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The ability of enraged minorities to act should not be underestimated, as this poses significant political and electoral risks — the past few weeks have proven it, Radu Magdin writes.
It doesn’t require a sophisticated political observer or analyst to recognise that an unprecedented number of Europe’s farmers have taken to the streets.
In this super-electoral year, with European elections scheduled for the beginning of June, they are seeking to capitalise on the political opportunity.
Strategically, this is the best time to express their grievances and to compel politicians to pay close attention to what they have to say.
The farmers are maximising their chances of success, so we should not be too harsh in condemning their tactics, even though their approach is causing headaches in many European cities and capitals.
It would be a mistake to solely focus on the repertoires of protests, on what the farmers can do to make their claim-making more convincing and vivid for those witnessing the protests and being, more or less, affected by them.
Regardless of how many memes one could see on social media, or AI-generated images with straw bales surrounding the Eiffel Tower, this is more than an aesthetic exercise.
An invitation to an honest discussion
Many European farmers, especially the small ones and those part of family farms, are suffering.
For them, this activity is part of their identity, and they find it increasingly hard to survive economically in a world where every input is getting more expensive, forcing them to reduce margins to the point that profit becomes a chimaera.
Furthermore, this entire episode should be seen as more than an attempt to negotiate from a position of strength under the threat that farmers (and the rural world in general) will abandon their conservative or centre-right voting proclivities to boost the chances of the radical right in this consequential year.
So, in a normal world, these events should be an invitation to honest discussion and decisions, for well-thought-out policies, and for genuine engagement that is more than photo-ops and kicking the can down the road until the polls have closed.
When looking at these protests, the instinct is to be sympathetic to these people’s demands and to wonder whether this is not part of a bigger trend, of various groups feeling left behind and alienated.
So, one is right to wonder, who will be next? Who will put more pressure on the European and national elite? How politicians will respond to the farmers’ predicament and grievances will, in no small part, determine what will happen.
It’s time for appeasement, not escalation
Apparently, a rational perspective would start with the figures. Thus, as many have already pointed out, agriculture accounts for only 1.4% of the EU’s GDP, 4.2% of the EU’s employment, and 14.3% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, while, at the same time, receiving approximately 30% of the EU budget.
In the context of the EU’s quest for climate neutrality, Green Deal implementation, and fighting climate change in general, farmers should not pose too much of a problem, at least when considering these numbers.
However, the reality is much more nuanced, and we should approach all this from a different angle, taking into account political inequality, responsiveness, and the willingness to act by those who feel betrayed by their representatives.
Following the farmers’ mini-uprising, we have seen the national governments rushing to adopt agriculture-friendly policies, and the EU making serious concessions that could be seen as a major watering down of the Green Deal and the farm-to-fork strategy.
All of a sudden, in a key electoral year, every decision-maker has become risk-averse. A few days ago, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised the farmers’ “remarkable resilience” and announced that “the farmers can count on European support.”
Moreover, she launched “strategic dialogues,” whose goal is to address the demands of those working on the land.
These are all positive developments, and the European and national leaders should be commended for understanding where public opinion stands and that this is the time for negotiation and appeasement, and not for escalation.
Bringing the elites back to earth
At the same time, all these events emphasise a very reactive political establishment. Rather than bet on the farmers’ lack of reaction and be surprised to find them in Brussels, in front of Europe’s key institutions, a visionary (or even re-election-minded) politician would have been able to anticipate all these events.
Obviously, we do not ask politicians to predict the future or become super-forecasters. However, there is a clear need for them to get better at understanding the consequences of the policies they propose.
A key lesson here is that it matters less the overall positive effects of regulation; what triggers mobilisation and action are the distributional effects, and these have to be significantly better estimated so that the likely losers are swiftly and adequately compensated.
The ability of enraged minorities to act should not be underestimated, as this poses significant political and electoral risks — the past few weeks have proven it.
For all those who love the European Union, an image one could distil from these protests is that of the political elites so far removed from the public that they had to be brought back to earth to understand what is really happening under their watch.
A correct diagnosis and a cure to follow
Insufficient impact assessment, inattention to distributional consequences, and unresponsiveness are some of the political pathologies we have observed these days. Hopefully, after a correct diagnosis, a (political) cure will follow.
More focus on the small farmers, on family businesses, and on how Europe should preserve and enhance its food security are all part of the serious conversation that should follow what is happening on Europe’s main streets, from Brussels to Bucharest, from Paris to Rome.
Before blaming the populists for taking advantage of these events, we should all engage in some perspective-taking and ask ourselves what could be done so that farmers and other similar categories will return to normal politics and claim-making.
We need to make politics and decision-making a bit more boring but significantly much more responsive to the public’s needs.
Radu Magdin is CEO of Smartlink and former advisor to prime ministers of Romania (2014-2015) and Moldova (2016-2017).
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