Featured photo credit: Ian Falzon photography
Last week, Malta and the rest of Europe witnessed a remarkable scene.
All across the continent, tractors driven by angry farmers took over the streets in protest against what local farmers described as “insensitive and premature” environmental policies which form part of the EU’s Green Deal package.
Just three days ago, the EU’s climate service reported the clearest indication we’ve had so far that all of our previous climate change predictions have been surpassed – it was the first time that a dreaded 1.50C increase in average global temperatures across the globe was recorded consistently over a 12-month time span, a dangerous limit which world leaders had pledged to avoid surpassing nine years ago at the Paris summit.
Key aspects of the original version of the EU’s Green Deal included cutting down 90% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 by increasing the EU’s collective capacity to produce energy from renewable sources, modernising buildings, transport, and other essential infrastructure to make them more energy efficient, and mitigating the environmental impact of major industrial activities like steel, oil and gas, and agriculture.
The tension between European legislators and farmers is rooted in the imbalance between the inevitable upheaval that environmental legislation brings with it and the immediate needs of farmers who have been struggling for decades. One example was the now-scrapped proposal to halve the use of pesticides by 2030, which jarred with farmers not only for the impact on their profitability but also because of how the EU simultaneously wants to allow more lax controls with non-organic produce coming from overseas.
The farmers’ demands in the face of the erosion of their livelihoods are entirely understandable. As a journalist, I’ve written several stories about farmers in Malta and how increasingly difficult it is becoming to make a living from a profession that requires constant dedication and provides no guarantees of success whatsoever. The argument I’m making here isn’t to call for an outright refusal of their requests – the argument here is that their pleas should have been heeded ages ago.
Their woes were amplified due to the context. It is almost impossible to be a successful farmer when you are living on an island that is obsessed with building up every square inch of land, covering every remaining surface in tarmac, all while being forced to deal with a nightmarish legal system. While the government did attempt to address some of the issues that were created by this antiquated legal system, which was deemed unconstitutional by the court and sparked a wave of evictions, it did so after years of court cases further thinned out Malta’s aging, shriveling farmer population.
However, even when considering that I am a strong supporter of farmers’ rights and firmly believe in the power of food autonomy, it would be incorrect of me if I failed to point out that, especially in the local context, farmers’ lobbies can’t see the wood for the trees if it meant saving their damn lives, which in this case, it does.
It is mind-boggling that farmers’ lobbies in Malta did not take show such definitive unity in the face of the very real threat from relentless speculative buying of farming land, for example, but are so keen on absolutely refusing to accept some of the terms of the EU’s Green Deal. It is just bizarre to hear prime minister Robert Abela claiming that local farmers are solely angry at the EU and not at his government, because farmers should be angry at him and his government more than anyone else.
It is yet another instance in which sight of the bigger picture – the fact that our government is in bed with developers and property speculators who seek to buy up agricultural land on the cheap so it can be used for non-agricultural purposes – is lost because it is more politically convenient to hold back from calling out the government for its obvious failures.
One of the Labour Party’s favourite anti-European rallying calls has always been that the EU tries to foist a one-size-fits-all approach on everyone and that Malta will become a pawn in a chess game run by bigger countries.
In truth, the EU does try to foist a one-size-fits-all approach on everyone. What the Labour Party does is spin this into something that is detrimental to the interests of a smaller member state like Malta. It isn’t. The essence of the European Union project is to create multiple fora with a never ending list of checks and balances in which a common position that benefits the widest range of people can be hammered out. That common position is vital for the survival of the European Union.
The main qualifying statement here is that the main point of having a massive bureaucratic system dedicated to establishing this common position is to ensure that any member states who may object to aspects of the discussion have ample opportunity to do so. In a situation which involves two equally important interests to consider – in this case, farmers’ rights v the need to address climate change – mechanisms which allow for concessions (formally known as ‘derogations’) are also available.
Of course, the Labour government will not tell you that its failure to uphold a reputation as a trustworthy, cooperative member state and its dismal track record in European fora in general are the main reasons why no such derogations were negotiated on behalf of Maltese farmers. The Labour government won’t even tell you that it voted in favour of the legislative package which farmers are protesting against.
