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Tim Bonner: Will Britain follow German farmer protests?

Huge demonstrations of rural people in towns and cities, tractors on the streets and motorways blocked. These are scenes not seen in the UK since the protests against fuel prices and the hunting ban almost 20 years ago, but which are happening in Germany and across Europe right now.

Amongst other things it has been instructive to see how right-wing political parties and far right extremists have tried to weaponise those protests and conflate the issues farmers are protesting about with their anti-globalist agenda. This reminded me of attempts by the National Front to infiltrate the Liberty and Livelihood March in 2002. Their activists were rounded up by marchers and swiftly sent packing with their tails between their legs.

The catalyst for the huge protests in Germany, however, is not radical politics, but the removal of agricultural fuel subsidy. Underlying that seems to be a disconnect between governments and rural communities across Europe around the huge challenges of tackling global warming and biodiversity decline. In Holland the issue that brought farmers out onto the streets were fumbled proposals to reduce the damaging impact of nitrogen emissions by reducing the number of livestock farms. In Spain, farmers have protested against restrictions on water extraction from drought hit rivers. In France (the spiritual home of farmers’ protests), the latest demonstrations were against restrictions on pesticide use. In each case farmers are reacting to policies designed to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. 

No one sensible suggests there does not have to be change in the way we farm and the way we live to secure the future of the environment and the planet. However, change is always a challenge and in all these examples governments have started from the position that farming is the problem, rather than part of the solution, to the issues they are trying to resolve.

Viewing these protests from afar I am reminded of Rory Stewart’s brilliant speech at last Year’s Future Countryside conference when he quite rightly pointed out that “many of us disagree profoundly with each other, at forums like this, we suppress those disagreements” and challenged us to move away from entrenched positions and say what it is that we are willing to give up. 

If governments in the UK are to avoid the chaos of Germany and those other European countries then this must be the starting point. Supressing disagreements, not properly engaging rural communities in the debate and then seeking to impose solutions on them is bound to generate the sort of anger that we are seeing across the continent. The government in Wales is closest to that tipping point in the UK. The Welsh Government has created a battleground between Cardiff and the countryside and the statement of one Labour member in the Senedd last week that “there is no reason to subsidise agriculture” only raised the temperature further. However, governments of all colours will have to face the challenge of change in the coming years and only by working with rural people and finding solutions together will we avoid the conflict we are seeing in Germany and elsewhere.

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