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16 Jan, 2024 14:24

‘Extremists stoking rage’: The German government seeks to downplay protesting workers' plight

Farmers, truckers, train drivers – numerous workers are making it known that they are fed up, as the chancellor’s approval drops to 20%
‘Extremists stoking rage’: The German government seeks to downplay protesting workers' plight

I spent a week with farmers protesting near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Too bad Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government didn’t get down off its high horse and do the same. It was a missed opportunity to benefit from a much-needed mugging by reality. 

Instead, the Interior Ministry contented itself by preemptively framing the protesters as susceptible to far-right infiltration. Scholz said that rage is being stoked deliberately by extremists. When asked about this concept, the unanimous response among the farmers was laughter, eye rolling, or one-line jokes. If you want to put down a dog, just say it has rabies – or has been hanging out with the far-right.

Despite the protest taking place right across the street from the German parliament, farmers said the only officials whose presence was noticed, as they inquired about the protesters’ concerns, were from the right-wing Alternative for Deutschland. Oh no, looks they’re co-opting already! Or maybe they’re just doing their jobs in trying to actually grasp the “ground truth” of the situation rather than framing it up with a convenient narrative in an effort to dismiss it. 

When a government official finally graced the protest with his presence on January 15, at the apex of the week-long protest, it was Finance Minister Christian Lindner, who took to the stage and loudly proclaimed that the government basically had no money. “I can't promise you more state aid from the federal budget. But we can fight together for you to enjoy more freedom and respect for your work,” he said. 

I’m not even a farmer – although I was raised on a farm in Canada – and still I find this infuriating. Mostly just as a woman, though. Because Lindner sounds like a guy on a date who says that he’s broke, but instead of just splitting the check, he wants you to pay for the whole thing. The farmers aren’t asking Berlin to pay their bills. What they want is for Team Scholz to refrain from taking even more of their hard-earned money in the form of taxes on diesel fuel for their farm vehicles, particularly at a time when government efforts to stick it to Russia and to the climate-change bogeyman, by making fossil fuel energy less available and affordable, is making it increasingly harder for them to do the job of feeding the country. 

As if farmers aren’t already paying this government enough. One farmhand told me that his boss has a budget of €3,300 a month for his job, and that by the time all the taxes are paid to the German government, the final salary paid to the worker tops out at €1,400. Where’s all that cash going? 

Here’s a clue. Scholz said last fall that Germany had to “be able to help Ukraine on the basis of solidarity. We support Ukraine in its defense struggle, with financial resources and weapons.” Yet German farmers are not only told to eat cake, Marie Antoinette style, but also to pay up for the government’s screw-ups. Team Scholz blasted a hole in its own budget when it transferred cash from a Covid fund into a “climate and transformation fund,” but then couldn’t pay it all back, leaving a €17 billion ($18.5 billion) deficit and a scramble to somehow recoup the funds through austerity measures. So Scholz wants the farmers to pay his bills, but also to pay for his mistakes. And if they refuse, they must have been infiltrated by far-right extremists. 

Unlike this government, farmers pride themselves on productivity and self-sufficiency, which is why they’re juicy targets for the gold diggers in the Bundestag. When floods hit Germany, it was farmers, they say, who were on the front lines rescuing people even before the army was on-site. Throughout the entire protest week of sub-zero temperatures, farmers weathered the elements with several large wood-burning heaters fueled by a massive bin of chopped firewood. Many slept in their trucks or tractors all week. It’s hardly surprising that firefighters were captured on social media expressing their support and admiration for this group, as a large number of farmers also serve as volunteer firefighters in their communities.  

While he’s hiding across the street in his office, being serenaded by big-rig honking, Scholz’s popularity is hovering around 20%, while 69% of Germans support the farmers’ protests, according to an INSA poll from earlier this month. Has it dawned on the bundeskanzler that if such an overwhelmingly large swath of the population, from the right to the left, all agrees on something, then maybe he just has a “you” problem? 

The solidarity and unity witnessed in front of the Brandenburg Gate (a symbol of division once located in no man’s land between East and West Berlin) was astounding – from a woman in a hijab handing out soup from a basket to Berliners of migrant origin walking among the participants and expressing their support. Not only did trucks join the tractors, but word got out that farmers and truckers from the Netherlands were on the Autobahn’s A2 and heading towards Berlin. There was also buzz that Polish and Russian truckers were joining forces en route from the Polish border, just hours away.

It’s not just farmers and truckers who are fed up. The folks who actually drive the Deutsche Bahn trains went on strike in the same week as the farmers. While the government is haggling with them over their union’s request of a €3,000 ($3,265) one-time employee bonus to cover government-driven inflation, it managed to nonetheless find several million more euros for each of nine top executives of the wholly government-owned company.

While some farmers stood atop their tractors broadcasting the scene live to the world on TikTok, others monitored the app for news of related events elsewhere, like pieces of a giant puzzle that were forming a much larger image of discontent with the Western establishment than what could be seen from any one geographic location.  

Dutch farmers, in solidarity with their German counterparts, were themselves pressured by their government to give up their farmland to state buyouts in light of European climate directives mandating reductions in nitrogen produced by defecating cows.

The French farmers’ union (FNSEA) director, Arnaud Rousseau, said in supporting the plight of German farmers that “these movements all have the same root cause: the growing gap between the reality of farmers’ practices on the ground and the administrative decisions centralised in Brussels.”

He added that 55% of French chicken now comes from Ukraine, undercutting local farmers. Similarly, Polish and Romanian farmers are now actively convoying against the flooding of their own markets with cheap Ukrainian farming products as a result of the EU lifting restrictions on goods and services for Ukraine providers until at least June 2024.

Meanwhile, Eastern European truckers have protested against Ukrainian drivers undercutting their jobs in the EU by blocking the Ukrainian border to the point where a 127-hour wait ensued, making it sound like trade between neighboring Poland and Ukraine could have been faster via the Suez Canal. 

“We've taken the farmers' arguments to heart and revised our proposals. A good compromise," Scholz said, referring to his plan to now slow roll the clawing back of tax breaks instead of doing them all at once. This is like demanding that someone pay for your broke arsch in installments – all while you keep throwing cash at a joker best known for regaling crowds with pant-less, hands-free piano routines before he was elected president of Ukraine. And also because you’re obsessed with counting carbon molecules in the air like a Hollywood starlet counts calories. 

Scholz’s political fate, and that of Germany’s establishment, is in his own hands. And he should start by taking those hands out of the farmers’ pockets before he regime-changes himself right out of power at the next election.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.