Angry farmers bring protests to EU’s Belgium headquarters

Angry farmers bring protests to EU’s Belgium headquarters

BRUSSELS (AP): Convoys with hundreds of angry farmers driving heavy-duty tractors arrived at European Union headquarters, bent on getting their complaints about excessive costs, rules and bureaucracy heard by EU leaders at a summit Thursday.

After warming their limbs at burning piles of pallets overnight, the farmers mounted their vehicles and entered the Belgian capital with the rumble of engines, firecrackers and blaring horns piercing the early morning slumber in a culmination of weeks of protests around the bloc.

Even if the EU summit was supposed to be laser-focused on providing financial aid to Ukraine for its war against invading Russia, the farmers already squeezed their plight onto the 27 leaders’ agendas, said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

“We also need to make sure that they can get the right price for the high-quality products that they provide. We also need to make sure that the administrative burden that they have remains reasonable,” said De Croo, whose country currently holds the presidency of the EU.

Even if concrete, immediate concessions were unlikely to emerge, though not for lack of trying by the farmers.

Jean-Francois Ricker, a farmer from southern Belgium, braved the winter night close to EU headquarters and said he expected 1,000 to 1,400 vehicles. “There will be a lot of people. … We are going to show that we do not agree and that it is enough, but our aim is not to demolish everything.”

Most of the protesters have been young farmers supporting families, who feel ever-more squeezed by higher energy prices, cheaper foreign competition that does not have to abide by strict EU rules, inflation, and climate change that either withered, flooded or burned crops.

Similar protests have been held across the EU for most of the week. Farmers blocked more traffic arteries across Belgium, France and Italy on Wednesday, as they sought to disrupt trade at major ports and other economic lifelines.

While the days of mushrooming discontent have been largely peaceful, French police arrested 91 protesters who forced their way into Europe’s biggest food market Wednesday, the Paris police chief said. Armored vehicles block entrances to the sprawling site at Rungis, south of the French capital.

Farmers coming to Brussels on Thursday have been insisting their protest will be peaceful and security forces have handled the protests lightly so far.

The protests have already had an impact: The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced plans Wednesday to shield farmers from cheap exports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons.

The plans still need to be approved by the bloc’s 27 member states and European Parliament, but they amounted to a sudden and symbolic concession.

“I just would like to reassure them that we do our utmost to listen to their concerns. I think we are addressing two very important (concerns) of them right now,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.