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European farmers angry at climate policies could help sway EU parliamentary elections

Anthony Lee stands in front of his barn on his family farm in the German state of Lower Saxony. Lee has been an outspoken critic of the European Union’s climate change policies and has been a leader in the farmer protest movement in Europe. He’s running for EU Parliament for the right-wing Free Voter party and his YouTube channel has over 24 million views.
Rob Schmitz
/
NPR
Anthony Lee stands in front of his barn on his family farm in the German state of Lower Saxony. Lee has been an outspoken critic of the European Union’s climate change policies and has been a leader in the farmer protest movement in Europe. He’s running for EU Parliament for the right-wing Free Voter party and his YouTube channel has over 24 million views.

HANNOVER, Germany — Last year, Anthony Lee received a letter from the Agriculture Ministry of the German state of Lower Saxony, where he runs his family’s farm. The letter informed him that a tree had fallen on his land, removing the cultivation potential of a few hundred square feet of sugar beet fields, and therefore his annual farming subsidy would be reduced by the equivalent of around $10.

“Every three days, satellites fly over our property, our fields,” Lee says, pointing to the sky. “And then every farmer has to download an app and we get push messages that say: 'On your field on such and such a day, something’s not right. Take a picture and send us this picture.’ That’s how crazy it’s gotten now.”

Twenty-first century farming in Europe means GPS-enabled tractors, climate change-inspired rules and crop rotations monitored by cameras in space.

“If the satellite picture shows you or shows to the government that something is not correct, so if you say we grow wheat and [instead] you grow corn, it would automatically send them a message that there's something wrong,” says Lee. “Or if you bring out manure [at] a certain time which you're not allowed, or if you plow your field, I mean, they are honestly talking about not plowing.”

Lee — a candidate in this week's elections for European Parliament — is a spokesman for a German farmers' association that's been organizing farmer protests.

He says it’s beginning to feel like the state is slowly taking over his farm. He's not alone.

So far this year, farmers in every part of Europe have staged more than 4,000 protests, a 300% increaseover last year, according to global risk data firm Verisk Maplecroft. They’re angry about new environmental regulations, the removal of subsidies and cheap agricultural imports that don't meet the same level of requirements of food they produce. As the European Union holds parliamentary elections this week, surveys and analysts are predicting a swing toward the right. Vocal farmers could prove to be a powerful force to help sway the vote.

Farmers park their tractors near the European Parliament during a protest action by numerous European farmer associations in Brussels, on Tuesday.
Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu via Getty Images
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Anadolu via Getty Images
Farmers park their tractors near the European Parliament during a protest action by numerous European farmer associations in Brussels, on Tuesday.

Armed with beets and manure

European officials have set a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than half by 2030, as scientists say Europe has become the fastest-warming continent on the planet. But the EU has weakened or shelved some proposed agricultural policies as a concession to protesting farmers.

Several of the demonstrations have turned violent, like protests in February and March in Brussels, the seat of EU government. Farmers pelted police with beets and then sprayed liquid manure on them before police responded with tear gas and water cannons.

“I mean, we’re talking, in the case of European farmers, of relatively small-scale farmers who are good at their farming,” says Alan Matthews, a retired professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College in Dublin.

“But we’re now asking them to be — in addition to being a farmer and of course to being a financial manager — we’re now asking them to be part ecologist, part nature conservationist,” Matthews says. “They need to know how they're impacting greenhouse gas emissions. So there's a whole range of additional obligations, requirements, if you like, that we're asking farmers to make.”

Agriculture contributes 10% of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through methane and nitrous oxide, according to the European Commission.

From climate change marches to protests against climate laws

In the last European parliamentary elections in 2019, pro-environment Green Party politicians had their strongest showing amid mass, student-led protests around the world for action against climate change. Now the pendulum could swing.

Matthews says the farmer protest movement across Europe in the months leading up to the elections reminds him of the climate change demonstrations around the previous vote. “We now have farmer protests instead of youth protests prior to the European elections,” Matthews observes. “But I think that the protests in themselves are likely to have a similar impact" — in the opposite direction.

Matthews sees the pendulum swing in the draft of the five-year strategic agenda published by the European Council, the EU's top decision-making body. The last five-year agenda outlined a transition to a greener, more sustainable Europe, “and all of that language has disappeared from the current draft of the next strategic agenda,” Matthews says. “The focus is much more on competitiveness, on sovereignty, on trade issues, which also is reflected in the food and agricultural agenda.”

This shift has alarmed many politicians concerned about the environment. Michael Bloss, a German member of the EU Parliament for the Green Party, says stalling climate change policies to placate protesting farmers is a step backward. “That's bad for environmental policies,” he says. “Their whole sector hasn't been really regulated in terms of climate, so it cannot be climate policies that makes them angry. But for sure, we are fighting together with them to get better prices for their production. But here this is something that it's not the Greens who are responsible, but it's the big retailers who don't give them enough for their produce.”

For farmer Lee, low produce prices are an additional problem, and that’s why he’s turned to other sources of revenue like a small hotel and beer garden he’s built on his farm to attract tourists to the region.

But Lee says the bigger problem is the Green Party itself. “It’s definitely an agenda to get rid of small farming businesses,” he says of the Greens' policies. “They tell us the opposite. The first farms that go bankrupt are small farms because they can’t cope with this system.”

Anthony Lee’s farm in Lower Saxony, Germany.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
/
NPR
Anthony Lee’s farm in Lower Saxony, Germany.

Lee has taken to YouTube to air his grievances — where his hundreds of videos have more than 24 million combined views.

He’s running for EU Parliament for the right-wing Free Voters party. He has attracted media attention for blaming politicians for wanting to take farmers’ land to build housing for refugees, a claim for which he provided no evidence.

Lee shrugs off this criticism, saying he does not belong to the far-right. He says he’s simply a family farmer who wants the EU to return more decision-making powers to those who work the land and feed Europe.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this report from Berlin.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.