German farmers block roads with tractors in protest at subsidy cuts

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Truck drivers warm themselves near a fire, as German farmers block access to highway A10 during a protest against the cut of vehicle tax subsidies of the so-called German Ampel coalition government, in Vehlefanz, Germany, January 8, 2024.
Truck drivers warm themselves near a fire, as German farmers block access to highway A10 during a protest against the cut of vehicle tax subsidies of the so-called German Ampel coalition government, in Vehlefanz, Germany, January 8, 2024.

BERLIN, Jan 8 – German farmers blocked roads with tractors on Monday, kicking off a week of protests against plans to phase out agricultural subsidies with nationwide action that ministers have warned could be co-opted by the far-right.

Convoys of tractors and trucks, some adorned with protest banners reading “No beer without farmers” and posters from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, gathered on German roads in sub-zero pre-dawn temperatures. In Berlin, a line of dozens of tractors blocked the main avenue leading to the Brandenburg Gate.

Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Greens, whose return from holiday last week was disrupted by furious farmers trying to storm the ferry he was on, warned in a video message that farmers’ right to protest could be exploited by fringe groups.

“Calls are circulating with coup fantasies, extremist groups are forming and ethnic-nationalist symbols are being openly displayed,” said Habeck.

Police said roads and highway slip roads were blocked in multiple locations nationwide, including several border crossings with France, causing traffic jams during the morning rush hour.

Farmers say that government plans to end two tax breaks – which currently save them about 900 million euros ($980 million) per year – will drive them out of business.

The coalition government was forced to find billions in savings in its 2024 budget after a court ruling in November tore up its previous spending plans.

But farmers argue the burden of these cuts has been unfairly placed on them, and have vowed to blockade major traffic and logistics routes for a week, saying that an end to tax breaks will drive farms out of business.

A poll conducted by public broadcaster ntv showed strong public backing for the protests, with 91% of respondents saying they were justified.

The farmers’ backlash last week prompted Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition to make unexpected changes to the budget, including modifying plans to cut subsidies for agriculture.

Rather than abruptly ending the farmers’ tax break on agricultural diesel, the subsidy will be reduced by 40% this year, by 30% in 2025, and will end from 2026.

Farmers say this does not go far enough, but a government spokesperson said on Monday the government is not considering any further changes.

“In the end, a government has to decide and has to lead the way, and that can’t always be to everyone’s satisfaction,” the spokesperson said.

The opposition AfD party, hoping for major gains in a string of state elections this year, backs the farmers’ protest.

“The German government is forgetting the many difficult consequences of its policy of deindustrialisation,” an AfD spokesperson said in a statement, adding that the AfD was “ready to take responsibility” in the interests of the people.

However the head of German farmers’ association DBV has expressed concern that far-right activists may exploit the protests for their own ends.

The AfD has grown from an anti-euro party in the wake of the European debt crisis to a major opposition force fuelled by anti-migration rhetoric.

The party is currently polling at 23%, according to the weekly INSA poll, comfortably ahead of Scholz’s Social Democrats and his two coalition partners, the Greens and the Free Democrats. The conservative Christian Democrat opposition has 31% support.

($1 = 0.9152 euros)

Reporting by Andreas Rinke, Writing by Maria Sheahan and Miranda Murray, Editing by Louise Heavens and Ros Russell