Protests in Brussels are getting out of hand and it could upset VDL's election campaign – analysis by Millie Cooke

Ursula von der Leyen and farmers protest in Brussels

Ursula von der Leyen's election chances could be upset as Brussels farmer protests get out of hand

Millie Cooke

By Millie Cooke

Published: 28/02/2024

- 10:23

Brussels is in the grip of increasingly out-of-hand protests, staged by farmers furious at EU green bureaucracy and a squeeze on their incomes.

At the beginning of February, farmers stormed the Belgian capital, armed with firecrackers, and lit a large bonfire outside the European Parliament ahead of an EU summit due to take place later that day.

And this week, the heat returned as piles of old tyres were set ablaze on Monday in a protest to demand action on issues including cheap supermarket prices, free trade deals and strenuous EU environmental rules. They also parked more than 100 tractors around the EU institution headquarters and toppled a statue. Brussels police were forced to fire water cannons to put out the flames.

But why are they so angry?

Riot police in BrusselsRiot police in BrusselsReuters
Farmers protest in BrusselsFarmers protest in BrusselsReuters

For most farmers, it’s about income. Many of them feel that they're not able to make a decent living in the current conditions. There is reticence in the farming community towards environmental policies which are pushing up prices, along with free trade deals which enable the imports of cheaper foreign produce.

A stage set up at the protest site on Monday was draped with a sign that said “stop EU Mercosur” - a reference to ongoing negotiations to conclude an EU trade agreement with the Mercosur group of South American countries.

The EU Commission has made some progress towards easing their concerns. Agriculture ministers are set to debate a new set of EU proposals to ease the pressure on farmers, such as a reduction in farm inspections and exemptions from some environmental standards for smaller farms. And earlier this year, the EU scrapped a goal to cut farming emissions from its 2040 climate plan. It has also scrapped a planned law to reduce pesticides and delayed imposing a target to ensure farmers leave some land fallow to improve biodiversity.

European Commission President Ursula von der LeyenEuropean Commission President Ursula von der LeyenGETTY

But this week's protests show the rage has not been snuffed out. They will have to go much further. But not just for the farmers - also for Von der Leyen's reelection campaign.

While the farming community does not represent a majority of those who will cast their votes at the EU election, there will be concern that it taps into a wider discontent in the EU. Von der Leyen is certainly aware of it.

Ahead of her reelection campaign, Von der Leyen took the axe to anything that smacks of overreach by Brussels - such as culling one of her key agricultural policies and slowly chipping away at her prized green deal.

She is well aware of what opposition like this week's protests in Brussels could do to her overall image. Given Von der Leyen has now confirmed she is running for a second term, getting this angry group on side is more important than ever.