Europe’s farmers are receiving ever more handouts from politicians, despite their relatively meagre contribution to our economy and increasingly obstinate stance against the EU’s efforts to adapt to a changing world.
In Europe, farmers are kings. Just look at agricultural subsidies in the EU’s budget, which consume a third of the bloc’s funds. But farmers don’t seem ready to play their part in a changing world and they should bear the consequences.
The EU must adapt to changes in Europe’s security order. Embracing countries like Ukraine is a must. Still, Joachim Rukwied, the president of the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), said he couldn’t imagine “that we will be able to merge” the EU and Ukraine.
Letting Ukraine in would mean “consciously accepting the demise of family farming in Europe,” he stressed, adding that obstacles like corruption and lower production standards would stand in the way of the country’s accession anyway.
Notwithstanding that these are being addressed today as Kyiv prepares to start membership talks.
Where is this confidence coming from? Why are farmers confidently blockading streets and ripping up pavements with their tractors during mass protests demanding more funding or better terms?
Should anyone care about family farming?
It is hard to ignore that rural areas would look different without farmers there to provide some of the jobs and care for some of the infrastructure. But the actual impact of farming is small.
Agriculture, despite being propped up by generous subsidies, contributed a mere 1.4% to the EU’s GDP in 2022. But farmers employed 8.7 million people in the slow-changing, inefficient sector.
Still, the sector is on the receiving end of every free lunch available. Think of any policy field, and you’ll find politicians willing to give handouts to farmers.
While almost all of Europe’s economy will be subject to a capped carbon trading system, agricultural equipment will not.
Similarly, the EU will finally start tackling methane emissions – the second-largest greenhouse gas – from the energy sector. But the biggest source of European methane emissions – agriculture, which produces 53% – is not affected.
Two influential centre-right (EPP) EU lawmakers, Christian Ehler and Peter Liese, who both hail from Germany and direct the European Parliament’s largest party in matters of industry and environment, called that a “pragmatic” choice.
“Especially in the current phase, when food prices are rising, we must be extremely cautious about placing burdens on agriculture,” the two said.
When it comes to the Industrial Emissions Directive – the law which should have tackled bovine methane emissions – the EPP was so keen to please farmers that they struck cows from the law entirely.
This had the effect of making EU countries, who simply raised the proposed animal limit until it would no longer be effective, more progressive than Parliament, a feat that is about hard to come by as reasons for EU farmers to be as confident as they seem.
Then there was the controversy surrounding the EU’s nature restoration law. This, too, was framed as a gift to farmers. Or the instance when farmers blew up the trade pact with Australia to protect their livestock and meat production.
With the 2024 elections looming, one can only wonder what new demands farmers could have in return for their allegiance.
Yes, food is crucial to human life. But so is electricity or mobility. No other sector has so effectively subordinated politicians to its extremely particular – and climate-damaging – interests as farmers have.
Recognising farmers for the economic liability – and a political problem – that they are could fix many of the EU’s problems.
Remember Europe’s labour shortage? How about consolidating the farming sector instead of painstakingly keeping inefficient family farms around? This would make workers more productive and food output would remain stable. Additional labourers would become available – a miniature “Wirtschaftswunder”, if you will.
Global climate crisis? Start tackling the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Poverty in Africa? Curtail farmers’ ability to abuse EU subsidies to sell to Africans at dumping prices and thereby prevent African farming from becoming competitive – thus enabling Europe’s “partner continent” to take matters into its own hands.
It is time that farmers – like the rest of the economy – pay their dues and contribute to overcoming Europe’s near-infinite challenges, instead of adding to them.
By Nikolaus Kurmayer