© Reuters. An effigy and a placard reading “Our end will be your hunger” are attached to a tractor as farm vehicles are lined up during a blockade by farmers on the A4 highway to protest over price pressures, taxes and green regulation, grievances that are shared by
By Gus Trompiz and Christian Levaux
PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The French government on Wednesday sent armoured vehicles to protect a wholesale food market in Paris in a sign of escalating tensions as farmers blocked highways in France and Belgium and protests spread elsewhere in Europe.
Spanish and Italian farmers said they were joining the protest movement that has also hit Germany, aiming to press governments to ease environmental rules and shield them from rising costs and cheap imports.
With a summit of EU leaders set for Thursday, the bloc’s executive Commission made proposals to limit farm imports from Ukraine and ease some green regulations.
These announcements, however, failed to stop many farmers from Belgium and beyond from driving their tractors into Brussels city centre ahead of a rally planned to coincide with Thursday’s leaders’ summit.
Tractors were seen around the European Parliament, while police cordonned off the Commission and Council buildings.
“We plan – as farmers – to go to Brussels and set up barricades because the (leaders) are meeting on Thursday,” Belgian farmer Eddy Dewite said on the side of a highway blocked by tractors.
Another Belgian farmer, 26-year-old Luca Mouton, said: “Time is up. (EU leaders must) think of the farmers. Talk to the farmers rather than about the farmers, discuss what is possible. We are open to dialogue.”
While the farmers’ crisis is not officially on the agenda of the EU summit, it is bound to be discussed, at least on the margins.
Farmers say they are not paid enough, are choked by taxes and green rules and face unfair competition from abroad.
“(Farmers’) expectations are huge and beyond what one can imagine,” said Arnaud Rousseau, head of France’s powerful FNSEA union. “What is happening at the moment stems from the accumulation of rules that at first you accept … until it becomes too much.”
The protests across Europe precede European Parliament elections in June in which the far right, for whom farmers represent a growing constituency, is seen making gains.
Protests have so far been largely peaceful – though French farmers have sprayed liquid manure at local prefecture buildings and set tyres on fire – and Paris police on Thursday arrested 79 people at the giant Rungis food market.
Police said those arrested entered a storage site, causing some unspecified damage inside.
The market – a hub for produce for France and beyond and one of the largest of its kind in the world – has become a symbolic target for angry farmers, many of whom have travelled hundreds of kilometres in their tractors to get there.
France’s main farming unions had said they were against disrupting operations at Rungis.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has said protests on highways would be tolerated, but that police would not allow farmers to block airports or the Rungis market.
In total, there are about 100 blockades, he said.
BFM TV showed standoffs near the River Loire, with tractors stopped by police from moving closer to Paris. It also showed tractors leaving roads and rumbling across fields to bypass police. Some made it to Rungis, French media said.
Officials at Rungis, at Belgium’s Zeebrugge container port – where access roads were blocked for a second day – and British retailer groups said they had yet to see any major impact on supply chains as a result of the protests.
A spokesperson for the port of Antwerp-Bruges said farmers had started blocking trucks from leaving and entering the Belgian port of Antwerp, Europe’s second biggest port.
A major highway in Belgium was also blocked. Farmers were cooking fries on the edge of the motorway.
French and Belgian farmers also blocked several roads at their border, La Voix du Nord newspaper said.
In Italy, farmers with hundreds of tractors have blocked traffic near motorway access points outside Milan, in Tuscany and elsewhere in recent days.
French farmers have won concessions, including the government dropping plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel.
In another step to try to subdue farmer anger, the agriculture ministry announced 230 million euros in additional aid for wine producers.
The European Commission on Wednesday proposed more steps that the farmers have demanded, including limiting agricultural imports from Ukraine.
The measure, which will require approval from EU governments and the European Parliament, introduces an “emergency brake” for the most sensitive products imported from Ukraine – poultry, eggs and sugar – allowing tariffs if imports exceed the average levels of 2022 and 2023.
The Commission also proposed exempting farmers for 2024 from a requirement to keep a minimum share of their land fallow while still receiving EU subsidies – another request from farmers.
Imports from Ukraine, on which the EU has waived quotas and duties since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, and renewed talks on concluding a trade deal with South American nations in the Mercosur bloc have fanned farmers’ discontent.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire repeated that Paris does not want the Mercosur free trade deal to be signed in its current form because of a lack of guarantees that imported products would meet EU rules. But the European Commission has said it still aims to conclude the agreement.