Farmers Protest Across Europe

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From the The Morning Dispatch on The Dispatch

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Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United Kingdom announced new sanctions on Wednesday targeting six Russian prison officials who worked at the penal colony where opposition leader Alexei Navalny died late last week. U.K. officials have concluded, according to Bloomberg, that guards at the prison constantly subjected Navalny to torture-like conditions and solitary confinement.

  • James Biden testified before the House Oversight Committee in a closed-door meeting on Wednesday as part of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into his brother, President Joe Biden. “I have had a 50-year career in a variety of business ventures,” James Biden said as part of his opening statement, as reported by multiple outlets. “Joe Biden has never had any involvement or any direct or indirect financial interest in those activities. None.” Hunter Biden, the president’s son, is expected to testify before the committee next week, on the heels of the indictment of former FBI informant Alexander Smirnov, a key witness in the impeachment inquiry, that alleged Smirnov had lied about the Bidens’ business dealings with Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings.

  • President Biden announced Wednesday the cancellation of $1.2 billion in student loans for about 153,000 borrowers, affecting individuals enrolled in the income-based repayment program called Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) who have been in repayment for 10 years and took out $12,000 or less. “If you qualify, you’ll be hearing from me shortly,” Biden said Wednesday, referring to an email selected borrowers would receive alerting them that their loans had been canceled. “The Biden-Harris Administration has now approved nearly $138 billion in student debt cancellation for almost 3.9 million borrowers through more than two dozen executive actions,” a White House fact sheet said.

  • Former Vice President Mike Pence launched the American Solutions Project, a $20 million organization that seeks to defend conservative principles from “​​the populist right and progressive left,” RealClearPolitics reported on Wednesday. “Our nation was founded on conservative principles that have stood the test of time,” Pence said in a statement. “The Constitution and this great American experiment must not be swayed by movements or personalities, but must hold fast to the time-honored principles that have made America strong and prosperous and free.” Pence sought the Republican nomination for president this cycle but dropped out of the race before a single primary vote was cast after his brand of conservatism failed to resonate with voters.

  • The University of Alabama at Birmingham, which houses the largest hospital in the state, announced Wednesday that it would pause all in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. The pause follows an Alabama Supreme Court ruling last week that said frozen embryos created and stored through IVF were legally considered children under the state’s wrongful death laws. “We are saddened that this will impact our patients’ attempt to have a baby through IVF, but we must evaluate the potential that our patients and our physicians could be prosecuted criminally or face punitive damages for following the standard of care for IVF treatments,” the hospital said in a statement released yesterday.

We Are Farmers

Farmers gather on February 17, 2024, to stage a protest against the coalition government’s agricultural policies as they convoy with tractors and other agricultural vehicles in Dusseldorf, Germany. (Photo by Kadir Ilboga/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Farmers gather on February 17, 2024, to stage a protest against the coalition government’s agricultural policies as they convoy with tractors and other agricultural vehicles in Dusseldorf, Germany. (Photo by Kadir Ilboga/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Farmers across Europe are taking to the streets in their tractors once again to protest a host of issues, including rising agricultural costs and shrinking profits, the costs of environmental regulation, and potential trade agreements that could undercut the European market. As Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo observed earlier this month, farmers face a “lasagna” of problems. And amid the renewed protests, European lawmakers are weighing their climate policy aims alongside the interests of a politically potent bloc as elections later this year loom large.

Farmer protests have become a more frequent feature in Europe over the last few years. The Netherlands, for example, was the site of particularly large demonstrations in 2022. But since the beginning of this year, protests have spread throughout the European Union (EU), reaching Spain, France, Greece, Belgium, Poland, Germany, Italy, Romania, and the Czech Republic, with long columns of tractors clogging the streets of cities ranging from Brussels, Barcelona, and Prague. In France, farmers tried to create a barricade of tractors around Paris by blocking the roads leading into the City of Love. In Berlin, tractors lined up at the Brandenburg Gate. In Rome, a farmer convoy rolled past the Colosseum.

