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Tractors on TikTok: European farmers shout pre-election

Amidst a raucous stream of vehicles impeding the Bucharest Ring Road, a rural proprietor emerged while carrying a lamb emblazoned with the Romanian flag.

“We became Europe’s slaves,” Ghiocel, 47, said as he caressed the young animal, his cheeks flushed from the frigid temperatures of late January. “That is impossible at this time!”

A man stood by his side and waved a flag as a handful of tractors and vehicles ceaselessly honked and disrupted traffic.

“We’ve got that incredibly costly petroleum, gas, and insurance… “We have everything in our country, yet we choose to work elsewhere,” Ghiocel said about the five million Romanians who have migrated over the last thirty years.

Danut Andrus, a Botosani-based agricultural entrepreneur adorned in a yellow visibility vest and white woollen headwear, navigated the crowd while filming and uploaded the footage to his TikTok page using the hashtag #fermieri (“farmer” in Romanian). A number of his videos have amassed more than 300,000 views.

The situation of the farmers has been gaining traction among a larger audience.

Since January 10, members of the agriculture and transportation sectors in Romania, the European Union country with the highest number of farmers (approximately 3.5 million, as reported by the European Commission), have been engaging in demonstrations, frequently in the company of tractor and vehicle convoys, at various locations throughout the nation.

The protesters have presented a 20-page document detailing their 47 demands to the government. These demands consist of the following:

  • A reduction in diesel tax.
  • A decrease in mandatory civil liability insurance for motor vehicles (RCA).
  • An end to what is perceived as unfair competition from Ukraine, where drivers operate in the EU without transport permits and incur lower operating costs (the bloc lifted this provision in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022).

“Everything started in a WhatsApp group,” Andrus remarked. As a protest representative, he negotiates with the Romanian government for the farmers’ claims. He even attempted to form a political party supporting farmers, he revealed, but was unsuccessful.

Demonstrations Disrupt Romanian Infrastructure

A January 10 demonstration that was supposed to take place in Bucharest deviated to a road approximately 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the capital, in the vicinity of the commune of Afumati, after police denied access to some demonstrators for lack of authorization. Protesters remained at Afumati on January 21 after the local government ultimately granted permission on the grounds that the action represented political interference emanating from the far right.

Additionally, on January 14, Romanian farmers obstructed two entrances to the Black Sea port of Constanta, a critical transit centre for Ukrainian grain, and the Siret border crossing with Ukraine.

The concerns expressed by the demonstrators are also perceived as such by particular non-agricultural residents of Romania.

“[Vehicle] insurance is so costly,” said Deaconu, one of Bolt’s minicab drivers. While agreeing with the farmers’ claims, he and the other transporters avoid engaging in the protests.

Additionally, accusations have been made that a significant number of demonstrators “are not ordinary peasants, but rather small to medium-sized businesses in those sectors” with expensive farm equipment and land, according to World Bank Group consultant Sorin Ionita in Romania.

Increasing discontentment

A growing number of European producers have become increasingly dissatisfied in recent months.

It began in 2019 with Dutch farmers obstructing highways throughout the country in opposition to nitrogen emission restrictions proposed by the government. Rals started to intensify in late 2023. Late in December, Polish lorry drivers obstructed the Ukrainian-Polish border crossing at Medyka to regain access to driving permits. Then, at the beginning of January, Polish farmers protested in the streets against inexpensive imports. 10,000 German farmers, accompanied by 5,000 tractors, demonstrated in Berlin on January 15 against proposals to reduce agricultural petroleum subsidies.

Videos documenting the demonstrations have achieved viral status across various social media platforms. A video of French farmers strewing manure and straw over a government building surpassed one million views on TikTok, while an image of tractors obstructing a road in Germany amassed over seven million views. A compendium of videos depicting tractors impeding traffic in multiple nations, accompanied by the caption “IMPRESSIVE. “The pan-European revolution against governments, the EU, and the 2030 agenda” – an extensively shared message on WhatsApp.

The most violent demonstrations have occurred in France, the EU’s leading agricultural producer. Thousands of farmers have obstructed highways, set fire to tires, and deposited manure at the entrances of various administrative buildings throughout the nation since mid-January. As a form of resistance against inexpensive imports, demonstrators vandalized merchandise on multiple trucks carrying vegetables and wine from Spain and Morocco in southern France, according to the Spanish Confederation of Freight Transport (CETM).

