Angry farmers clash with police near the European Union's headquarters in a fresh show of force

BRUSSELS — Farmers clashed with police in Belgium on Monday, spraying officers with liquid manure and setting fire to piles of tires in a fresh show of force as European Union agriculture ministers met in search of ways to address their concerns.

Brussels police said that 900 tractors had entered the city, many bearing down on the European Council building where the ministers were meeting. Smoke drifted through the air near where police in riot gear used water cannons to defend the EU’s headquarters from behind concrete barriers and barbed wire.

The farmers are angry at red tape and competition from cheap imports from countries where the EU’s relatively high standards do not have to be met. They lined up scores of tractors down main roads leading to the city’s European quarter, snarling traffic and blocking public transport.

A few tractors forced their way through one barrier, sending officers scurrying.

Some are lamenting what they see as the slow death of working the land. “Agriculture. As a child you dream of it, as an adult you die of it,” said one.

At the start of the month, a similar demonstration turned violent as farmers torched hay bales and threw eggs and firecrackers at police near a summit of EU leaders.

“We are getting ignored,” Marieke Van De Vivere, a farmer from the Ghent region in northern Belgium, told The Associated Press.

She invited the ministers “to be reasonable to us, to come with us on a day to work on the field, or with the horses or with the animals, to see that it is not very easy … because of the rules they put on us.”

The protests are the latest in a series of rallies and demonstrations by farmers across Europe.

On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron was greeted with boos and whistles at the opening of the Paris Agricultural Fair by farmers who claim that he’s not doing enough to support them. Spain, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have been hit by protests in recent weeks.

The movement has gathered pace as political parties campaign for Europe-wide elections on June 6-9. It’s already had results. Earlier this month, the EU’s executive branch shelved an anti-pesticide proposal in a concession to the farmers, which make up an important voting constituency.

On the other side of the barriers in Brussels, the ministers were keen to show they’re listening.

The EU presidency, currently held by Belgium, acknowledged that the farmers’ concerns include the burden of respecting environmental policies, a drop in assistance from the bloc’s agricultural subsidy system and the impact of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s grain supplies.

“We hear, clearly, their complaints,” said David Clarinval, Belgium’s agriculture minister. Still, he urged them to refrain from violence. “We can understand that some are in difficult circumstances, but aggression has never been a source for solutions.”

French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau told the few reporters who were permitted by police to enter the building that “there’s a need to send signals immediately to tell farmers that something is changing, not only in the short-term, but also in the medium and long-term.”

Irish Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue said the priority must be to slash administrative red tape.

The EU should ensure that policies are “straightforward, that they’re proportionate and they’re as simple as possible for farmers to implement,” he said. McConalogue underlined that “we do respect the massively important work that farmers carry out every day in terms of producing food.”

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