February 9, 2024 - 4:00pm

There are three criteria which, above all, define a country’s sovereignty. One is the ability to protect national borders, another the capacity to feed its people, the third the provision of affordable and reliable energy for households and industries.

If people sense that politicians are undermining any of these three points, they tend to become anxious. This has been evidenced by the ongoing farmer protests in Europe, which have now spread to Spain, and which are currently enjoying significant popular support. There is no unifying theme motivating the protests. In the Netherlands it was about fertiliser, in France it is about the use of pesticides, in Germany it is about tax exemptions on agricultural diesel, and in Poland it is about cheaper agricultural imports from Ukraine. 

What they do share, however, is their effect as a catalyst for revealing the general dissatisfaction Europeans are feeling with their national and supranational (read EU) leadership. The attempts to denounce the protesters as far-Right rabble rousers have so far failed, forcing the European Commission to begin a process of giving in to the farmers’ demands. 

Under the European Green Deal, the EU aimed to achieve a 50% reduction in the overall use of pesticides and hazardous substances by 2030. However, this proposal faced criticism from both environmentalists, who deemed it insufficient to reach sustainability targets, and agriculture groups, who argued it would be unworkable and detrimental to farmers’ livelihoods. For now, the farmers have won this battle, as the EU Commission has this week decided to abandon the pesticide goal. 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for one, has realised that the previous approach of running roughshod over both farmers and the electorate with ambitious environmental goals is no longer working. Last week she acknowledged the need for a different approach and more dialogue. She emphasised the importance of providing farmers with a worthwhile business case for nature-enhancing measures, admitting that previous proposals had been made without sufficient consideration for their views. 

Not everyone, however, is trusting the new tune from Brussels, and there is some confusion about the EU’s mixed messaging on climate targets. There is still a plan for a 90% cut to net emissions by 2040 — but given the significant role of agriculture in the production of emissions, it is not clear how easing restrictions on farmers can be balanced with the ambition to accelerate decarbonisation across multiple economic sectors.

It is presently unclear whether these concessions will quell the spread of the protests. Suspicions remain that this U-turn is not attributable to a new respect for farmers, but instead has been made in anticipation of a potential shellacking of centre-left parties in the EU elections this June. The European People’s Party (an alliance of conservative parties in the European Parliament) already moved on the issue a year ago, and von der Leyen is eyeing a second term as Commission president, for which she will need the EPP’s support. Mistrust will therefore be hard to overcome, since it is entirely possible that, after the election, the environmental agenda will be quietly reinstated.