Europe’s bleak farmers are a symptom of a wider malaise

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mehe gave 120 ships full of bearded Vikings to attack Paris in the spring of 845A.D. They moved on only after receiving an offer of 7,000 silver pounds. In 1870 the Prussians needed two armies and a battery of guns to blockade the town, which surrendered after the locals got tired of eating rats, cats, horses and whatever animals could to be plucked from the zoo safely.

For the “siege of Paris”, the 2024 version, John Deere, New Holland or Claas are the preferred equipment for throwing supply lines. Hundreds of tractors moved from across the country have blocked eight highways into the French capital since the start of the week, with few plans to move forward. Farmers who were camping about 30km from the Champs-Elysées are eager to remind the bourgeoisie where the grub on their supermarket shelves comes from. The kangaroos and zebras in the city’s zoos are considered safe for now. Politicians who want to avoid becoming electoral roadkill may need to avoid a few tractors.

Across Europe, a peasant revolution is brewing. From Belgium to Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Spain, farmers are up in arms. A sector that was used to non-concentrated benefits – about a third of the EUThe budget goes on subsidies to the general agricultural policy, after all – felt that they are slipping from grip. It’s a familiar story in many ways, about a privileged castle noticing that its status is declining. Because what is Europe if it is not an attempt to keep up with things as they once were in a changing world? Being tied to tradition and yet buffeted by modernizing forces the continent’s story is writ large, as Europeans may feel that China, India and others are moving beyond verification. Farmers aren’t the only Europeans who would like the world to stop so they can get away (and retire early).

Drop the sociological tosh, the answer may come from the fields. Life as a European farmer has become unbearable. Charlemagne was defeated by several people agricultural workers who had come on the EU centers in Brussels, a time-honored tradition often involving fertilizers and egg-mowing machines. Sitting on top of tractors parked for the week, they explained that every subsidy check involves a bunch of forms to fill out, a full-time job in itself. The green regulations are issued by the EU a tool to hit the pockets of growers, whether plots of land want to be left under mulch, determining the size of chicken coops or how hedges should be maintained. After harassing farmers, politicians then sign trade deals that allow food to be imported from distant places with fewer environmental credentials. Meanwhile, energy and fertilizer costs remain high (stacks of bills were provided as evidence) due to the war in Ukraine, and their large farms can now sell cheap grain and other foods in the Russia. EU tax free. Urban politicians whose main interaction is with animals being eaten in fancy restaurants don’t notice, or talk down to farmers while visiting the countryside just long enough to shoot a photo with a cow. Journalists, apparently, are no better.

The wave of the revolution has at least attracted the attention of the city’s slickers. The public loves a profession that appears in most family trees; farmers are almost as unpopular as politicians. Discounts have come thick and fast. Planned increases in taxes levied on fuel used by farmers were put back in France and delayed in Germany. The EU a trade deal with South America was thrown under the tractor after just two decades of negotiations. Concessions to Ukraine, which were primarily aimed at farmers in neighboring countries such as Poland and Romania, are being withdrawn, even as EU leaders this week are considering sending him €50bn ($54bn) in aid to keep their economy going. Ditto those pesky rules about leaving fields under spells, at least for now.

Politicians are worried because the agricultural republic has shown its potential at the ballot box. Last March an upstart farmers’ party in the Netherlands won first place in regional elections with 19% of the vote – in a country where only 2.5% of the workforce works in agriculture. Hard-right politicians see an opportunity to garner support ahead of June’s European elections, spinning a tale of snooping elites and hard-working (white) country folk. Even centrist politicians are talking about the need to soften the demands of the Green Deal, through which Europe hopes to reduce carbon emissions.

Animus Farm

The decline of European farming is a sign of the continent’s declining relevance. Agriculture has been left in the dust with other sectors while the European economy in general has been overtaken by its geopolitical rivals. The EUpart of the world GDP has fallen by more than a third since 1995; the big farming in the EU economy down the same level. Food growth now accounts for just 1.4% of GDP, less than the freight services needed to zip Amazon packages around. Like Europe in general, a continent that is obviously without technical giants, European farming has failed to adapt to modern times: the sector is still dominated by family operations that do not have scale. Almost two-thirds of his farms are less than five hectares, and can be walked around in ten minutes or so. The profession is getting older: a third of farm managers are over 65. In the world of TikTok and ChatGPThe can’t pull any amount of 20-something subsidies into a career that involves getting up at the crack of dawn six days a week and literally shoveling bullshit.

A slogan heard recently in Brussels is the need for a “Europe that protects”, whether from Russia, artificial intelligence, migrants or Donald Trump (choose your favorite agent of change). The continent tends to like things the way they are, because that’s how they used to be. Detractors think of Europe as an outdoor museum, suitable for tourists and pensioners; fans of the model like his 35-hour work weeks and August off. The pain that farmers feel is real. The feeling of being left behind by forces beyond your control is uncomfortable. Those who complain about their tractors are just the tip of a pitchfork.

Read more from Charlemagne, our European politics columnist:
The EU’s €50bn package for Ukraine is far from its rhetoric (January 25)
Europe’s monarchies are a study in honorable infidelity (January 18)
How the spirit of Jacques Delors could be reincarnated (January 11)

Also: How Charlemagne’s column got its name

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