If your business or job is in a sector increasingly hit by the twin biodiversity and climate crises, do you demand deeper, more rapid climate measures or do you demand environmental measures are weakened or binned? If you’re an EU farmer, the answer, it seems, is the second. Agriculture protests have spread across Europe in recent months from Greece to France to Poland to Portugal - the only real exception being most of the Nordic countries.

EU politicians have scrambled to appease farmers in the face of chaotic blockades, with long traffic jams of tractors obstructing parts of cities and major transport routes. In France, President Macron has bought off farmers for now with promises of €400 million for the sector. In Germany, the unstable coalition government is retreating on shrinking agricultural diesel subsidies. Italian, Greek and Romanian governments are likewise offering ways to appease their restless farmers.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen has, in recent weeks, abandoned plans to cut pesticide use, delayed by a year the goal of increasing the amount of land farmers should leave fallow each year, and taken protective measures against some Ukrainian food imports. The Commission published its plans to reduce overall EU emissions by 90% by 2040 earlier this month - a huge and vital endeavour. But a proposal to reduce agricultural non-carbon emissions by 30%, as part of that, had mysteriously disappeared from the document.

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All this backtracking may to some extent ease the protests. But central and east European farmers are coordinating plans for protests next week from Slovenia to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. Their demands include more action on Ukrainian agricultural imports, revision of EU environmental laws, and less bureaucracy in the EU’s cumbersome Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Are the EU’s farmers simply belligerent, struggling or both? Probably both, not least in the face of cost pressures on energy, transport, fertiliser and more linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine and to wider cost-of-living issues. And climate change, from heatwaves to droughts to floods, is all part of the mix too.

So why are EU politicians so keen to rapidly douse these protests, for a sector that only accounts for 1.4% of EU GDP while being responsible for around 14% of EU emissions? It’s also a sector where agricultural funding of €55 billion a year takes up one-third of the EU’s overall budget. Recent CAP reforms are meant to help smaller farmers more and to tackle key green issues.

But it’s election year, not least elections for the European Parliament, where the far right is predicted to potentially come third and the Greens to fall back. And it’s also, in parallel to those elections, when the top EU jobs get divvied out again. Ursula von der Leyen is expected to be nominated again this month by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) as their candidate – and looks most likely to be accepted by EU leaders for a second term. The EPP is positioning itself strongly as the farmers’ friend, and if von der Leyen is to ensure her candidacy, she must play nice with her own party grouping. And across different member states, the far-right is only too keen to link farmers’ protests to their own more Eurosceptic, climate sceptic and anti-elite platforms. Mainstream politicians are on the defensive.

The Herald: Ursula von der LeyenUrsula von der Leyen (Image: PA)

Environmental campaigners and climate experts are dismayed by these EU retreats. Marilda Dhaskali, policy officer for Bird Life Europe and Central Asia, said on X: “We are profoundly dismayed by the Commission’s repeated capitulation to the relentless pressure from big agribusiness.” She added: “It's simple: without healthy soils, clean water, and pollinators, farming has no future.” And she’s surely not wrong: the mess that is the global food industry – for climate, biodiversity, health, and food security – is something politicians have failed repeatedly to fix.

This comes back to the recurring question: are short-termist democracies able to take the urgent, wide-ranging steps that the climate and biodiversity crises demands? And are our politicians willing to make the fact-based substantive arguments about what is needed, through open, genuine discussion and debate? Or will they keep retreating in the face of their own electoral worries?

The current EU prevarication and backsteps do not instil confidence. Nor are attempts to appease climate-sceptics and angry farmers the most obvious way to ensure a weaker showing for the far-right in European elections and a stronger one for centre, liberal and green parties.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. The EU’s Green Deal is still there and most of its legislation and roadmaps remains intact. But a further right European Parliament - and a more climate-sceptic centre-right - will not help in the crucial climate years ahead.

What EU - and for that matter UK and Scottish - politicians cannot let take hold is the idea that most people want to tackle climate and biodiversity crises but don’t want to pay the costs. That means ensuring that the goal of socially just transitions is given real substance. It means compensating some losers, especially low income ones.

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And it means showing that there is a positive economic case for climate action too. The big European NGO climate action network (CAN) published a report last month arguing sticking to a strategy of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees could save the EU €1 trillion. Agriculture and food security will hit much deeper trouble if global warming is not stopped.

And strategic focus from our politicians must mean engaging with the positive, democratic support out there for climate action. When Keir Starmer casually dumped his £28 billion green strategy, last week, it was business and trade union voices that were critical, not just environmental ones. And in the US, President Biden’s $370 billion to underpin the clean energy and climate shifts needed, is still making waves.

European politicians cannot afford to keep placating farmers’ protests at every turn. They have to make the political weather not respond to it. And the time is now.