08 Jan 2024, 13:54
Benjamin Wehrmann

German farmers kick off protest week against diesel subsidy cuts amid worries far-right is hijacking cause

Agricultural machinery is often powered by diesel engines. Photo: DBV

Workers from agricultural companies across Germany have launched a week of authorised protests in the country by blocking roads and motorways with their tractors. They are demonstrating against cuts to tax breaks for diesel fuel widely used in the sector. The protestors argue that the changes, which were made necessary by an emergency reshuffling of the budget, leave them worse off than other businesses. The government rolled back some of the cuts last week, but farmers argue that the intended cuts are still unacceptable. Meanwhile, economy minister Robert Habeck was targeted by an illegitimate protest march while on holiday, raising fears that far-right groups are hijacking large-scale protests to incite further resistance. The farming lobby has distanced itself from any unauthourised actions, but more radical politicians have voiced support for unauthourised protests against the government.

Protesting farmers have caused major traffic disruption across Germany in reaction to subsidy cuts by the government which will force agricultural companies to pay more for diesel fuel. Thousands of farming company employees blocked roads and motorways with tractors and other agricultural equipment, demanding that the subsidies are fully reinstated. The cuts were caused by a last-minute budget reshuffling after a court ruling reduced funds for climate and transformation projects by 60 billion euros. The government last week agreed to roll back some of the enforced measures and delay others. Agricultural vehicle tax breaks will not be slashed, while diesel tax breaks for farmers will be abolished only gradually, starting this year.

The protests, which were backed by other affected groups such as hauliers and taxi companies, have heightened fears that more radical and far-right groups could use the demonstrations to spark further resistance and blockades against the government on other issues. “We ask the population for its understanding,” Joachim Rukwied, head of the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), said in an interview with magazine Stern. The lobby group helped orchestrate the protests, which are set to disrupt public life for more than one week. “We want to carry out our protests peacefully and by democratic means,” said Rukwied, insisting that the DBV wants to retain the “backing and solidarity that we receive from large parts of the population”.

Economy and climate action minister Robert Habeck, meanwhile, called for a national debate about the future of agriculture in the country. In a video released by his ministry, Habeck said that farmers in Germany face a multitude of parallel challenges, including economic pressure from the embattled food retailing market and competition from abroad. “Many struggle to cover their production costs,” said the Green politician, who in the past served as agriculture minister in northern state Schleswig-Holstein. As they had little influence over food prices, increasing production often would be the only way to increase their revenue. “This is the industrialization of agriculture,” Habeck said, adding that a national debate is needed about the working conditions and business prospects of the sector as well as its role for sustainability and climate action.

The DBV rejected any links to far-right protestors after economy minister Habeck was targeted at a ferry dock by a group of about 100 people while on holiday in northern Germany. Police were forced to intervene, and the government condemned the protestors for a lack of civility and willingness to talk. A report in magazine Der Spiegel suggested that far-right groups played a role in inciting the unauthourised demonstration. “Our demonstration has been properly licensed and we make use of a basic right,” Rukwied insisted. However, police said that some of the protest carried out by farmers on Monday had not been approved, public broadcaster ARD reported. Police union GdP called on the protesters to stick to peaceful demonstrations, adding that staff shortages made it difficult to effectively police each protest across Germany.

State leaders voice support for protesters' cause

The state premier of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil from chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), said he understands the agricultural businesses’ anger over plans to cut support for diesel fuel, which is widely used for farming machinery. Farming companies had to simultaneously cope with the national carbon price increase in the transport and heating sector, which would hit smaller firms especially hard, the agricultural state’s government head said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF. “That’s the actual reason why they feel disadvantaged,” Weil argued, calling for a reversal of the subsidy cuts. “It’s my clear recommendation to wipe the slate clean” and end the conflict, he said.

The state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hendrik Wüst from the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), agreed that the cuts hit agricultural companies more than other businesses. In a different interview with ZDF, Wüst said “a lot of money is at stake”, which is why he could understand the protesters. Savings to the budget had to be distributed “fairly across all sectors”, Wüst argued.

The SPD’s co-leader, Saskia Esken, said she generally understood the agricultural sector’s woes. The importance of the sector for food supply and landscape protection means policymakers must take farmers’ concerns seriously, she argued. However, policymaking meant that “a compromise ultimately has to be accepted”, Esken told public broadcaster BR.
Agriculture minister Cem Özdemir, from the Green Party, said last week that the reversal of some cuts to the sector means “the disproportionate burden on agriculture and forestry as part of the necessary budget consolidation is therefore off the table”.

Opposition groups rallying behind farmers' anger

Farmers’ protests have been carried out peacefully in the past. However, the incident involving economy minister Habeck was widely viewed as an unacceptable breach of procedures and drew criticism from the government and the largest opposition group, the CDU. But more radical political forces, such as the Free Voters under economy minister Hubert Aiwanger in Bavaria or the newly formed movement BSW by former Left Party politician Sarah Wagenknecht, have accused Habeck and the government of provoking harsh reactions by citizens due to their handling of the farming sectors protests.

After the 2021 elections that brought chancellor Olaf Scholz's tripartite coalition into power, the farming lobby immediately called for "political clarity and perspectives," particularly regarding a set of recommendations for reforming the sector in a sustainable fashion made by a government-appointed advisory commission. "The primary goal must be to prevent a structural collapse and to ensure that farms have prospects for the future and are valued more highly," said DBV head Rukwied at the time.

In a late push to include the farming sector in its efforts for a climate neutral transformation, chancellor Angela Merkel's government in 2020 created the "Commission for the Future of Agriculture," after droughts and farmers' protests had moved  farming into the spotlight. The commission was meant to bring climate activists and farmers together to work out a compromise and agreed on a wide range of measures to make agriculture part of Germany's 2045 climate neutrality vision.

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