PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday tried to soothe the anger of protesting farmers by calling on the European Union to regulate agricultural imports from Ukraine and loosen farming rules.

Macron, speaking on a visit to Sweden as farmers parked tractors across highways in France and set ablaze bales of hay on the road to Toulouse airport, also rejected a draft trade deal with the Mercosur bloc of South American countries in its current form.

The French protests follow similar action in other European countries, including Germany and Poland, ahead of European Parliament elections in June in which the far right, for whom farmers represent a growing constituency, is seen making gains.

Wary of protests escalating, the French government has already dropped plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel and promised to ease environmental regulations.

“We’ve asked (the EU) for very concrete things for our farmers,” said Macron, who will be at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday. He called for a Europe-wide debate on farming rules, in particular to ensure that imported produce meets European standards.

French protests follow similar action in other European countries

Imports from Ukraine, on which the EU has waived quotas and duties since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, and renewed negotiations to conclude the Mercosur deal have fanned farmers’ discontent about unfair competition in sugar, grain and meat.

France wants “to have clear measures on imports from Ukraine because today we have in volume and quality things that are destabilising the European market, whether chicken or cereals,” Macron said.

Protests spread in Europe

The European Commission said on Tuesday that it was continuing to pursue the Mercosur agreement, a day after Macron’s office said it understood the EU had halted talks.

Macron said he did not want the agreement as it is currently drafted to be signed, due to a lack of guarantees that imported products would have to follow similar rules as European ones.

Farmers in France, the EU’s biggest agricultural producer, say they are not being paid enough, are choked by excessive regulation on environmental protection and face unfair competition from cheap imports.

Some of their concerns, like competition from imports and rigorous environmental rules, are shared by producers elsewhere in the EU, while others such as food price negotiations are more specific to France.

In a spillover from French protests, Belgian farmers blocked Zeebrugge port on Tuesday. Spanish farmers’ associations said they were planning to take to the streets in February, calling for a halt to Mercosur negotiations, among other demands.

Macron also said he wanted more flexibility on some of the EU’s joint agricultural rules, including on fallow land.

Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2024

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