THESSALONIKI, Greece — Greece’s annual Agrotica trade fair traditionally gives farmers a chance see the latest equipment and agricultural innovations. This year, the event is a focal point for their long-standing frustrations.
Tractors lined up Friday around the conference center hosting the event in the northern city of Thessaloniki to underline their determination to escalate protests over rising production costs by blocking highways.
In recent months, similar protests have swept Europe as farmers on the continent take their grievances over inflation, foreign competition and the costs of combating climate change to the streets.
National leaders, seeking to calm the essential sector of their economies after the turmoil caused by the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine, are racing to offer financial concessions in the months before elections for the European Union parliament in June.
Here’s a look at the status of the protests and what they have resulted in so far.
Farmers took their protests to the heart of the EU on Thursday, blocking streets in Brussels with hundreds of tractors as black smoke billowed from burning tires and the leaders of the bloc’s 27 member nations held a summit.
The response to the protest was immediate: The EU’s executive commission announced plans to shield farmers from cheaper products exported from wartime Ukraine and to allow farmers to use some land they had been required to keep fallow for environmental reasons.
The plans, which still need approval from member states and the European Parliament, amounted to a sudden and symbolic concession.
“I just would like to reassure them that we do our utmost to listen to their concerns. I think we are addressing two very important (concerns) of them right now,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.
In Paris, which is preparing to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, farmers are dismantling roadblocks and other barricades after the government promised more than 400 million euros ($436 million) in additional financial support.
Convoys of tractors are heading home after farmers halted their protests along major highways near the French capital, preventing a potential confrontation with the heavily deployed police. The emergency relief measures targeted mounting complaints over low earnings, heavy regulation and unfair competition from abroad.
Italy’s right-wing premier, Giorgia Meloni, has blamed the EU’s allegedly “ideological approach” to agriculture and climate policies for the financial hardships of her country’s farmers.
She said her government has raised massive funds to help farmers cope with serious drought conditions in parts of the country but conceded that financial support Italy receives from the EU would account for much of the money.
The Meloni government also extended state aid for the agriculture use of diesel fuel this year. Farming associations are seeking longer-term tax relief.
Germany’s farmers began protesting in December, staging demonstrations and blockades with tractors, after government leaders facing a budget crisis said they would abolish vehicle and fuel tax exemptions for agriculture.
The plan was watered down, with the vehicle tax exemption remaining and cuts in tax breaks on diesel fuel used by farmers phased in over three years. Farmers demanded the reversal of those cuts, but lawmakers approved the revised plan on Friday.
Poland has seen some of Europe’s most intense protests in recent months. The anger is largely directed at Brussels over the impact of cheaper imports from Ukraine and opposition to EU environmental regulations. A major farming association announced this week that plans new blockades on Polish highways and at border crossings with Ukraine on Feb. 9.
Spanish farmers are also holding out for more generous relief, following inconclusive talks Friday between farming association leaders and Agriculture Minister Luis Plans. The associations argue that “suffocating” bureaucracy is adding to the misery caused by drought, low prices, and unfair competition from non-EU countries. They are planning fresh protests.
Farmers’ protests in Greece go back decades, mostly over subsidies. Massive wildfires and floods in 2023, both seen as consequences of climate change, compounded worries about higher costs and lower earnings.
On Friday, the Greek government rushed out a new support package that includes tax rebates, a five- month discount on electricity rates, debt relief and a promise to speed up the delivery of flood recovery funds in central Greece.
“The government is showing its interest in the welfare of farmers and livestock farmers in every way possible,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told lawmakers in parliament.
Farming associations at the Thessaloniki protest Friday described the measures as a “drop in the ocean” and promised to intensify highway blockades starting this weekend.
Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece. Raf Casert in Brussels, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this story.