Angry protests by farmers, hauliers and railway workers risk being exploited by populists such as Alternative für Deutschland
The symbolism that German farmers chose to express their discontent with the government in the first days of the new year was as unambiguous as it was ominous: by the side of rural roads across the country, there were sightings of makeshift gallows dangling traffic-light signs, a reference to the colours of the three governing parties.
The chilling sculptures are harbingers of unprecedented cross-sector protests and strikes hitting German roads and railways from Monday, and speak of a dramatic change of mood in a country long feted for its consensus-seeking approach to industrial relations, especially compared with its more traditionally strike-prone neighbour France.
With key elections coming up in eastern German states this year, even some farmers fear the new revolutionary spirit could play straight into the hands of a buoyant far right.
An eight-day countrywide protest by agricultural workers, involving motorway blockades and described by the head of the farmers’ association as “the like of which the country has never experienced before”, will go ahead in spite of the government’s partial U-turn on the cuts to diesel subsidies and farming vehicle tax breaks that had triggered them.
In a sign of the levels of anger driving the protests, about 100 farmers on Thursday night blocked the vice-chancellor and economy minister, Robert Habeck, from disembarking from a ferry in northern Germany, prompting it to turn back to the island where he had spent his holidays.
The Green politician had reportedly invited some of the protesters to present their concerns on the ferry, which they declined. “It makes me thoughtful, yes, even concerned, that the mood in the country is heating up to such an extent,” Habeck said in a statement on Friday.
Freight carriers say they will join the farmers’ protests to express their dismay over a toll hike for heavy goods vehicles that came into effect at the start of December, starting with blockades in regional centres and culminating in a lorry rally in the federal capital Berlin on 18 and 19 January.
Taking the train to escape chaos on the roads is unlikely to be an option for travellers: railway workers affiliated with the GDL, the German train drivers’ union, have announced their intention to resume nationwide strikes over wages and working hours from Monday after a truce over the Christmas period.
The protests of the self-employed farmers and freight carriers, and the strikes in the state-owned train sector, are not coordinated, focusing on different demands and in some cases related to disputes that precede the current government. But their concurrence has given the far right a perfect opportunity to stoke populist fantasies of a coup d’etat.
On its social media channels, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has painted a picture of ordinary people being “driven into ruin by an irresponsible political leadership like in the middle ages”, and urged citizens to join what it has called a “general strike”.
On Telegram messaging channels, some protesters have shared AI-generated pictures of a burning Reichstag surrounded by tractors, with the words: “Come to Berlin and chase away the traffic light! Germany is turning blue,” a reference to AfD’s colours.
The German farmers’ association has tried to distance itself from “violent fantasies of a coup d’etat” and criticised the blockade of Habeck’s ferry on Thursday.
“These protests are waters to the AfD’s mills,” said Clemens Risse, general secretary of the association of small farmers in Saxony, the eastern state where the far-right party is leading polls before elections in September.
“Growing bureaucratic burdens and rising costs over the last 10 years have built up an immense frustration that is now being aired,” he added. “And then AfD is pointing at tariff-free grain imports from Ukraine and telling the farmers that the government is trying to save the world but not looking after its own.”
Consisting of about 256,000 businesses that employ approximately 2% of the national workforce, Germany’s agricultural industry may appear small. But farmers tend about half of Germany’s land mass, and the industry’s spokespeople emphasise that the country’s geographical location and soil qualities should mean their sector has a future even in times of global heating.
The subsidy cuts that have riled German farmers this winter were less planned than forced upon Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government by an opposition that is now gleefully rubbing its hands.
In November, Germany’s constitutional court ruled the government’s long-term “climate and transformation fund” was unconstitutional after the centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU) had brought a legal challenge against the state’s plans to repurpose unspent money from pandemic emergency measures for climate action initiatives.
The bombshell ruling sent the three governing parties – Scholz’s centre-left Social Democrats, Habeck’s Green party and the liberal pro-business Free Democratic party (FDP) of finance minister Christian Lindner – scrambling for ways to close a €60bn (£52bn) funding gap.
A tax relief for agricultural diesel and an exemption from car tax for farming vehicles – beloved neither by environmentalists nor free-market liberals – offered themselves as areas for compromise.
The populist anger that these now partly revised cuts have triggered has been mainly targeted at the Greens rather than the CDU in opposition or the liberal FDP, whose commitment to the debt-brake mechanism – limiting borrowing to 0.35% of Germany’s nominal gross domestic product – is severely restricting the government’s manoeuvrability.
But the proposed cuts have been criticised even among farmers with sympathies for the environmental party’s agenda. “It is absolutely right to transform German agriculture from being reliant on fossil fuels to being supported by solar,” said Ottmar Ilchmann, a dairy farmer from East Frisia, in Lower Saxony. “But this isn’t the right way.”
The cut to diesel subsidies, which the government now plans to gradually phase in until 2026, will probably hit smaller farms rather than big companies, and could prove particularly painful for organic farmers, who use more petrol a hectare than conventional farming. Some farmers propose the government could have increased tax on paraffin or fertilisers instead. “We already feel like we’re being overregulated by zealous bureaucrats,” said Ilchmann, pointing to new EU-wide satellite monitoring of farming fields and requirements for farmers to protocol their methods via an app. “There’s a feeling that whatever we do is never enough.”
He was nonetheless highly critical of some of his colleagues’ falling for the advances of the far right. “Some farmers say: ‘It can’t get worse than this, I may as well vote for the AfD next time,’” he said. “Well, I suggest they take a look at what they have to say in their manifesto.”
Founded by a group of free-market but anti-euro economists, the AfD in its 2023 party manifesto is still calling for “clearing the jungle of […] subsidies and special funds”.
Source: The Guardian