About a thousand protesting farmers are blocking parts of traffic in Brussels with their tractors today. Fires have also been set on Luxembourg Square, in front of the European Parliament, and a statue has been damaged. The police are present en masse.
The farmers want the attention of European leaders, who are present a kilometer away in another building for a summit on Ukraine. Farmers are dissatisfied with their declining incomes and with the EU’s agricultural policy, especially with increasingly strict environmental regulations.
French President Macron and Belgian Prime Minister De Croo in particular want the EU to partly meet their demands. At the start of the summit, Prime Minister Rutte emphasized that agriculture is not on the agenda and that the leaders are meeting to discuss aid to Ukraine. “We cannot simply change laws,” Rutte also said. In the EU, leaders meeting in the European Council set the general direction, but decisions are taken according to a fixed procedure: the European Commission proposes, the countries and the European Parliament decide together.
Belgian Prime Minister De Croo took a completely different tone upon arrival. “As you can see, there are large farmers’ demonstrations. We’ll talk about this. Some of their complaints are valid and we need to see what we can do. They have made enormous strides in recent years. Farmers produce very high-quality products. It is very important that the farmer is also paid for this.”
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French President Macron had already urged measures for farmers earlier this week. The European Commission also agreed on Wednesday: it is proposing that a European measure requiring farmers to leave 4 percent of their land fallow should be suspended. There must also be a brake on the import of cheap agricultural products from Ukraine. “We listen to their concerns and extend a helping hand,” Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said about the protesting farmers on Wednesday. At the same time, he emphasizes that the population consists of more people than just farmers: “Europe must remain habitable, with healthy nature and soil.”
EU leaders are meeting because they failed to reach an agreement in December on a €50 billion aid package for Ukraine. Hungary was obstructive. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán left the room at a strategic moment during another important decision, the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine, but not when the 50 billion figure was involved.
Ukraine needs the money to pay salaries and keep hospitals running: its treasury is almost empty due to the war against Russia. The EU has 50 billion ready in loans and grants, intended for the next four years. “Their war is also our war,” Rutte repeated on Thursday morning. Orbán resists because the regime in Kyiv is said to be corrupt and, as far as he is concerned, should talk to Russia about peace. The Hungarian leader is accused in Brussels of being in favor of Putin.
It was still completely unclear at the start of the summit whether Orbán would agree today. He skipped the leaders’ informal dinner Wednesday evening, but spoke separately with several other leaders. Hungary has previously indicated that it can agree if the aid package is divided into four parts, with leaders deciding unanimously every year. That gives him a veto every year and it undermines Ukraine’s financial security, say the other 26 countries. As far as they are concerned, dividing it into four is at most an option if they can decide by a qualified majority.
It is unclear what will happen if Orbán persists in his resistance. A plan is ready to raise the money with 26 countries, excluding Hungary. The disadvantage is that such financing must be approved by each of the 26 parliaments. That takes time and is politically uncertain. A separate control mechanism must also be set up to monitor the expenditure of the money. When providing EU money, the European Commission has procedures and people for this.
Another option is to punish Hungary. Last week an official note was sent to the Financial Times leaked threatening to undermine the Hungarian economy if Orbán does not give in. Not a cent would then go from Brussels to Budapest for a long time. 20 billion in European money has already been frozen because Hungary does not comply with the rules of the rule of law: judges and media are not free. The message that the EU wants to leave Hungary further to its fate should also deter investors. Furthermore, taking away Hungary’s voting rights is an option, there is a procedure for this, but it is complicated. Estonian Prime Minister Kallas said about this on Wednesday: “It is not obvious. We may solve this one problem, but do we want Hungary to be in the EU with us or not?” A country can change, she means: Poland was a long ally of Hungary, but the conservative government there was replaced by a more pro-European one after the last elections.
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