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Farmers Stage Tractor Blockades

by Wangah Wanyama
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Berlin, Germany

Furious farmers opposed to Berlin’s plans to cut tax breaks for agriculture used tractors to block roads across Germany on Monday, kicking off a series of crippling strikes that are set to plunge the country deeper into a winter of discontent.

In Berlin, dozens of tractors and lorries stationed in the city centre blasted their horns to signal their anger at the start of a planned week of action.

Workers in sectors across Germany, from metallurgy and transport to education, have turned to industrial action in recent weeks.

Wage negotiations have taken a bitter turn as Europe’s biggest economy struggles with weak growth and households contend with sharply increased prices.

Rail workers will be next to walk out on Wednesday, launching a three-day strike as unions seek a pay rise to compensate for months of painfully high inflation.

“We are exercising our basic right to inform society and the political class that Germany needs a competitive agricultural sector,” German Farmers Association (DBV) president Joachim Rukwied told Stern magazine.

“That’s the only way to ensure the supply of high-quality, homegrown food.”

Farmers began gathering on Sunday evening at the Brandenburg Gate landmark in the heart of the government quarter in Berlin.

The sector has been up in arms over government plans to withdraw certain tax breaks for agriculture this year.

“We simply don’t get enough money for what we produce, while we work 365 days a year,” said Jenny Zerbin, 34, told AFP in Berlin.

– Far-right warning –

The farmers’ plea have won support from the opposition conservatives — and also powerful figures within Scholz’s party.

But as some people at the demonstrations have brandished far-right symbols and slogans, fears have emerged that the far right could exploit the protest movement to drive political cleavages and stoke opposition to democracy.

“Coup fantasies are going around… Nationalist symbols are shown openly,” vice chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in a video responding to Monday’s protest.

He warned the rallies risked being co-opted by the far right.

Around 30 agitated farmers tried to corner Habeck on a ferry on Thursday evening, preventing the minister and other passengers from disembarking.

The incident was widely condemned by government figures for the implicit threat of violence.

DBV boss Rukwied on Monday distanced himself from the ferry protest, pinning the blame on fringe elements.

“I see no danger at all of our association being infiltrated (by the far right),” Rukwied said.

However, the protests are being backed by the far-right Alternative for Germany and signs in support of the party were displayed at the demonstration in Berlin.

The government was “driving the whole country to ruins”, the party said on X, formerly Twitter.

Farm vehicles blocked the centres of cities including Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and Bremen, with up to 2,000 tractors registered for each protest.

Outside cities, demonstrators targeted motorway access ramps, snarling traffic in a coordinated nationwide show of discontent.

Authorities in the rural northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania said all its autobahn ramps were impeded.

The protest also caused disruptions at Germany’s borders with France, Poland and the Czech Republic, causing traffic to back up at crossing points, according to local media and German police.

Farmers drive their tractors along the Elbe river in the city center as they demonstrate against government plans to scrap diesel tax subsidies for agriculture vehicles in Dresden, eastern Germany, on January 10, 2024. – Farmers have been up in arms over government plans to withdraw tax breaks for the agricultural sector. The government already partially walked back the planned subsidy cuts. A discount on vehicle tax for agriculture would remain in place, while a diesel subsidy would be phased out over several years instead of being abolished immediately, the government said. (Photo by JENS SCHLUETER / AFP)

– ‘Pure anger’ –

Thousands of protestors had already descended on Berlin to protest against the planned subsidy cuts in December, blocking roads and dumping manure on the street.

The rallies prompted the government to partially walk back the reductions on Thursday.

A discount on vehicle tax for agriculture would remain in place, while a diesel subsidy would be phased out over several years instead of being abolished immediately, the government said.

The agriculture sector, however, said the move did not go far enough and urged Berlin to completely reverse the plans, which were announced after a shock court ruling forced the government to find savings in the budget for 2024.

“We simply can’t continue to do business like this. Agriculture is going to the wall,” said Sebastian Schuman, 34, who works in the sector.

© Agence France-Presse

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