Farmer protests lead EU to give up proposed pesticide cut

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The European Union’s executive arm shelved an anti-pesticide proposal Tuesday in yet another concession to farmers after weeks of protests that blocked many capitals and economic lifelines across the 27-nation bloc.

Although the proposal had languished in EU institutions for the past two years, the move by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was the latest indication that the bloc is willing to sacrifice environmental priorities to keep the farming community on its side. Despite concessions, protests continued from the Netherlands to Spain and Bulgaria.

Farmers have insisted that measures like the one on pesticides would increase bureaucratic burdens and keep them behind laptops instead of farming, adding to the price gap between their products and cheap imports produced by foreign farmers without similar burdens.

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The pesticide “proposal has become a symbol of polarization,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “To move forward, more dialogue and a different approach is needed.”

She acknowledged that the proposals had been made over the heads of farmers.

“Farmers need a worthwhile business case for nature-enhancing measures. Perhaps we have not made that case convincingly,” von der Leyen said.

Farmers make barricades after blocking a highway during a protest near Mollerussa, northeast Spain

Farmers block a highway during a protest near Mollerussa, northeast Spain, on Feb. 6, 2024, joining farmers all over Europe who have been congregating in protest. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

It is unclear when new proposals will be drafted. EU parliamentary elections are set for June, and the plight of farmers has become a focal point of campaigning, even pushing climate issues aside over the past weeks.

Under its much-hyped European Green Deal, the EU has targeted a 50% cut in the overall use of pesticides and other hazardous substances by 2030. The proposal was criticized both by environmentalists who claimed it would be insufficient to reach sustainability targets, and by agriculture groups who insisted it would be unworkable and drive farmers out of business.

The decision to shelve the proposal on pesticides was the EU’s latest act of political self-retribution 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.

Many politicians, especially on the right and its fringes, applauded the impact of the protests.

“Long live the farmers, whose tractors are forcing Europe to take back the nonsense imposed by multinationals and the left,’’ said Italy’s right-wing transport minister, Matteo Salvini.

Last week, von der Leyen announced plans to shield farmers from cheaper products from wartime Ukraine and to allow farmers to use some land they had been required to keep fallow for environmental reasons.

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In France, where the protests gained critical mass, the government promised more than $436 million in additional financial support.

Meanwhile, protests continued in many EU nations.

Since early Tuesday, farmers across Spain staged tractor protests, blocking highways and causing traffic jams to demand changes in EU policies and funds and measures to combat production cost increases. The protests came as the Agriculture Ministry announced some $290 million in aid to 140,000 farmers to address drought conditions and problems caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Bulgarian farmers added fuel to their protests by moving their heavy farming vehicles from the fields to the main motorways and border crossings, paralyzing traffic and adding to the economic woes of the country. The move came after farmers refused to accept proposed government support, arguing that it was not sufficient to compensate them for losses due to the war in Ukraine, higher production costs, climate conditions, and Green Deal requirements.

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On Monday night, farmers in the Netherlands blocked several roads and highways with their tractors and burned hay bales and tires.

Police in the rural province of Gelderland said they took action against farmers blocking roads, but there were no immediate reports of arrests.

In recent weeks, farmers have protested in Poland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and Lithuania.

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