Protesting farmers descended on the heart of the European Union on Thursday as leaders across the bloc held a crucial meeting at which they agreed new funding for Ukraine.
Demonstrators rolled into Brussels in their tractors in the early morning hours before gathering outside the European Parliament where the summit was being held, blaring horns, hurling eggs and sparking fires.
A handful of tractors had been parked near the EU Parliament all week before convoys from across the country converged on Thursday morning.
Some of the protesters set objects on fire in front of the parliament building, while others held signs with slogans including: “No farmers, no food.”
Police said on Thursday that around 1,000 tractors were expected in the Belgian capital for the planned demonstration, warning about “traffic problems” in the area.
Although EU farming issues are not part of the summit’s agenda, the demonstrators are aiming to put pressure on the bloc for their grievances to be heard.
Farmers have called for a loosening of the rules that govern the bloc’s shared agricultural policy, saying they are not paid enough, are being choked by taxes and environmental restrictions and face unfair competition from abroad – including cheap agricultural imports from Ukraine.
The EU has waived quotas and duties on Ukrainian imports in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo called their concerns “perfectly legitimate.”
“As you have seen, there is a major farmers protest in Brussels. We need to be able to discuss in the Council on this topic because the concerns that they have are perfectly legitimate.
“The climate transition is a key priority for our societies. We need to make sure that our farmers can be a partner in this,” De Croo said on arrival at the summit.
Protests have also taken place over the past days in Italy, Spain, Romania, Poland, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands.
In Greece, tractors are marching towards the second biggest city of Thessaloniki Thursday, hoping to block key routes inside the city.
In France, protesting farmers continue their roadblocks outside of Paris and near the cities of Lyon and Toulouse.
In an effort to address some of the farming industry’s concerns, the European Commission proposed a “temporary” exemption for farmers to an EU rule that would oblige them to keep 4% of their arable land fallow or unproductive for biodiversity purposes.
It also proposed to “renew the suspension of import duties and quotas on Ukrainian exports to the EU for another year, while reinforcing protection for sensitive EU agricultural products.”