What’s driving such widespread frustration? The unifying thread among Europe’s farmers is their shared struggle to make ends meet. “Agriculture has been on its knees for a long time, and we’ve reached the end of our rope,” one Italian farmer told PBS NewsHour last week. The farmers cite a range of factors as responsible for squeezing their already narrow profit margins, but common ones include EU-wide policies such as the Green Deal and the bloc’s common agricultural policy. “Don’t let us drown between market pressure, climate change, and regulation,” Peter Meedendorp, head of the European Council of Young Farmers, implored the European Parliament last week.

Malachy Mitchell, the managing director of Farrelly and Mitchell, an international food and agribusiness consulting firm, explained the farmers’ major points of contention include the burden of red tape on smaller farms and competition from cheap food imports from other countries that don’t have to comply with EU regulations. Mitchell also told TMD that additional complaints include “higher taxes, particularly on fuel, which is a major input in relation to the production of food, and generally rising costs around inputs, that’s fuel, fertilizer, crop protection, pesticides, etc.” And while there’s consolidation throughout much of the food supply chain, most of the EU’s farms remain small operations: 94 percent are family farms, and more than 70 percent are smaller than 10 hectares. “There’s quite a concentration at one end of the supply chain,” Mitchell said. “So all the time these costs are being passed back onto them.”

To top it all off, the European Commission adopted an ambitious climate agenda in 2020, and farmers believe they’ll be forced to absorb too much of the cost of the transition. The Green Deal set goals of reducing emissions by 55 percent by 2030 and having no net EU greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—and it prescribed a slew of regulations and requirements like halving pesticide use, reducing fertilizer use, upping animal welfare requirements, and rewilding some agricultural land. “Farming and food are a 30 percent, give or take, contributor to emissions,” Mitchell told TMD. “They have a significant role to play in that, but farmers have to be compensated. That’s what they’re saying.”

Some farmers also object to the quota- and tariff-free access the EU granted to Ukrainian agricultural exports following Russia’s invasion in early 2022. Polish farmers say the flow of Ukrainian grain has flooded the market and depressed prices—the farmers have put up tractor blockades along the Poland-Ukraine border this week and even dumped Ukrainian grain from a freight train.

In Germany, farmers have protested the proposed end of both a tax refund on diesel fuel used by farms and a farm vehicle tax exemption after Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition moved in December to cut both tax breaks to help deal with a shortfall in Germany’s 2024 budget. Lawmakers eventually decided to keep the vehicle exemption in place after protests broke out, but still cut the fuel subsidy—albeit on a three-year phase-out schedule.

A similar process played out in France, where the government proposed reductions to agricultural fuel subsidies and later abandoned the proposal. French farmers also oppose the free trade negotiations between the EU and Mercosur, a South American trade bloc. “They’re saying, ‘Okay, you want me to produce my food this way, but hey, countries that are exporting into the EU are not doing this, so it’s not a level playing field,’” Mitchell told TMD. French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal publicly decried the potential deal earlier this month, saying, “There is no question of France accepting this treaty.” The French government also suspended a plan to reduce pesticide use and announced increased financial support for farmers. In response, two of France’s big farmer unions suspended their protests.

Lawmakers—in France and across the continent—have certainly become more attuned to farmers’ concerns as the protests have intensified and the chances of an electoral backlash have increased. As a result, the European Commission has walked back a number of the policies included in the Green Deal. Half of the regulations included in the commission’s ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy, a food system reform plan central to the Green Deal, appear to be stalled. Requirements for farmers to leave a portion of their land fallow were postponed last week, and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also withdrew the plan to halve pesticide use by 2030. “Our farmers deserve to be listened to,” she said in a speech earlier this month. “I know that they are worried about the future of agriculture and about their future as farmers. But they also know that agriculture needs to move to a more sustainable model of production, so that their farms remain profitable in the years to come.”

