Farmers clash with riot police in Brussels as EU agriculture leaders meet

Farmers have clashed violently with police in the European quarter of Brussels, spraying officers with liquid manure and setting fire to mounds of tyres, while the EU’s agriculture ministers met to discuss the crisis in their sector.

As farmers also protested in Madrid and on the Polish-German border, at least 900 tractors jammed streets in the centre of the Belgian capital, police said, with protesters throwing bottles and eggs and setting off fireworks while riot police fired water cannon.

Farmers from Spain, Portugal and Italy joined their Belgian counterparts for the latest show of force by a months-long, Europe-wide movement demanding action on high costs, low product prices, cheap non-EU imports and strict EU environmental rules.

The rolling protests, which on Saturday led to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, being heckled by furious farmers at the Paris agricultural fair, have unnerved leaders before European elections in June that are likely to produce major gains for far-right populist parties.

Ministers were meeting to debate European Commission proposals to ease the pressure on farmers, including simplifying the bloc’s common agricultural policy (CAP) by reducing farm inspections and exempting small farms from some green rules.

“We need something practical, something operational,” said the French agriculture minister, Marc Fesneau, adding that while there was room for “adjustments within the current rules,” meeting some demands “would require changing the legislation”.

Fesneau said it did not matter whether the changes were made before or after the European parliament elections, but “what matters now is moving forward. We need to set a goal, lay the foundations of a CAP that reassures people.”

Germany’s agriculture minister, Cem Özdemir, said the EU needed to ensure farmers could make a fair living if they opted for biodiversity and environmental measures. He said the average farmer “spends a quarter of their time at their desks” because of the EU’s “bureaucracy monster”.

David Clarinval, the Belgian agriculture minister, said farmers’ complaints had been “clearly heard” but urged them to refrain from violence, while the Irish agriculture minister, Charlie McConalogue said the priority must be to slash red tape.

The EU should ensure that policies were “straightforward, that they’re proportionate and they’re as simple as possible for farmers to implement”, he said, underlining that “we do respect the massively important work that farmers carry out every day in terms of producing food”.

The EU has already rowed back on several parts of its flagship green deal plan in an effort to appease farmers, scrapping references to farming emissions from its 2040 climate roadmap, withdrawing a law to cut pesticide use and delaying a target for farmers to leave some land fallow to improve biodiversity.

The bloc has also introduced safeguards to stop Ukrainian imports flooding the market under a tariff-free scheme introduced after Russia’s 2022 invasion.

The protest was farmers’ second in Brussels in recent weeks.

“We are getting ignored,” said Marieke Van De Vivere, a farmer from Belgium’s Ghent region. She said ministers should “be reasonable to us, come with us on a day to work on the field, or with the horses or with the animals, to see that it is not very easy … because of the rules they put on us”.

Morgan Ody, from La Via Campesina small farmers’ organisation, said that for most farmers it was “about income. It’s about the fact that we are poor, and that we want to make a decent living,” Ody said.

She called on the EU to set up minimum support prices and exit free trade agreements that enable the import of cheaper foreign produce. “We are not against climate policies. But we know that in order to do the transition, we need higher prices for products because it costs more to produce in an ecological way,” she said.

Farmers also protested on Monday in Madrid, blowing whistles, ringing cowbells and beating drums as they demanded that the EU cut red tape and drop some of the CAP. “The new CAP is ruining our lives,” said Juan Pedro Laguna, 46.

Roberto Rodriguez, who grows cereal and beetroots in the central province of Avila, said it was “impossible to stand these rules, they want us to work on the field during the day and deal with paperwork at night – we’re sick of the bureaucracy”.

Polish farmers protesting against EU regulations and cheap food imports from Ukraine blocked a motorway at a busy border crossing with Germany on Monday and plan to protest in the Polish capital, Warsaw, on Tuesday.

Adrian Wawrzyniak, a spokesperson for the Solidarity farmers’ union, said that as far as he knew “there are also German farmers on the German side – the crossing is blocked from both sides. This is a show of joint solidarity.”

Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, said on Monday that farmers’ problems needed fixing at an EU level. “Poland is the first EU country [on the border with Ukraine], but in fact it is a problem of the EU as a whole, of EU agriculture as a whole, and it should be considered in this context,” he told a press conference.