It didn’t take long for angry Norwegian farmers to launch their latest round of highly visible protests over any attempt by the government to curtail their state support. They were ready to disrupt traffic with their tractors and resort to other means of displaying their irritation, while politicians in parliament urged them to return to the bargaining table.
Norway’s powerful and well-organized farmers’ lobby was clearly prepared for a breakdown in negotiations with the state on Tuesday, just a half-hour after talks began. Within another 90 minutes, the first tractors started rolling down Karl Johans Gate in Oslo and parking in front of the Parliament building (Stortinget), at least one of them towing threatening equipment used to spread cow manure.
They’d already printed up posters featuring the faces of Norway’s prime minister, finance minister and agriculture minister, whom they blame for the new conservative government’s attempt to reform Norwegian agriculture and wean it away from decades of ever-rising state subsidy and support. In an increasingly globalized world, the government argues, farmers may no longer be able to expect the same levels of heavy subsidy, anti-competitive production and price regulation and import protection they’ve traditionally had.
The farmers claim it’s all essential, however, for them to farm in a mountainous country with limited farmland available and a short growing season. They contend that the government’s plans will reduce income for 75 percent of Norway’s small dairy farms and meat producers, and 90 percent of grain growers. Only Norway’s large farms will benefit, they claim, since they government sees them as more sustainable. The farmers thus are prepared to mount a hard, even nasty, fight to maintain their current privileges in the hopes Norway’s minority government will have to back down like others have over the years. Norwegian consumers can expect tractor parades, disruptions in food supplies and other demonstrations in the meantime.
It all hinges now on whether political parties in parliament will give in once again to the farmers’ demands or support the government’s efforts to change the system. The government’s two small so-called “support parties” quickly called on both sides to resume negotiations, with both the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) and the Liberals (Venstre) asking Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug to sweeten her offer of NOK 150 million in addition to the NOK 13 billion the farmers already get. Nils T Bjørke, head of the largest farmers’ organization, claimed he wouldn’t return to the bargaining table without a much better offer to discuss.
The Liberals were more supportive of the government than the Christian Democrats, though, and also put pressure on the farmers to be more receptive to change. Their vote alone can give the government the majority it needs to push through its first round of agricultural reform, but rural factions of the party have caused internal dissent. Party leadership has already backed away from the agricultural reforms it sought itself during last year’s election campaign.