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BERLIN: Thousands of angry farmers descended on Berlin with their tractors and loudly booed a government minister on Monday, rounding off a week of nationwide protests against plans to cut tax breaks for agriculture.

More than 5,000 tractors were already blocking the streets and honking their horns by mid-morning, a police spokeswoman told AFP. Finance Minister Christian Lindner put up a robust defense of the government’s plans at the protest, insisting they were about “how we can get out of a difficult situation together”. But he was met with boos and whistles when he took to the podium, with protesters chanting “liar” and calling for the government to be ousted.

“For me, the government must resign. They are no longer capable of leading us,” Paul Brzezinski, 73, a dairy farmer based south-east of Berlin, told AFP. Farmers began a week of protests on January 8 over plans to axe certain subsidies for agriculture, after a court ruling forced the government to find savings in the 2024 budget. The rallies prompted the government to partially walk back on the cuts, promising to reinstate a discount on vehicle tax and to phase out a diesel subsidy over several years instead of immediately.

But farmers say the moves did not go far enough and are urging Berlin to completely reverse the plans. “It’s not just about the most recent cuts. That was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Hendrik Pferdmenges, 45, a crop farmer from Hanover.

“We have lost too many subsidies in recent years, and there is so much regulation and bureaucracy that at some point we will no longer be able to cope,” he said. “If I had to describe in one word why I am here, then it would be ‘future’,” said Henrike Boerstling, 26, a crop farmer from Lower Saxony.

“I want my children to be able to become farmers one day. I want to be able to take over the farm from my father. I want to be able to run it properly and invest in my business,” she said.

The farmers’ demos have come at a time when approval ratings for Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s uneasy three-way coalition government are at an all-time low. In a recent poll for the Bild daily, 64 percent of Germans said they would like to see a change of government. Workers from various sectors, from metallurgy and transport to education, have staged protests in recent weeks amid struggling economic growth and rising prices.

Strikes by railway workers brought transport to a standstill last week, while metal workers and public sector employees staged walkouts in December. Official data on Monday showed the German economy shrank by 0.3 percent in 2023 as costly energy, high interest rates and cooling foreign demand took their toll. The farmers’ rallies have also attracted far-right demonstrators, sparking fears that extremists are seeking to exploit the protest movement.

They are accused of being behind controversial stunts such as setting up gallows on the side of motorways and stopping Economy Minister Robert Habeck from disembarking from a ferry. The far-right AfD party is enjoying a surge in popularity, scoring between 21 and 23 percent nationally in terms of voting intentions and more than 30 percent in some parts of the former East Germany.

Pferdmenges said far-right protesters represented only a “very small number” of people at the farmers’ protests. “We’re not right-wing extremists in any way. It’s just fear-mongering by the politicians,” he said. Berlin announced plans to cut subsidies and tax breaks on diesel and agricultural vehicles after a court ruling in November tore a multi-billion-euro hole in the government’s budget, forcing Scholz’s coalition to find savings. — AFP

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