Angry farmers have started fires outside the European Parliament building in Brussels in protest against taxes, rising costs and cheap imports.
About 1,300 tractors have blocked major routes through the city, police estimate, with one displaying a banner reading “if you love the Earth, support those who manage it”.
Another banner read “no farmers, no food”, while others in the crowd threw eggs at the European Parliament building.
Officers in riot gear guarded barriers where leaders were due to meet near parliament, with tractors parked in a central square.
Police fired tear gas and water hoses as crowds tried to bring down the barriers, angered by taxes and green rules – claiming they are not being paid enough and face unfair competition from abroad.
“If you see with how many people we are here today, and if you see it’s all over Europe, so you must have hope,” said Kevin Bertens, a farmer from just outside Brussels.
“We must have hope that these people see that farming is necessary – it’s the food, you know.”
The heart of Brussels has been turned into a cauldron
Ahead of us, a ring of police protecting the European Parliament while acrid smoke billows over our heads. Firecrackers go off all the time, near and far.
The very heart of Brussels, normally populated by politicians, advisers and smooth-suited lobbyists, has been transformed into a cauldron.
A firecracker explodes too near for comfort. On the other side of Place Luxembourg, a hay bale is on fire. Next to it, a green flare has gone off. Then someone throws a rubber tyre on to the smouldering fire and thick black smoke starts filling the air.
To be in the middle of Brussels right now is a visceral experience of noise, smell, heat and sights. And lacing it all, a sense of tension between those who have come to protest, and those who stand in their way.
The farmers have already secured several measures, including EU proposals to limit farm imports from Ukraine and loosen some environmental regulations on fallow lands.
In France, where protests have been ongoing for weeks, the government promised more aid and dropped plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel.
And protests have erupted across Europe, with farmers angry in Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Germany and Italy.
Elections on horizon
While the issues around farming were not on the agenda for the meeting between EU leaders – which focused on aid for Ukraine – Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo suggested leaders would now discuss the crisis.
“We also need to make sure that they can get the right price for the high-quality products that they provide,” he added.
“We also need to make sure that the administrative burden that they have remains reasonable.”
European Parliament elections are set for June this year, with far-right parties – which increasingly attract farmers – possibly making gains.
Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, met farmers overnight.
“We need to find new leaders who truly represent the interests of the people,” his spokesman sad.