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Protests by German farmers over cuts to subsidies have caused widespread travel disruption across Germany and exposed the depth of public discontent with Olaf Scholz’s coalition government.
Columns of tractors moved through German cities while farmers’ convoys blocked motorway access roads, in a show of strength that alarmed ministers and caused headaches for millions of commuters.
The farmers’ “week of action” comes with polls showing increasing popular disenchantment with Scholz’s government and frustration over its handling of Germany’s stagnant economy.
Approval ratings for its three constituent parties, Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens and liberals, have plunged while those for the extreme rightwing Alternative for Germany are soaring.
The immediate trigger for the protests was a government decision last month to plug a hole in the budget by cutting subsidies for farmers. Ministers cut an exemption from car tax for agricultural vehicles and removed tax breaks for diesel fuel used in agriculture.
After a huge outcry, they rowed back, agreeing to phase in the diesel measure over a three-year period, while keeping the move on car tax in place. But farming unions said the concessions didn’t go far enough.
Frank Schmidt, a farmer from Prignitz, north-west of Berlin, said the move on subsidies was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. Farmers, he said, were already being “driven to distraction” by a massive increase in bureaucracy and by stricter rules on environmental stewardship and animal welfare.
“All the joy I used to feel in this job is now out the window,” he said. “We’re at the end of our tether.”
Ministers have warned that rightwing extremists seeking to bring down the government were piggybacking on the farmers’ protests, in a way that threatened Germany’s democratic institutions.
“Appeals are circulating with fantasies of revolution,” said Robert Habeck, the economy minister and deputy chancellor. “Extremist groups are being formed, ethno-nationalist symbols are being openly shown.”
Habeck is himself a casualty of the farmers’ growing militancy. Last Thursday, protesters prevented him from disembarking from a ferry after a family holiday on the North Sea island of Hooge. Some of them tried to board the ferry, but were held back by police using pepper spray.
After that incident Germany’s national farmers’ union called on its members to show restraint, and to refrain from protests outside the private homes of politicians and from incitement against individuals. “We are a democratic organisation and we stand by the German constitution,” union chief Joachim Rukwied said.
Schmidt was one of hundreds of farmers who parked their tractors by the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark, on Sunday evening. Police said that by mid-morning, some 566 tractors, lorries, cars and trailers blocked 17th June Street, one of the capital’s main thoroughfares.
The vehicles carried placards with slogans such as: “No Farmer, No Future”, and “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. Another protester said farmers were not demonstrating for a four-day week or €2 an hour more pay — “We’re fighting for our very existence!”
They were joined by road hauliers protesting against an increase in road tolls for heavy-goods vehicles, as well as small-business owners complaining of soaring energy costs and stubbornly high inflation.
Farmers say they have been squeezed by higher bills for petrol, diesel, gas and electricity on the one hand and lower wholesale prices for products such as milk on the other. Rukwied told ZDF TV that German farmers faced higher taxes and a higher minimum wage than their counterparts in other EU countries.
“It’s about the future of farming families, and food security for our population, the question of whether we will continue to produce food domestically,” he said.
Ministers have expressed some sympathy for the farmer’s concerns. In a video on X, the social media platform, Habeck said they were under “enormous economic pressure, price pressure from the discounters, the big abattoirs and dairy plants and the fluctuating global market”. They also had a “structural problem” in that they couldn’t simply pass on their higher input costs to customers, he said.
But there was also criticism of the farmers’ tactics. “Whoever prevents people from getting to work, to school or to the doctor, is just going to trigger anger and disbelief,” said Nancy Faeser, interior minister. “Legitimate protest ends where other people’s rights are infringed.”
More transport disruption looms later in the week when the GDL, the train drivers’ union, starts a national strike. Deutsche Bahn is seeking a temporary injunction against the strike at a labour court in Frankfurt.
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