Farmers Protests, Policy Failures and the Lobby  

Farmer’s Defence Force rally in Brussels June 4th. Photo (c) Natasha Foote

Wouter van de Klippe delves into the recent farmer’s protests, and assesses the role both the agri-lobby Copa-Cogeca, and the Common Agricultural Policy itself, have played. Van de Klippe argues that behind Europe’s farmers protests lie decades of policy failures and a lobby determined to steer the conversation.

For any observer of European politics, this year began with the kaleidoscopic colours of banners decorating farmers’ protests occupying Europe’s cobble-stoned capitals. With Brussels speckled with liquid manure and its glass windowed buildings shaking with the sound of tractors roaming the streets, Europe’s farmers have made their anger known. 

Anger and frustration is understandable in a context where 3 million farms have been closed or bought out across the EU over the past decade,  while , somehow, total agricultural land has increased. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has shown that average farm incomes remain below national average incomes in many EU countries. 

The COVID pandemic and war in Ukraine has made the situation worse. While food prices have increased across the EU, this money hasn’t gone towards farmers. The prices that farmers received for their produce has fallen by 9% between 2022 and 2023 while large food conglomerates like PepsiCo and Nestlé have made enormous profits. The four giant global agribusiness corporations ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus saw profit increases of 255% in 2021 compared to 2019.

Behind many shuttering farms are stories of anguish as families are uprooted from their land and bought out by large landowners. These pressures have forced farmers to the streets, and yet, it is noteworthy that statistics on disappearing farms and farmers are not central in the discourse describing Europe’s farmer protests.

Dominant Narratives

As a result of the protests, a narrative formed where protesting farmers are seen as solely fighting against the EU’s green policies. While it’s certainly the case that some of the animosity seen on Europe’s streets has been directed against the EU’s green policies, this hides the complexity underlying the political movement and ignores that many of the protests have been led by farmers calling for policies to help them create a socially and ecologically just food system. 

Rather than listen to these farmers, the EU’s response has been to listen to the  demands of Europe’s largest agri-lobby.

It has focused on reducing administrative burden and erasing green requirements – plans which will do nothing to stem the tide of closing farms, falling incomes, and land consolidation across the EU.  

Two of the major actors in the EU’s farming story are Copa-Cogeca, the EU’s largest agricultural lobbying organisation, and the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s agricultural subsidy scheme that’s meant to secure stable incomes for farmers but, some have argued, has failed to remedy the EU’s deepening rural inequality. 

Copa Cogeca’s booming voice

Self-described as the voice of the EU’s farmers, Copa-Cogeca has been effective in influencing the EU’s agricultural policies for decades. Copa-Cogeca is a hybrid lobbying organisation that consists of farmers’ unions and companies with members from across the bloc. For years, it has had intimate access to EU institutions and closely aligned itself with agri-industrial giants and their lobbying organisations, such as CropLife. 

For example, the EU’s directorate general for agriculture and rural development has special dialogue groups that are meant to include a diverse spectrum of voices to represent various civic interests. The NGO Corporate European Observatory (CEO) found that Copa-Cogeca dominates many of these groups, filling 28 out of 72 seats in one of the groups and chairing eight out of thirteen of them in 2019. 

CEO even found that the European Commission pays for the travel costs whenever Copa-Cogeca national representatives come to Brussels for expert group meetings. Rather than being treated as a lobbying organisation, some have described Copa-Cogeca’s insider access as a “matter of tradition.”

This “tradition” has given the organisation ample opportunities to have its voice heard in the negotiations of Europe’s agricultural and environmental policies. 

While the EU’s Farm to Fork (FtF) and Biodiversity strategies were still being written, Copa Cogeca secured meetings with representatives Frans Timmermans (then European commission vice-president) and Anne Bucher (then Director-General for Health and Food Safety at the commission)/ During these meetings, Copa-Cogeca emphasised the costs of the FtF strategy and argued that its pesticide targets will “drive farmers out of business.” 

These meetings and their style shows that the lobbying organisation has had access to the upper-echelon of EU decision-makers for years. 

Other organisations, such as the agri-industrial lobbying group CropLife and pesticide producers Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, and Corteva have also had frequent meetings with European commissioners and their employees. Since 2019, CropLife has secured at least 12 meetings while the companies mentioned above have collectively had at least 69 meetings. 

Nevertheless, to say that Copa-Cogeca and its allies represent all EU farmers would be inaccurate. 

The investigative journalism network Lighthouse Reports investigated the Copa-Cogeca and found that many farmers are increasingly feeling estranged from it. One farmer said that “most of the young farmers I know and work with are indeed disconnected and in complete disagreement with the vision of Copa-Cogeca.” 

Thomas Waitz, Green MEP and ecological farmer from Austria told the Lighthouse Reports investigators that Copa-Cogeca only represents big farms, leaving those like his without equal representation at the European level. 

The organisation’s views on small-scale and ecological farming practices are pessimistic, and at times, actively hostile. UK based think-tank Influence Map found that Copa-Cogeca was one of the most engaged and “hostile” organisations against biodiversity policies of all of the organisations they assessed. 

According to the report published by Influence map, “Copa Cogeca has repeatedly made seemingly misleading statements about biodiversity loss.” The report also argued that Copa Cogeca has opposed targets for protected biodiversity areas, fought against pesticide reduction targets, rejected a ban on certain neonicotinoid pesticides, and even exploited the war in Ukraine as an excuse to curtail environmental and land-use reforms for the agricultural sector. 

The head of Copa-Cogeca, Pekka Pesonen, has expressed the view that the survival of small-scale farmers is currently unrealistic and that “the market just doesn’t reward this.” He told Politico that he’s not against organic farming per se, but “that fundamentally, it has to be sustained by the market itself.” 