Instead, the prime minister, much like his authoritarian counter-parts within the EU, used the opportunity to score what he thinks is a quick and easy public relations win.
Farmers taking aim at the terms of the Green Deal and negotiating for concessions whenever necessary is one thing. Allowing yourselves to be co-opted by authoritarians like Robert Abela is another. European citizens succumbing to fascist overtures is another. Simply put, far-right parties do not care about the environment: far-right parties care about accessing power that’s been denied to them precisely because of how brutal, dehumanising, and downright appalling their policies are.
What they care about is using the understandable anxiety and concern over farmers’ livelihoods as a battering ram against environmentalists who have been screaming about the urgency of climate change science for decades.
In this case, the point that is being missed by both local and international farmers’ lobbies is the fact that, as some European Greens have pointed out already, centrist and far-right political parties are by and large the ones who are most responsible for the policies which enabled the greatest amount of environmental destruction.
While this observation generally holds true for what’s occurring in European countries, a caveat must be made for Malta, which is governed by a political party that claims to be a socialist party but veers so hard to the right Mussolini’s blackshirts would have been jealous.
For decades, conservative policies dominated Western politics, and green parties, environmental activists, and climate scientists alike were brushed off as fringe entities full of delusional idealists who do not understand the value of ‘realpolitik’, an overused term that is often used to refer to ‘practical’ political solutions instead of ideological ones.
My generation was born with a climate change sponsored noose around its neck specifically because of this general tendency to dismiss the urgency of the issue at hand and settle for ineffective compromises which are considered to be ‘more practical’. We were raised in a world that taught us about the science but failed to explain why the politics surrounding it is so horrifyingly inadequate. And now here we are, at odds with our own survival.
As the EU’s lawmakers buckle under the pressure of farmers’ protests and the litany of complaints from industries which must adapt to the climate crisis but do not wish to dip into their profits to do so, we risk a situation in which an already weak Green Deal risks becoming weaker. Currently, one of its many flaws is that it does not feature any provisions to hold oil and gas companies accountable for their crimes against humanity. What happens if more lobbies chip away more chunks of it, making it even more diluted and ineffective than it is? You should shudder at any of the plausible answers to that question.
The farmers’ protests across Europe have already led to the rescindment of the EU’s previously stated intent to halve the use of pesticides by 2030. Instead of imposing obligations on oil and gas industries to mitigate their own emissions or else, the EU is giving these industries the green light to sink billions of euros in ‘carbon capture’ technology, a red herring which is distracting from the very real need to completely turn away from fossil fuels. The EU’s policymakers are increasingly finding themselves in a position where it is more advantageous for them to simply give up on the need that spurred legislation in the first place than it is to target the real root of the problem.
Our sole objective should be to make the lives of politicians who are holding back the fight against climate change unlivable. Climate Defiance is one organisation that gets it, for example – they focus solely on disruptive action that forces politicians, oil company CEOs, and any other influential or relevant figures on their radar to acknowledge their demands and provide concessions or otherwise face continuous harassment.
For the green revolution to truly live up to its name, it must be like any other revolution – heads must roll, sacrifices must be made, and a titanic, collective effort must ensue. Like any other uprising, a revolution requires committed revolutionaries who do not keel over at the slightest reproach or external pressure but will, if necessary, sacrifice their diplomatic careers if it means taking a stand when it should be taken.
The age of incrementalists and careful diplomacy is over. If you want to be a green politician who stands on the side of the planet instead of the side of the profiteers who are setting it on fire for money, you must be relentless, uncompromising, and willing to defend your patch to the very last blade of grass you stand on. If you want to be an environmental activist or a climate scientist, you’re going to need every ounce of defiant energy you can muster, because everything that has been done so far is rigged against you and your ideals.
Anyone who wishes to stand in this camp and survive must come to terms with the notion that we simply cannot afford to compromise anymore, that past and present efforts to cooperate with liberals and moderates who are willing to compromise is not the solution, that shifting the goal-posts by carving out concessions will only take up more of this time we no longer have at our disposal.
Only then will the real green revolution truly begin.