Some free-market critics of the protests argue that farmers are simply a special interest group engaged in rent-seeking. “A sector used to exorbitant privileges—roughly one-third of the EU’s budget goes on subsidies to the Common Agricultural Policy, after all—has felt them slip from its grasp,” Stanley Pignal, The Economist’s European affairs columnist, argued this month, likening the Paris farm protests to the Viking and Prussian sieges of the city. “It is in many ways a familiar story, of a privileged caste sensing its status declining.” But privileged caste or not, the common agricultural policy (CAP)—the EU’s foundational farming regulatory and subsidization regime—is deeply ingrained and unlikely to go away anytime soon, due in no small part to the political pressure farmers can exert. (CAP is the oldest EU policy still in operation.)

The European Parliament elections, the largest cross-border election in the world, are set for this June, and Von der Leyen announced this week she’ll seek a second term as president of the commission. European centrist and liberal parties are concerned that farmers’ discontent could lead to right-wing victories this summer, and such parties, including Alternative for Germany (AfD) and France’s National Rally led by Marine Le Pen, have tried to take up the farmer’s cause. Dutch farmers’ discontent contributed to Geert Wilders’ upset win in the Netherlands’ November elections, and the Farmer-Citizen Movement party secured a surprising victory in the Dutch provincial elections last spring. “We’ll probably see more of that, political groups trying to align or capitalize on these protests,” Patrick Schröder, a U.K.-based senior research fellow at Chatham House’s Environment and Society Centre, told TMD. An election forecast model created by the European Council on Foreign Relations projected last month that populist parties would top the polls in nine EU countries, boosting right-wing representation in parliament.

Schröder argued that more work needs to be done to proactively involve farmers in policy change. “The farmer protests are a prime example of where sustainability risks being derailed because insufficient thought has been given to the need for a ‘just transition’—one that brings people most affected by the transition on the journey by preserving their livelihoods,” Schröder wrote last month. “If not, the rural communities’ vulnerabilities—to left and right—will be exploited for political gain.”

For some on the tractor lines, that feeling of exploitation is already here. “Politicians only want to get elected, so they are latching onto the farmers movement,” a 55-year-old French farmer participating in the protests earlier this month told Fortune. “The right-wing parties, the environmentalists—everyone is piling in.”

Worth Your Time

  • Writing for his Substack, The Honest Broker, Ted Gioia laments the state of our culture—specifically, the sliding away from art and entertainment toward distraction and addiction. “Even the dumbest entertainment looks like Shakespeare compared to dopamine culture,” he wrote, arguing that the way we have been conditioned to consume content is now solely to create micro dopamine hits, over and over again. “You don’t need Hamlet, a photo of a hamburger will suffice. Or a video of somebody twerking, or a pet looking goofy. Instead of movies, users get served up an endless sequence of 15-second videos. Instead of symphonies, listeners hear bite-sized melodies, usually accompanied by one of these tiny videos—just enough for a dopamine hit, and no more. This is the new culture. And its most striking feature is the absence of Culture (with a capital C) or even mindless entertainment—both get replaced by compulsive activity.”

Presented Without Comment

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Also Presented Without Comment

GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, asked by CNN’s Manu Raju how an indictment alleging that FBI informant Alexander Smirnov lied about the alleged bribery scheme underpinning Republicans’ efforts to impeach President Joe Biden: “It doesn’t change the facts.”

Raju: What Smirnov said was not true, would you concede that?

Jordan: Well, yeah, that’s what the FBI’s saying.

Toeing the Company Line

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  • On the podcasts: Brad Wilcox, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor at the University of Virginia, joins Jonah on The Remnant to make the case that getting married and starting a family is the best way of leading a prosperous life. On Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David are joined by Judges Jennifer Elrod and Charles Eskridge to explain a special networking group for attorneys.

  • On the site: John lays out the stakes of the coming battle for control of the Senate—and which states will make the difference.

Let Us Know

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