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The furious farmer taking on Italy’s agri giants

by editor

It’s a dark winter morning near Rome, but Danilo Calvani is enjoying his moment in the spotlight. 

The 61-year-old lettuce grower should be preparing for spring planting at his fields in Pontinia, a commune one hour’s drive away. Instead he’s camped outside the capital, rallying thousands of supporters for a demo on Thursday. His union, the Betrayed Farmers C.R.A., plans to occupy the Circus Maximus in their latest protest against the government of Giorgia Meloni.

“Farmers are being sold out in Italy,” he told POLITICO by phone, lambasting the country’s lawmakers in a thick Romanesco dialect. “There’s a serious risk of smallholders disappearing from one moment to the next.”

It’s a familiar worry and one that has rocked the EU in recent months. Farmers across a dozen countries are blocking highways and ports, cutting off produce supplies and destroying foreign cargoes. That includes Italy, where tractors have trundled into cities in a protest against high fuel costs, unfair competition from imports, and burdensome EU environmental laws.

But inside the pan-European campaign, the balance of power is shifting. For decades, large farmers’ unions have dominated the discourse, using thick membership lists to influence politics. Agriculture ministries are obliged to deal with the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), France’s FNSEA and Italy’s Coldiretti — if they don’t want manure dumped on their doorsteps. 

Yet as these organizations increasingly shape policy, they are losing the support of some members, who see them as part of the very system producers oppose. Leaner, wilder unions are springing up in response, with more aggressive tactics and radical messaging. Despite their smaller numbers, it is these populist outfits who claim to represent Italy’s protesting farmers. 

“We have the most corrupt agricultural unions in Europe and the first in line is Coldiretti,” thundered Calvani. “They serve their personal interests, align with multinationals, and make acts and deals to fatten themselves.”

Marchers affiliated with his Betrayed Farmers C.R.A. — the abbreviation is short for “Joint Agricultural Committee” — have burned Coldiretti flags at demos and accuse the union of favoring large landowners over smallholders. Tensions are running so high that Italian Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida was forced to call for calm last month, saying: “It makes no sense for the farmers’ front to become one of fighting other farmers.” 

That has irritated protesters, who cite it as further evidence the government is more beholden to the established lobby groups than to everyday farmers. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has not helped matters: Last week she invited representatives from Coldiretti and four other large unions to discuss farmers’ grievances — despite the fact none were leading the protests.

“All those rebelling are signed up to Coldiretti and other associations,” said Calvani bitterly. “And what does the government do? Instead of talking to us, they go speak to the oppressors themselves.”

Blame Brussels

Coldiretti has struggled to formulate a response, largely keeping silent about the protests. When it does speak, it deflects blame away from Meloni’s government and onto the EU, be it over packaging rules, environmental regulations or trade policy

“This is why we have been in Brussels since Tuesday and met the President of the European Parliament [Roberta] Metsola and Agriculture Commissioner [Janusz Wojciechowski],” Coldiretti President Ettore Prandini told POLITICO over WhatsApp. “This is where the protest must be brought.”

Nearly 1,000 Coldiretti members did just that on Feb. 1, flying to Brussels at short notice to stage a rowdy event in front of the European Parliament at which farmers toppled a statue and lit bonfires on Place du Luxembourg. 

In part, Coldiretti and the Italian government are victims of their own success. For years they have peddled misinformation about alternative proteins, such as insect foods, and lab-grown and plant-based meats, claiming the EU wanted to force them down Italy’s throat. 

Now protestors are shrilly condemning the Meloni cabinet for not doing more to protect them from these horrors. It would be comical were it not for the political implications: Calvani insists he has no electoral ambitions and that he won’t even vote in June’s European election, but his movement presents a juicy target for the far right nonetheless. 

Matteo Salvini, the head of Italy’s right-wing populist Lega (League), was the first party leader to visit protesting farmers, declaring that “the League is and will always be on the side of Italian farmers against the follies chosen in Brussels.” The Identity and Democracy (ID) political group to which Lega belongs is predicted to surge to third place in the European Parliament after the June vote.

Nor is it just Italy. Germany’s DBV union suffered severe blowback in January after a mob of angry farmers prevented Economy Minister Robert Habeck from getting off a ferry at a northern port. DBV President Joachim Rukwied was forced to distance his association from the attack, which turned out to have been coordinated by several extreme groups.

In the Netherlands, the radical Farmers’ Defence Force is increasingly challenging the country’s traditional union, the LTO. “We’ve seen an increased fragmentation of the farmers’ interest representation over the last five years or so,” said Jeroen Candel, associate professor of food and agriculture policy at Wageningen University.

“Traditionally LTO always had to balance between all regions of the Netherlands,” he told POLITICO, whereas the Farmers’ Defence Force has “close ties to the extreme right.” The group is infamous for physically intimidating rival farmers and politicians, leading even the most pro-farmer party — the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) — to call them out recently. 

All the same, their popularity remains high in some areas, as many farmers don’t “feel represented by LTO anymore,” Candel said.

Even France’s FNSEA — the continent’s most powerful national farming union — has wobbled. When grassroots strikes began in January, FNSEA bosses appeared uncertain; one representative in Toulouse who told protesters to go home was booed off stage. After that, the lobby cheered on the blockades, only asking farmers to suspend them in February.   

“It’s happening across Europe,” Calvani warned. “Our battle isn’t just against the career politicians, but the agricultural unions as well.” 

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