Ministers urge EU to increase subsidies as farmers protest in Brussels

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Ministers have urged the EU to increase funding for the €60bn-a-year Common Agricultural Policy subsidy scheme in a bid to quell protests as Belgian farmers blockaded roads and set fire to tyres in central Brussels.

The CAP, which consumes about a third of the EU’s joint budget and is the oldest of the bloc’s policies still in operation, is designed to provide a steady stream of income to farmers in order to ensure food production.

But as farmers staged their latest protests on Monday over rising costs and environmental regulations, ministers gathering in Brussels to discuss emergency measures to placate farmers said more money was crucial.

Charlie McConalogue, Ireland’s agriculture minister, told the Financial Times that the CAP had “eroded” in real terms over the past years and “must be strengthened in terms of its funding”.

“Food security and supporting food production [should be] put very much back at the centre of . . . European budgetary considerations,” he said, a call echoed by ministers from France, Poland and other eastern European countries, according to diplomats present at the talks.

The CAP accounts for €386.6bn of the bloc’s €1.21tn common budget, which runs from 2021 to 2027. Some 80 per cent of the scheme’s money goes to just 20 per cent of farmers.

The debate over its increase comes amid heated discussions over priorities for the EU’s joint budget, with governments reluctant to contribute more due to stretched national finances and a need to spend more on defence after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

Piet Adema, the Dutch agricultural minister, said that instead of boosting the CAP, member states should be allowed more flexibility in how the funds could be used, but said consumers should also accept the need to pay more for their food.

Adema said: “There should be more transparency in the whole food supply chain: where are the earnings made, where are the losses made and how can we influence that?

“The amount of money you pay for your food compared to 20 or 30 years ago relatively has gone down so when we as a society want our farmers to produce honest sustainable goods, we have to pay for them.”

Farmers have not only called for more funds but also a relaxation in environmental regulations and a reconsideration of trade deals that they say are allowing cheap food imports to undercut prices for EU producers.

In Brussels on Monday, hundreds of tractors blockaded streets close to where ministers were meeting. Some drove at riot police and destroyed barbed wire barricades set up around the main buildings.

Several protesters threw manure and brandished placards with slogans such as “leave a future for our children, don’t kill our parents”. Police used water cannon to douse burning tyres.

The demonstrations follow weeks of protests across EU countries including France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania and Spain. Farmers blocked a major motorway in Poland on Monday and threatened to continue their blockades for more than 20 days unless their demands were met.

French President Emmanuel Macron missed a G7 meeting at the weekend as he spent 13 hours meeting farmers at the country’s annual Salon de l’Agriculture trade show. He called for “calm” after facing protests at the event.

“We’re not going to be able to fix the farming crisis in a few hours,” he said.

Ministers agreed that proposals put forward by the European Commission last week aimed at cutting red tape for farmers trying to access CAP funds were “a step in the right direction”, said David Clarinval, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, but “more ambitious measures” were needed.

The commission has already withdrawn a flagship proposal to cut pesticide use and deleted emissions reductions targets for agriculture from a document outlining options for future EU climate policy.

Agriculture will be on the agenda of the EU leaders’ summit in March, one EU diplomat said.

In a letter to the commission on Friday, Copa Cogeca, the main farming lobby group, said the bloc’s environmental agenda had resulted in “a regulatory tsunami, with too many rushed consultations, top-down targets lacking assessment, and proposals pushed through without feasibility studies”.

But Via Campesina, one of the groups behind Monday’s protest, which represents small food producers and agricultural workers, said: “Putting a stop to various measures aimed at protecting the environment is an easy solution that meets the needs of agribusiness players. Administrative simplification measures are necessary, but obviously insufficient to guarantee an income for our farms.”

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels

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