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Italian farmers rise up against ‘establishment’ Meloni

Farmers protest in Milan this month. Credit: Getty

February 8, 2024 - 10:40am

In the past weeks Italy, like several other European countries, has been swept by farmers’ protests. Like elsewhere, the farmers have turned their anger on the government, in this case the Right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni. And, like elsewhere, the few sops thrown to the farmers by the government (and by Brussels) have failed to quell the protests. Today, hundreds of tractors will descend on Rome in what is expected to be the biggest demonstration yet — and potentially the biggest political headache Meloni has had to contend with since her election in 2022. 

Italian farmers are protesting for much the same reasons farmers are protesting in other countries: the latest wave of European Union-led climate and environmental policies targeted at the agricultural sector — which include tax hikes, increased costs for fuel and animal feed, and even the obligation to set aside 4% of land for biodiversity — is strangling small and medium-sized farmers who have been struggling for years with rising energy costs, unfair trade practices and free-trade agreements. That’s not to mention a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which is skewed towards the interests of corporate agri-food enterprises. 

What sets Italy apart is the fact that while Meloni’s Right-populist allies across Europe, such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, have sided with the farmers against “the establishment”, Meloni is the establishment. Indeed, the proverbial straw that broke the farmer’s back was her government’s decision, in late December, to scrap a personal income tax exemption for farmers introduced in 2017. Following the first protests, the government ran for cover, saying it would consider reintroducing the exemption. 

Yet this hasn’t stopped the protests. Ultimately, this is about more than just taxes or diesel costs — it’s about an entire economic model which small farmers say is rigged against them. A striking feature of the Italian protests is that, even more so than in other countries, they are largely grassroots and spontaneous in nature. Most protests are organised by small local committees that in many cases aren’t even in contact with each other, let alone coordinated at national level. 

Many of the protesting farmers say they don’t feel represented by the main trade associations, whom they accuse of being too cosy with the government and the big agri-food enterprises, and of benefitting from the EU’s hyper-bureaucratised system, which makes farmers dependent on these associations for accessing funds. It is telling, in this regard, that the main agricultural federations, such as Coldiretti and Confagricultura, were not involved in the organisation of the first protests. Indeed, their initial reaction was lukewarm. Then, as the demonstrations began to spread, they shifted their position, in some cases even joining the protests. Coldiretti, for example, participated in a big European farmers’ protest in Brussels earlier this month. 

But many farmers remain sceptical. Even if there is no single movement bringing together all the protesting farmers, the one gathering the most media attention and new members — and which is behind today’s protest in Rome — is the Comitato degli agricoltori traditi, or Betrayed Farmers Committee, which openly opposes the national trade organisations. The de facto leader of the group is Danilo Calvani, who rose to prominence ten years ago as one of the leaders of the short-lived anti-government Pitchforks protests. 

Calvani’s attacks aren’t directed just at the government and the EU, but at the trade organisations as well. “Farmers no longer follow them, they are no longer credible. We will take back what is ours as a representation,” he said. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The rejection of intermediary representative institutions is one of the hallmarks of populist revolts. It may seem paradoxical that such a movement, of the kind which Italy has not seen in years, should emerge under a government with strong populist credentials itself. But it was really only a matter of time before Meloni’s pro-establishment policies came back to bite her. It looks like that time has come.


Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

The farmer protests are really tricky because they fall outside any of our mainstream parties.
People try and blame the EU but the farmers don’t mind some of the EU’s biggest policies, they just want less bureaucracy. They like the protectionism and cash redistribution in their favour. So the economic right wing can’t campaign for them but the pro-EU left can’t either.
Usually “EU bureaucracy etc.” is a complaint levelled by the free-traders who want a Thatcherite vision for the continent where cheap eastern european produce flows freely westward. These free-trade types have recently coupled up with the economic left-wing (ish) culturally right-wing types as a way of weakening the EU and ramming through their free trade political vision. e.g. Brexit.
But the farmers don’t want that. They want an odd blend of big state interventionism to subsidise their production but not so big state that they are made to follow a load of rules in return for the support. Certainly in France it’s mainstream to call for more protectionism and higher (streamlined) regulation to limit competition from the relatively lightly regulated East and Mercosur.
So many people here and elsewhere on the Right reactively support the blood and soil traditionalist farmers because they perceive them to be on their team but then criticise the EU for doing too much to distort the market in favour of domestic industries, harming growth and costing the consumer and taxpayer.
And that’s because primarily they drink the anti-EU koolaid and put themselves on that team without actually holding any consistent principles which is much harder.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yep. This is a microcosm of contemporary politics. The media would love this to fit into the standard left v right binary, but it is not so simple. Unfortunately, too many people just absentmindedly drift into one of the two boxes on offer.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

That “left v right binary” is the biggest obstacle to ever getting anything done. On both sides of the Atlantic.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
4 months ago

I have felt for a long time now that ‘left/right’ has become almost useless as a model, or tool, for analysing politics or society today. David Goodhart’s ‘Somewheres and Anywheres’ seems to be a picture of what is actually happening.
From this Italian protest, or the French ones, to the ‘Red Wall’, or indeed ‘Blue Wall’ fragility in the UK, over to Trump and Biden in America, the idea of ‘ordinary people’ versus ‘elites’ makes more sense than a model dreamt up over 150 years ago now.

Robbie K
Robbie K
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Totally nailed it there.
I might add supporters of the farmers’ rights aspire to a less polluted environment, clean rivers, more bird life and so forth yet don’t expect them to clean up their act.

Arnold Attard
Arnold Attard
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I seem to remember quite distinctly that Thacher was NOT too enthusiastic about opening up to Eastern Europe, but open to doing business with Gorbachev’s Russia. Quite the opposite of what is being done today and at what you are hinting.

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
4 months ago

I knew from the beginning that Meloni was a fraud. Before she was even elected, she carefully removed any policy positions which might threaten the EU/NATO powers that be.

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago
Reply to  Dick Barrett

The most incompetent fascist ever.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
4 months ago

I know little about these farmer’s experience, but recall staying with our former French Trade Commissioner in the Normandy countryside in 1990. Inquiring why all the farmer’s fields opposite were run to seed, it emerged the EU was paying them not to farm. Some vast inflexible market management policy in Brussels was crushing remote fields in a quiet corner of France. It felt weird.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago

Everything about the EU’s agricultural policy has always felt weird.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Thank you.