1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Why are farmers across Europe protesting?

February 26, 2024

The EU's agricultural ministers are meeting this Monday in the face of growing farmers' protests across Europe. Despite hefty subsidies, the bloc's farmers remain angry — and very influential in Brussels.

A famer driving his tractor during a protest in Madrid
Farmers have already been protesting across the EU for weeksImage: Osccar del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, around half of the European Union member states have seen farmers protesting against their respective national and European agricultural policies. On Monday, agricultural ministers from the bloc are meeting in Brussels to address their disputes.

But the reasons for the demonstrations vary significantly. In Germany, for instance, farmers are upset about a planned reduction in subsidies for diesel fuel. In Poland and other Eastern European countries, they are blocking roads and border crossings because they want to prevent cheap imports from Ukraine.

The European farmers' association, Copa-Cogeca, has called for less stringent environmental regulations, less bureaucracy in EU agricultural policy and better conditions in international competition.

Less regulation, more exceptions

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, has already reacted and withdrawn a proposed law that would have halved the use of pesticides in Europe.

But most farmers want more than that — more exceptions and fewer regulations. Last year, the head of the farmers' and citizens' movement in the Netherlands, Caroline van der Plas, pointed to an even more fundamental issue.

"The people who provide our daily food […] are dismissed as animal abusers, poisoners, soil destroyers and environmental polluters," she told the Dutch parliament.

Polish farmers blocking a road
Farmers in Poland are against cheap imports from UkraineImage: Lisi Niesner/REUTERS

Last week, the European Commission made new proposals to take the wind out of the sails of the protests. Rules are to be relaxed, and exceptions are planned to make it easier to obtain subsidies.

The pressure "currently felt by our hard-working farmers must be alleviated so that food safety is guaranteed," said von der Leyen. "Simplification of our agricultural policy remains a priority."

Yet agriculture ministers and the European Parliament have jointly approved the so-called "Farm to Fork" strategy, which brings a lot of new regulations for farms.

The representation of farmers' interests in the member states and in the EU administrative capital, Brussels, is influential. Center-right conservative lawmakers have sided with the farmers, and the center-left group has also signaled understanding.

But it's not like the rules, against which farmers are rebelling, are all ecologically and environmentally wrong, or that they came out of nowhere, warned German agricultural politician Maria Noichl in a debate in the European Parliament. However, she still called for supporting the farmers in their concerns.

"Let's go with them into a difficult time of climate change," she said.

Fewer farmers, same production

There's no doubt among EU politicians that the agricultural sector needs climate protection, emissions reduction and structural change. But how is this to be done?

Structural change in European agriculture has been underway for years. The number of farms has rapidly declined — by a third to 9.2 million since 2005. However, the cultivated area has not shrunk. This means there are fewer farms, but they are getting bigger.

DW's Rosie Birchard reports from Brussels farmers' protests

That's not just a matter of economic viability. Many farmers are retiring, and there are fewer successors and young farmers, even though they'd be supported by special subsidies from the EU.

The European agriculture industry produces large surpluses, and those are successfully exported. According to statistics from the German Agriculture Ministry, the average income of German farmers has risen sharply in recent years. Inflation has led to higher prices for customers in supermarkets, while production costs have risen less sharply.

An agricultural worker in Germany earned an average income of €43,000 ($46,650) in 2022. However, incomes in the sector fluctuate considerably across the EU. The incomes of farmers in Spain or Romania are significantly lower. In the Netherlands, they are significantly higher.

Agriculture at the core of the EU

The EU has injected a lot of money into agriculture. Since 1962, all member states have jointly made decisions in the agricultural sector, and agricultural policy is at the core of the bloc. The largest part of the common budget, around a third, goes to grants to farmers and rural development.

Tractors in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
In Germany, the main focus of the protests is on the planned scrapping of diesel subsidiesImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Although agriculture only accounts for 1.6% of economic output in the EU, it receives around a quarter of all subsidies from the regular budget. In 2022, €243 billion in subsidies were pumped into all sectors of the economy, €57 billion of which went to farms.

The high subsidies ensure that food prices in the EU are relatively low and stable. If farmers were to pass on their actual production costs without subsidies, prices would rise sharply and fluctuate greatly depending on the harvest situation. Preventing this was — and is — the declared aim of EU agricultural policy.

This article was originally written in German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union