DeSmog

Far-Right Presence Divides Farmers’ Protest Ahead of EU Elections

Gerrit Schoeters, a Belgian cattle farmer, said he was unhappy about the prominent far-right imagery at the demonstration in Brussels.
Farmers gathered by the Atomium, north of Brussels, to protest against the EU's green policies. Credit: Piet Ruig.

Farmers were left dispirited – and sleepy – after anti-EU protests in Brussels proved lacklustre.

Over a thousand protesters with five hundred tractors gathered at the Atomium on Tuesday (June 4) on the outskirts of Brussels to protest against the EU’s agricultural and climate policies. 

Farmers held banners with messages such as “Europe Green Deal = No proper meal” and “No Farmers No Food”, while some also waved flags for far-right and populist groups. 

Fringe farming groups took centre stage – among them the hardline Dutch group, Farmers Defence Force (FDF), and the French farmers union Coordination Rurale – which has links to Marine Le Pen’s Reassamblement National.

Large farmers’ unions as well as smaller groups chose to boycott the event, as DeSmog reported last week. Some noted the concessions to green policies made by MEPs in the wake of farmer protests earlier this year – while others were concerned about standing with groups linked to the far-right.

The presence of far-right politicians speaking at the rally sparked controversy – with one farmer describing their appearance as a “catastrophe”. 

“They only rant about what’s going on, but don’t change anything,” said Oliver Nottorf, a German farmer who had driven 300 miles from Hamburg to protest with his wife Verena and their children. 

Nottorf said he was frustrated by the current direction of the EU’s agricultural policy. “What they decide here in Brussels is nearly impossible to do practically,” he said, complaining that policy was made by “theorists” instead of “practitioners”.

The far-right had “tried to jump on the bandwagon” of farmers’ discontent, he added.

Hundreds of tractors arrived in Brussels on June 4. Some bore the slogan ‘No Farms, No Food’.

‘Knackered’

Several prominent far-right MEPs addressed the thin crowds at the event, including Tom Vandendriessche from the nativist Flemish Interest (VB) party, who railed against the “EUSSR”. 

Sieta van Keimpema, spokesperson for the Farmers Defence Force, called upon attendees to deliver a “political landslide” ahead of the EU elections, after protests successfully derailed landmark green legislation in February. The far-right is predicted to surge in this week’s ballot.

The rhetoric failed to inspire. Beyond a few hundred people waving flags, the field in front of the stage was mostly empty, with protesters lying in the grass and taking naps. Several younger farmers, sitting in front of and on top of their tractors, stared quietly at the podium. One complained about the loud volume of the speeches. 

“We are knackered,” said Thijs, 16, who left his farm in the region of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, at 1.30am by tractor to arrive on time. “But the need for change is high. That is why we’re here.”

Farmers Defence Force was among a number of far-right linked farming groups who met in Brussels to plan the protests in April, pledging to “sweep away” EU decision-makers at the elections.

The event was hosted by MCC Brussels, an oil-funded think tank backed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Last month, it hosted a meeting of climate science critics in the Belgian capital to challenge the EU “consensus” on the environment.

Many protesters lay in the grass and napped – a far cry from the wave of demonstrations that took place earlier this year. Credit: Piet Ruig.

What’s Going On?’

The far-right presence at the rally was criticised by both green politicians and some attendees, with the European Greens party claiming that the protest was attended by “far-right activists disguised as farmers”. 

When asked about the presence of the far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) at the protest, 16-year-old Thijs said that “Thierry [Baudet, FvD leader] talks whatever shit he thinks is gonna fly with people”. 

Thijs said he had more faith in Caroline van der Plas from the Dutch Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) – which was formed amid protests in the country in 2019 and has recently joined the country’s coalition government led by the far-right. “She knows what is important for farmers,” he said.

Gerrit Schoeters, a cattle farmer from the region around Mechelen, Belgium, was also displeased by the prominent far-right imagery, with numerous tractors flying flags with black Flemish lions, which are associated with Flemish Interest. 

“What’s going on? What are these people doing here?” he asked, adding that agriculture depended heavily on migrant labour. “We can’t do without all the foreigners.”

But Schoeters, who said he had attended at least six protests in the past year, still railed against green policy. “We are not allowed to do anything. Everything has to be less. Less cows, less manure, and, in the end, less farmers,” he told DeSmog. “The Green Deal has to go.”

Gerrit Schoeters, a cattle farmer from the region around Mechelen, Belgium, said the EU’s Green Deal ‘has to go’. Credit: Coen Ramaer.

Similarly, Gunter Klaasen, a Belgian poultry farmer, vehemently opposed EU green policies, but refused to align himself with the far-right. “I won’t express support for either left or right but everyone needs to realise farmers are essential,” Klaasen said, adding that producers had been abandoned by “basically all parties”. 

Some attendees welcomed the presence of the far-right, however. 

Dutch farmer Joyce Boumans, 53, argued that the traditional parties and lobby groups have not done enough for farmers.

Boumans said she preferred the Dutch Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) because they “serve the farmers interest the best”. However, she plans to vote for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) to prevent the Greens and Social Democrats, whose joint list in parliament is led by EU Green Deal architect Frans Timmermans, from winning the EU elections in the Netherlands.

“Parties like the PVV and Forum for Democracy are good for the Netherlands,” she told DeSmog. “Farmers’ path lies with right-wing politics.” 

After the speeches had come to a close, a few dozen tractors headed down to Place de Luxembourg in the centre of Brussels to continue protests, though the majority of attendees stayed at the Atomium.

It remains doubtful that the protest managed to secure the farmers’ vote for far-right parties. “In all honesty, I don’t know,” poultry farmer Klaasen said. 

This article was published in partnership with The EUobserver

authordefault
Phoebe Cooke headshot - credit Laura King Photography
Phoebe joined DeSmog in 2020. She is currently co-deputy editor and was previously the organisation's Senior Reporter.
Clare Carlile headshot cropped
Clare is a Researcher at DeSmog, focusing on the agribusiness sector. Prior to joining the organisation in July 2022, she was Co-Editor and Researcher at Ethical Consumer Magazine, where she specialised in migrant workers’ rights in the food industry. Her work has been published in The Guardian and New Internationalist.

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