and demands for a ban on Russian grain into Lithuania with Lithuanian farmers organisation (ZUT) saying 600 bonfires burned across the country involving 8,000 people, a large number given Lithuania’s population of 2.7 million.
This all means that rather than some grand uprising or even some central trend driving all these protests, they are only linked by a general frustration with regulation and numerous smaller national issues.
While it may be easy to proclaim these part of the ‘Green agenda’, in all examples, the causes are more complex.
However neither France’s nor Lithuania’s governments could be described as overly green nor could the Dutch government before its recent collapse.
Only in Germany is a Green Party in government, yet its Minister for Agriculture has defended farmers.
In all, we can blame the age-old problem of bureaucracy as the major contributing factor along with ever rising costs instead.