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.