That small-scale farming practices are currently unsupported by “the market” may be, at least in part, an outcome of the policies that his lobby has lobbied for over the past years. 

An impact of these recent farmers’ protests, has been the lobby having success in breaking down some of the EU’s nascent green agri-food policies, policies which activists and environmental organisations have been fighting for for decades. In response to the farmers’ protests, Copa-Cogeca was given a meeting with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, again illustrating the lobby’s access to the top of Europe’s institutions. 

In February, Copa-Cogeca met with European Commission president von der Leyen and prime ministers Alexander de Croo of Belgium and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. The meeting was described as highly productive and has already borne fruit as the European commission granted temporary exemptions for certain environmental requirements for subsidies – a long-held ambition of Copa-Cogeca. 

The outcomes of the protests thus far have been a virtual cornucopia of Copa-Cogeca’s wish list for policy reforms that largely align with the interests of the large agro-industry. 

This chronicle reveals that Copa-Cogeca has successfully capitalised on legitimate grievances experienced by the farming sector to strengthen their bargaining position and push for legislative changes they have desired for years. This represents an ever-deepening of the organisation’s ties to the EU’s top-brass.

(More recent Lighthouse research widens and deepens the analysis of the  network of power in the agri-food lobby.)

What has not happened is a meaningful step towards legislation that would significantly change their economic hardships. 

The limitations of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy 

A second major actor in this story is the EU’s large agricultural subsidy program, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  Since various reforms, it has moved from being focused on production and income support into a wider set of objectives in the social, economic and environmental areas. 

Research conducted by academics at the University of Utrecht and Lund University have shown that the scale of mismanagement of CAP funding is in the billions. The authors argue that the CAP frequently “exacerbates inequality within agriculture while little funding supports climate-friendly and biodiverse farming regions.”

In an interview with one of the co-authors of the research mentioned above, Dr. Mark Brady of Lund University said that there are significant challenges when applying such a broad subsidy scheme across the vast diversity of agricultural communities throughout the EU. 

“For farmers in Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, who are often not poor, the income support is not nearly as significant for farmers in Romania and Poland for example, who often don’t have alternative income support schemes.” He continued saying in terms of the CAP’s goal for income support, “a lot of payments go to highly productive regions that don’t need income support.” 

In the research introduced above, it was highlighted that a significant share of CAP payments go towards regions where agricultural incomes and emissions are highest, whereas some of the poorest regions receive the fewest funds. 

This complexity is also the case in recent reforms that have attempted to “green the CAP”, such as a major reform in 2015 which integrated environmental conditionalities for the reception of CAP funds: “some of these reforms have been problematic because they weren’t adapted to local conditions”, professor Brady argued. 

Professor Brady noted that environmental conditionalities done in this way likely caused resentment within the farming community. In response, a reform took place in 2023 which amended the rules for dedicated environmental payments called “eco-schemes”. These schemes mean that 25% of the budget for direct payments must provide incentives for more ecologically friendly farming practices and animal welfare improvements. 

Ostensibly, the CAP is trying to ensure food security, provide a path for sustainable farming practices, while also slowing land consolidation and trying to shrink agricultural inequality. Inherently, the negotiating of these goals results in  a game of contested push and pull wherein vested interests are pitted against another. And some players are more powerful than others. 

Professor Brady highlighted that it is difficult to create a CAP which meets such a diversity of goals while also being applied to the broad variety of the EU’s agricultural regions.

Listening to which farmers?

On the 28th of March, a group of farmers stood in the streets of Brussels calling for the end to EU-Mercosur negotiations, fair prices for farmers, an end to poverty in the sector, and a CAP fit to tackle the environmental crisis and agricultural inequality. 

At the head of the stand was the network the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), a confederation of unions and organisations of peasant, small and medium-scale farmers and agricultural workers across Europe that has long lobbied for an alternative future for Europe’s agriculture. 

The demands presented by ECVC are a stark contrast to the decisions taken in response to the farmers’ protests. In a press release published in March, the group demanded an end to free trade agreements and unfair competition, the strengthening of price guarantee policies, modifying the CAP to ensure fair and stable prices, a fairer distribution of CAP subsidies, and a reduction of administrative burden on farmers. 

In response to the commission’s new rules, ECVC argues they “will ultimately only exacerbate discontent in the farming community as they neither support farmers in increasing their resilience, nor do they address the real issues that farmers face, which is the lack of fair prices for their products and a lack of decent income.

However legitimate (or not) the attempt to appease farmers was, it seems to have failed. While even by March farmers’ protests seem to have waned, the Dutch farmers’ movement “Farmers Defence Force” called for a mobilisation in Brussels ahead of June’s European Parliamentary elections. This resulted in an 8.5 kilometer convoy of tractors, many starting in Netherlands, with others joining in Flanders.

Europe’s far-right is also listening, with the Identity and Democracy political group campaigning on ending the EU’s “green crusade” ahead of June’s vote. 

Wouter van de Klippe is a freelance journalist and resarcher in Political Economy and the politics of Science and Technology.


“CAP-as-you-wish Instead of Future-Proof Farming and Food Policy”

Protests and Love – France’s Farmer Organisations, Demonstrations and Social Alliances

What has Driven EU Farmers to the Brink and to the Streets?

Green Light Now, Green Fight Later – CAP Fast Track Risks Legal Wrangle

Neoliberal Limits – Farmer Protests, Elections and the Far Right

“We must deliver” – The Future of Agricultural Transition in Europe

Goodbye Green and Fair, Hello Fortress Europe – Eco Ambitions dropped from EU leaders’ draft 5-year plan

EU CAPitulates on Green Farming Measures