French Farmers Challenge Macron’s Policies

French farmers argue that the measures taken by the government led by President Emmanuel Macron to combat inflation are detrimental to them, as they compel food producers to reduce prices. Furthermore, they vocalize their disapproval of the EU’s green policies, which encompass the mandate to leave four per cent of land vacant to foster biodiversity and the reduction of chemical pesticide usage as a prerequisite for receiving European aid and express apprehensions regarding the potential consequences of such measures.

The largest farm union in France, FNSEA, demanded, among other things, that “the very philosophy of the Green Deal, which assumes degrowth, be reconsidered to restore farmers’ visibility.”

A recent survey shows that 82% of French citizens favour the farmers’ movement.

Olivier, who operates a vegetable stand on Mouffetard Street in Paris, concurs with the demonstrations and asserts that the European Union expects France to meet higher standards regarding climate objectives. He indicated two crates containing mandarins, one from France priced at 7.90 euros ($8.57) per kilogramme, with one produced in Italy. Farmers in France contend that the higher cost of their produce is due to the reduced use of pesticides.

Consumers are paying paradoxically higher food prices while the benefit to producers is diminishing. Citing data from the Mutualite Sociale Agricole (MSA), French ecologist and MEP Yannick Jadot recently stated on the Franceinfo network that one-third of French farmers live below the poverty line and that two farmers commit suicide daily.

The initial obstacle encountered by Gabriel Attal, the recently appointed prime minister of France, is the farmer demonstrations. In response, he reversed the proposal to increase taxes on agricultural fuel on January 26.

TikTok goes gaga over tractors

Populist parties have allegedly exploited the wrath of farmers. “They not only exploit the protests but also fuel them,” explained National School of Political Science and Public Administration lecturer Claudiu Craciun of Bucharest. “I have observed on social media for months how far-right organizations continue to share content from the Dutch and German protests.”

Craciun noted, nonetheless, that demonstrators avoid associating themselves with the far right.

After discovering that a lawyer close to Romanian far-right Senator Diana Sosoaca had submitted a request to protest in the capital on January 21, very few demonstrators attended the event, which was authorized for a maximum of 5,000 people and 100 tractors in Bucharest’s Constitution Square. A single tractor was present.

In anticipation of “a major shift to the right” in the European Parliament elections in June, European political parties are monitoring demonstrations with prudence, according to a recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Anti-EU populists are projected to secure second or third place in nine additional nations (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia), according to the survey.

Social media “plays a significant, albeit occasionally detrimental, role” in electoral processes, according to Mihnea Dumitru, a Bucharest-based political analyst with a doctorate in the impact of the internet on Romanian elections. “These networks lack moderation, and neither their companies nor local civil society make sufficient efforts to combat fake news,” he stated.

Dumitru highlights “secret” Facebook groups that disseminate racist propaganda in Romania, as well as videos on TikTok and YouTube that contain dubious political content marketed as humorous rather than alarming.

TikTok’s Explosive Growth in Romania

Dumitru added that “with the advent of video content and preferences toward more polarized politics, TikTok has recently seized the crown” as the app with the most rapid growth among Romanians. As per DataReportal, the number of TikTok users in the country experienced a significant growth from 175,000 in 2019 to 7.58 million in 2023, with a particularly noteworthy 1.2 million increase occurring between 2022 and 2023.

Germany (20.9 million) and Italy (19.7 million) have the second and third most active TikTok users in the European Union, respectively, according to the complete DSA Transparency Report for 2023 published by TikTok.

The accessibility of inexpensive and quick mobile internet in rural Romania, according to Dumitru, enabled “massive online communication” regarding the protests.

Romania is hosting four elections in the most significant election year in world history, including local, presidential, and parliamentary elections, in addition to the European Parliament vote in early June.

Dumitru explained that right-wing parties’ capacity to transfer public resentment into the public realm has increased electoral intentions. The “rapidity with which these parties attempted to seize control over them but failed miserably.” was surprising about the Romanian protests.

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