Farmers bring down Cockerill statue in Brussels protest as 1,000 tractors block roads
Protest on day of EU summit comes as France lays out concessions to protesters leading to union bosses to call on farmers in the country to go home
Emmanuel Macron has said that Europes farming sector is facing a major crisis and needs to profoundly change its rules after more than 1,000 tractors brought part of Brussels to a standstill, calling on EU leaders to do more to support them with rising costs and environmental rules.
Farmers in several countries across Europe have been blocking roads for days as part of protests, with France particularly hard hit. Speaking after a leaderss summit in the Belgian capital, the French president said that Europe is not deaf to the plight of farmers and that simplified regulations across the EU would help. The statement came after France laid out plans for some concessions to the protesters, leading to unions to call on them to go home.
Earlier in the day, farmers threw eggs and stones at the European parliament, started fires near the building and toppled a statue of John Cockerill a British-Belgian who helped Belgium’s industrial revolution who the protesters potentially mistook for someone connected to the EU. Small groups tried to tear down the barriers erected in front of the parliament a few streets from where the leaders summit was taking place but police fired tear gas and sprayed water at the farmers with hoses to push them back.
Major thoroughfares in Brussels were blocked by around 1,300 tractors, according to police. Security personnel in riot gear stood guard behind barriers where the leaders were meeting at European Council headquarters.
If you see with how many people we are here today, and if you see its all over Europe, so you must have hope, said Kevin Bertens, a farmer from just outside Brussels. You need us. Help us!
Farmers from Italy, Spain and other European countries took part in the demonstration in Brussels, as well as continuing their protests at home. In Portugal, farmers made their way to the Spanish border at the crack of dawn to block some of the roads links between the two countries.
One of Belgiums biggest supermarket chains Colruyt said on Thursday three of its distribution centres were blocked by protesting farmers, leading to disruptions in its supply chain. Centres located in Ollignies, Ghislenghien and Halle in central western Belgium, which supply Colruyt’s Belgian shops with dry food, water and drinks, and fresh and frozen products, were no longer accessible.
At the moment, stock is still available in our shops… [but] it is inevitable that products will eventually be missing from the shelves, Colruyt said in a statement, adding that it was difficult to make definitive statements on timing as shops have different stock levels.
Colruyt Group has always focused on sourcing locally as much as possible and succeeds very well in this for many categories, the store chain said. It added it understood farmers concerns but did not see blockades as a solution to them.
In France, where farmers stepped up protests at the start of the week, the impact of dozens of blockades is also being felt, said Eric Hemar, the head of a federation of transport and logistics employers.
We did a poll among our federation members: all transport firms are impacted (by the farmers protest) and have lost over the past 10 days about 30 per cent of their revenue, because we are not able to deliver on time or with delays, he told France Info.
In his latest speech aimed at easing tensions with angry farmers, Frances prime minister Gabriel Attal earlier said France would enshrine in law the principle that it should be self-reliant in food and it will tighten import controls.
Mr Attal, speaking at a press conference, also said the government will stop imposing stricter regulation on its farmers than European Union regulations require.
It makes no sense to ban pesticides in France before such decisions are taken on an EU level. We will end this practice, he said.
Background from BBC: Climate change or market change? Cold callers shock farmers with tree-plant plea
Detailing his agenda to boost Frances agricultural sector, Europes largest, Mr Attal said it was out of the question that France would agree to the Mercosur trade deal with Latin American countries.
He also said France will step up safety checks on food imports, notably to make sure that imported foods do not have traces of pesticides that are banned in France or the EU.
The finance ministry said the new emergency measures for the sector, focused largely on supporting struggling livestock farmers and wine producers, would cost 400 million (340m), plus 200m in cash advances.
Union leaders called on their members to end the roadblocks in the wake of the speech but said this came with the condition that the promises be followed by concrete progress. They said they would give the government a three-week deadline until the start of Frances giant Salon de lAgriculture farming trade fair for the first results to show.
From Monday, were going to get to work in the prefectures and ministries to work on all the points that have been announced, said Arnaud Gaillot, the head of the Young Farmers (Jeunes Agriculteurs) union.
The protests across Europe come ahead of the European parliament elections. While the farmers crisis was not officially on the agenda of the EU summit, which focused on aid to Ukraine, an EU diplomat said the situation with the farmers was likely to be discussed later in the day.
Farmers have already secured several measures, including the blocs executive commission proposals to limit farm imports from Ukraine and loosen some environmental regulations on fallow lands, which several EU leaders welcomed as they arrived at the summit.