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Traffic-blocking farmers now closing in on EU capital in a protest seeking better market conditions

By RAF CASERT, Associated Press
Published: January 31, 2024, 8:08am
3 Photos
Farmers block the M6 motorway near Lyon, central France, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. French farmers protest across the country and in Brussels against low wages and what they consider to be excessive regulation, mounting costs and other problems.
Farmers block the M6 motorway near Lyon, central France, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. French farmers protest across the country and in Brussels against low wages and what they consider to be excessive regulation, mounting costs and other problems. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani) Photo Gallery

HALLE, Belgium (AP) — Farmers blocked more traffic arteries across Belgium, France and Italy on Wednesday, as they sought to disrupt trade at major ports and other economic lifelines. They also moved closer to Brussels on the eve of a major European Union summit, in a continued push for better prices for their produce and less bureaucracy in their work.

The protests had an immediate impact on Wednesday — the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced plans to shield farmers from cheap exports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons.

The plans still need to be approved by the bloc’s 27 member states and European Parliament, but they amounted to a sudden and symbolic concession.

“I just would like to reassure them that we do our utmost to listen to their concerns. I think we are addressing two very important (concerns) of them right now,” European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefcovic said.

The rallies are part of farming protests across the EU and have shown how only a few hundred tractors can snarl traffic in capitals from Berlin to Paris, Brussels and Rome. Millions across the bloc have been facing disruptions and struggling to get to work, or seen their doctor’s appointments canceled because protests blocked their way.

“It obviously has a major economic impact. Not only for our company, but for many companies in Flanders and Belgium,” said Sven Pieters of the ECS transport company in Belgium’s Zeebrugge North Sea port.

In France, the prosecutor in Creteil, south of Paris, said that 15 people have been placed in police custody Wednesday after they have been arrested near the entrance of the Rungis international market, where they headed with tractors.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has warned farmers encircling Paris that any attempt to block the Rungis market and airports, and to enter into the capital would be considered “red lines.” The Rungis market supplies Paris and the surrounding regions with fresh food.

Protesters put a big banner on the A6 highway, south of the French capital, writing: “Paris, let our farmers get through” as police armored vehicles were blocking the road. No major incidents between police and farmers have been reported so far.

A climax in Belgium is set for Thursday, when farmers plan to protest outside EU headquarters during a summit of government leaders. They will seek to get their issues on the summit agenda and win some concessions on the financial burdens they face and the increased competition from nations as far away as Chile and New Zealand.

“It is important that we listen to them,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. “They face gigantic challenges,” from adapting to climate change to countering environmental pollution, he said.

Belgium currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and De Croo said that he would address the issue during the summit as a late addition to an agenda centered on providing aid to Ukraine, after Russia’s full-scale invasion nearly two years ago.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to hold off on a free trade deal with South American nations because of the vehement opposition of EU farmers and will discuss the issue at the summit.

Despite the widespread inconveniences, governments in the EU are treating protests, which have been mostly peaceful, with extreme caution.

Spanish farmers were also set to add their weight to the protests. Three main Spanish farming associations agreed to begin protests in the coming weeks to demand changes in what they describe as overly restrictive EU policies.

Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Ciaran Giles in Madrid, contributed to this report.

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