‘Symbol of polarisation’: EU scraps plans to halve use of pesticides

Brussels: The European Commission is shelving plans to cut pesticide use in agriculture as farmers around Europe continue protests demanding higher prices for their products and an easing of EU environment rules.

The original proposal to halve chemical pesticide use in the EU by the end of the decade – part of the EU’s green transition – “has become a symbol of polarisation,” the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Tuesday, as she said she would ask it “to withdraw this proposal”.

The move marks the bloc’s latest environmental concession to farmers, whose recent protests across Europe in countries including France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and Greece spread this week to Spain and Italy.

Last week, in response to the protests, the bloc announced plans to limit market disruption from Ukrainian products entering the EU and delayed rules on setting aside more land to promote soil health and encourage biodiversity.

Spanish farmers used WhatsApp groups on Tuesday to stage a series of informal protests, blocking off major roads around the country. Among the signs flown by the tractors was one that read: “Our end will mean your hunger!”.

Their demonstrations cut off roads in the regions of Madrid, Catalonia, Andalucía, Valencia, La Rioja, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León. They also blockaded the port of Málaga and obstructed access to a massive wholesale market in Valladolid.

In Italy, farmers protesting about red tape and cheap non-EU imports have begun converging on the capital, Rome, from several agricultural regions on tractors sporting the Italian flag and banners with slogans such as “No farmer, no food.”

Farmers say they face a storm of challenges, including falling product prices, rising energy, fertiliser and transport costs, cheap foreign imports, all-powerful retailers and excessive European and national regulations.

Individual member states have also taken steps to appease angry farmers, with Germany watering down plans to cut diesel subsidies. Meanwhile, Paris is scrapping a planned diesel tax increase and promising more than €400m (£342m) in targeted help.

The task of drafting proposals on pesticide legislation is now likely to fall to the next commission. Von der Leyen said on Tuesday they had made little progress over the past two years in the European parliament or the European Council, representing EU member states.

Far-right and anti-establishment parties, which are projected to make major gains in June’s European parliament elections, have picked up on their grievances as part of a wider drive against EU influence, pushing them to the top of the bloc’s agenda.

“Many feel pushed into a corner,” von der Leyen acknowledged, adding that farmers “deserve to be listened to.” But Europe’s agriculture “needs to move to a more sustainable model of production” thatis more eco-friendly, she said.

A new commission will be formed after the June vote.

The commission was also set to announce more measures later on Tuesday on how to reach its ambitious targets to counter climate change.

Unions in Spain said more widespread protests would begin on Thursday and last until 22 February. “We’re trying to explain our grievances in a concrete, concise and unanimous way,” said Donanciano Dujo, vice-president of the Asaja farming association.