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Columns of tractors block Berlin at peak in farmers' protests

 Published: 12:17, 16 January 2024

Columns of tractors block Berlin at peak in farmers' protests

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner addressed a crowd of thousands of protesting farmers expressing their discontent with tax increases and told them there was no money for further subsidies.

The demonstration brought Berlin to a near standstill, filling one of its central avenues with columns of trucks and tractors as some 10,000 farmers arrived to cap a week of protests against taxes that have become a flashpoint for anti-government anger.

"I can't promise you more state aid from the federal budget," Lindner told the crowd from a chilly stage in front of the Brandenburg Gate on Monday. "But we can fight together for you to enjoy more freedom and respect for your work."

The protests have heaped pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz's coalition as it struggles to fix budget disarray and contain right-wing groups.

The protests surged after a government decision to phase out a tax break on agricultural diesel as it tried to balance its 2024 budget following a constitutional court ruling in November that forced it to revise its spending plans.

Police said late Sunday evening that the space set aside for vehicles in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where Monday's demonstration was being held, was already full. Over the past week, farmers have blocked highway entrances and slowed down traffic across Germany with their protests, intent on pushing Scholz's government to abandon the planned cuts entirely.

They are not satisfied with the concessions the government has already made. On Jan. 4, it watered down its original plan, saying that a car tax exemption for farming vehicles would be retained and the cuts in the diesel tax breaks would be staggered over three years.

Faced with a backlash, the government has already said it will maintain a tax rebate on new agricultural vehicles and spread the scrapping of the agricultural diesel subsidy over several years.

Scholz said in a video message on Saturday that "we took the farmers' arguments to heart" and insisted the government came up with "a good compromise." He also said officials will discuss "what else we can do so that agriculture has a good future."

But farmers, with the vocal backing of the opposition conservatives and the far-right, say that is not enough.

"I have respect for every politician who is prepared to come to us," said Farmers' Union head Joachim Rukwied, who at one moment had to take the microphone from Lindner and beg the crowd to stop jeering for long enough to listen to him.

"The finance minister is here," he said. "It makes no sense to boo him."

The government has taken a conciliatory tone as concern has grown that political debate has become radicalized and demonstrations could turn violent. Protest leaders will meet coalition leaders later this afternoon.

Scholz acknowledged concerns that go well beyond farming subsidies, saying that crises, conflicts, and worries about the future are unsettling to people.

Mucking out
Lindner, describing himself as a lad from the countryside who had mucked out stables in his time, sought, to little avail, to win over farmers by contrasting their peaceful protest in Berlin to the behavior of climate activists who had sprayed paint on the Brandenburg Gate – "the symbol of German national unity."

But he said scarce money was needed for long-neglected school and road investments and industrial energy subsidies.

Jeers grew especially loud when Lindner said the money was needed because of the war in Ukraine.

"With the war in Ukraine, peace and freedom in Europe are threatened once again, so we have to invest once again in our security as we used to," he said.

Vehicles that arrived overnight from across Germany parked nose-to-tail along the route, and crowds of farmers, wrapped up against the cold, waved German flags and held up banners marked with slogans including: "Without farmers, no future."

The governing parties are divided over how best to meet farmers' demands. Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir, a Green, has suggested financial rewards for humane animal husbandry, while some Social.

Democrats want to offer higher produce prices, and Lindner's Free Democrats want to cut administrative overheads.

Several bus and tram lines, which were patrolled by around 1,300 officers, closed for the protest, police said.

The disruption caused by protests and train strikes last week hurt coalition parties in the polls and propelled the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to new heights.