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Farmers encircle EU headquarters in tractors to protest agricultural policies

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

European farmers clashed with police in Brussels this week - the latest in a series of high-profile protests over the past few months. Farmers say they want changes to European Union agricultural policies. Teri Schultz joins us now from Brussels.

Teri, thanks for being with us.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What's behind these protests?

SCHULTZ: Well, basically, farmers say their expenses are too high, and the prices they get paid are too low to earn a decent living. So they're determined to pressure officials into changing the laws. This last protest on Tuesday saw hundreds of tractors block the area around European Union headquarters, where agricultural ministers were meeting. Road traffic was absolutely impossible. And even some metro stations were closed as police tried to keep the chaos contained. Let's listen to the scene. And a warning to listeners - it is the sound of an explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SCHULTZ: So what you're hearing here is a clash between hundreds of protesters and riot police. There were fireworks being thrown. Farm equipment was spraying liquid manure everywhere. Water cannons were shooting back at the farmers. There was tear gas being sprayed by police. Protesters were burning metro stations. And a couple of months ago, they even toppled a historic statue outside the European Parliament. And law enforcement officers and protesters are regularly injured. So these are pretty big disturbances.

SIMON: What would they like the EU to do or do less of?

SCHULTZ: (Laughter) Both. Complaints differ based on where the farmers are from. But many center on getting the EU to soften environmental regulations to limit competition from outside the bloc, which includes ending negotiations, they demand, for free trade deals with countries in Latin and South America. And as you mentioned, this is a really big one. They want to lower the administrative burden on producers to deal with what they feel are just too many rules.

And another problem cited by some farmers, particularly in the east, is an exemption that's been granted for Ukrainian goods to enter the EU market tariff-free, which, of course, keeps the prices pretty low. And this was to help Ukraine after Russia launched the war. But it's been met with bitter opposition by farmers who say a lot of these goods don't just transit through their territory but stay in their markets.

SIMON: Are the protests working?

SCHULTZ: Well, you know, these protests are getting a lot of attention, and they are getting some concessions. The agricultural lobby is very powerful in Europe, and especially when you've got thousands of farmers and hundreds of tractors blocking everything. Here's Belgian Deputy Prime Minister David Clarinval after that Tuesday meeting when the latest protest occurred. Belgium is currently the rotating EU president, so they chair these meetings. You'll hear him here through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID CLARINVAL: (Through interpreter) Their voice was clearly heard. The European Commission, the Belgian presidency - all member states are committed to meet the legitimate concerns of our farmers.

SCHULTZ: So far, some countries have passed exemptions from certain taxes, especially on fuel. They've suspended some of the stricter rules on pesticide use. And some have provided more direct financial aid to farmers. But these very disruptive demonstrations also seem to be costing farmers empathy among the general public because - as I can tell you firsthand - they inevitably create a very big, very smelly and dangerous mess.

SIMON: Yes.

SCHULTZ: However, since they seem to be having some impact on decision-makers, I expect them to continue.

SIMON: Well, good luck at those (laughter) demonstrations.

SCHULTZ: (Laughter).

SIMON: Teri Schultz in Brussels. Thanks very much for being with us.

SCHULTZ: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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