The agricultural crisis that has driven European farmers back onto the war path was never supposed to happen. Back in the booming 1960s, when the common agricultural policy (CAP) was first adopted by the European Union, the promise of a managed, Europe-wide free trade area within which all members could flourish (meanwhile structuring relations with non-member nations to the permanent advantage of the EU) seemed like the dawning of a golden age for European farmers.
Whilst the postwar Keynesian social compact (aka the welfare state deal for social peace) served to distract workers from thoughts of revolution, the EU dream of a modernised countryside (with food sovereignty at home and economic relations with the rest of the world permanently skewed in favour of member states) likewise served to distract attention away from the contradictions that plagued this flawed utopia from the outset.
In a sense, the CAP was conceived as a kind of welfare state for the peasantry. The deal that was done to stabilise European agriculture after the last world war, helped by the establishment of the CAP system of subsidies, taxes and exemptions, was intended to regularise the agricultural sector, resolving any trade frictions between fellow EU member states and protecting the sector from competition from the world market.
In practice, however, there has never been equal status between EU members, either economically or politically, and the economies that have benefited most have always been those of the dominant imperialist economies (and of those who most obsequiously tag along).
Now that global capitalist economic crisis is coming back full blast, it is the small and medium farming operations that are going to the wall and the vast agribusinesses that are surviving. The number of farms in the EU has shrunk by over a third since 2005, while even the surviving agribusiness giants are saddled with high levels of debt, demonstrating less the survival of the fittest than the survival of the most moribund.
Even the largest concerns, when exposed to global market forces, prove to be operating on very narrow profit margins.
One obvious contradiction arose from the mismatch in the EU between those economies in which agriculture played a key role and those in which it played a lesser one. Whilst under socialism such disparities can be (and in the Soviet Union, were) understood and planned for as a necessary phase in the long-term road to overcoming the contradiction between town and country, this could never be the case under capitalism for any length of time, based as it is upon competition not cooperation.
The big imperialist member states of the EU regard the economies of the less industrialised as a handy sponge to mop up excess production when the crisis of overproduction threatens glut, and as easy prey for loan traps which further impoverish the unwary or desperate. On the other hand, farmers can draw some consolation from the fact that, thanks to the CAP and its complicated and ever-shifting pattern of subsidies, taxes, exemptions and quotas, the market has for decades been rigged in such a way as to protect members’ economies from the full rigours of a global free market.
At least, that was the plan. But with the crisis of overproduction becoming really acute, exacerbated by blowback from the self-defeating sanctions war on Russia, the conflicting interests of rival nations rise to the surface, overturning all the high-minded intentions of cooperation and mutual aid signed up to in happier times.
With right-wing eurosceptic populism a growing challenge in the coming EU elections, thanks to the inability of anyone else on the bourgeois political spectrum to offer a really plausible way out of the crisis, west European leaders are busting a gut trying to contain or divert the outpouring of wrath from small and medium-sized agricultural producers lest the river should break its bounds.
French president Emmanuel Macron is currently trying to curry favour with farmers by posing as their champion in dragging his feet over signing up to a provisionally agreed EU alliance with the Mercosur group of Latin American countries which, farmers fear, could flood the European market with cheap produce. Macron is trying to square the circle by promising to defend France’s subsidised “food sovereignty” but without undermining CAP policy.
Naturally, he is couching this all in culture wars rhetoric, casting himself as a champion defending pure “European standards” against the import of dodgy chickens from Latinos. What he ‘forgets’ to mention is that monopoly capitalism would be sunk (and Macron would be out of a job tomorrow) if low-wage, substandard economies were no longer freely available for imperialism to superexploit.
Imperialism needs low-wage economies with disgusting working conditions to prey upon.
It is no accident that French peasants are particularly militant. France combines a fully developed industry with a still large and influential agricultural base, the latter being a crucial recipient of CAP largesse. But the pitchforks are not just out in France. Indeed, it was fiery German protests against cutting diesel fuel subsidies that kicked off the present tsunami of protests across Europe.
“Macron’s comments come as farmers in France protest about rising costs, falling profits and new regulations as Brussels tries to cut carbon emissions and improve biodiversity. Similar protests are also starting in Belgium, where farmers on Tuesday moved to block a crucial port, while German farmers have also blocked motorways and prevented a minister from disembarking a ferry.
“Among farmers’ grievances are local and EU regulations, while in France, Poland, Slovakia and Romania, they have also objected to cheaper imports from Ukraine flooding their markets. After the Russian full-scale invasion in 2022, the EU agreed to lift tariffs on Ukrainian grain and produce, which have lower production costs and do not have to follow EU standards.
“On the issue of agricultural imports from Ukraine, another irritant for farmers, Macron said he would raise it at the summit as well because they were ‘destabilising the European market’ for chicken and eggs. The commission has bowed to demands to add quotas on eggs, poultry meat and sugar.” (France turns up heat on Brussels to address farmer protests by Leila Abboud, Andy Bounds and Alice Hancock, Financial Times, 30 January 2024)
The farmers’ rage has been sparked by multiple provocations: rising energy bills, rampant inflation, soaring prices, green austerity measures, the tax-free import of Ukrainian grain and the boomerang effect of sanctions against Russia, to name but a few. All of these are secondary causes, driven on at base by the deepening crisis of overproduction and European farmers’ increasing exposure to the untrammelled forces of the global marketplace.
There is no future for small farming under capitalism. Their future lies in socialism.