Demonstrators rolled into Brussels in their tractors in the early morning hours before gathering outside the European Parliament where the summit was being held, blaring horns, hurling eggs and sparking fires.
A handful of tractors had been parked near the EU Parliament all week before convoys from across the country converged on Thursday morning.
Some of the protesters set objects on fire in front of the parliament building, while others held signs with slogans including: “No farmers, no food.”
Police said on Thursday that around 1,000 tractors were expected in the Belgian capital for the planned demonstration, warning about “traffic problems” in the area.
Although EU farming issues are not part of the summit’s agenda, the demonstrators are aiming to put pressure on the bloc for their grievances to be heard.
Farmers have called for a loosening of the rules that govern the bloc’s shared agricultural policy, saying they are not paid enough, are being choked by taxes and environmental restrictions and face unfair competition from abroad – including cheap agricultural imports from Ukraine.
The EU has waived quotas and duties on Ukrainian imports in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Renaud Foucart, a senior economics lecturer at Lancaster University in England, told CNN that there are two overarching issues that the protesting farmers have.
“One of them, which is mostly for eastern European farmers, is the fear that wheat and a lot of other agricultural products entering the market from Ukraine is unfair competition and they would like to get some protectionism for that.
According to Foucart, for farmers in western European countries the main issue is the environmental measures being introduced under the EU Green Deal, which they say will burden them with extra costs and regulations.
“Those farmers, they would like to get some form of exemption from that, some form of compensation.”
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo called farmers’ concerns “perfectly legitimate.”
“As you have seen, there is a major farmers protest in Brussels. We need to be able to discuss in the Council on this topic because the concerns that they have are perfectly legitimate.
“The climate transition is a key priority for our societies. We need to make sure that our farmers can be a partner in this,” De Croo said on arrival at the summit.
Protests have also taken place over the past days in Italy, Spain, Romania, Poland, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands.
In Greece, tractors are marching towards the second biggest city of Thessaloniki Thursday, hoping to block key routes inside the city.
In France, protesting farmers continue their roadblocks outside of Paris and near the cities of Lyon and Toulouse.
According to CNN affiliate BFMTV, 91 people were detained on Wednesday for obstructing traffic and causing damage near the Rungis market south of Paris, a key distribution food hub. According to the French government, more announcements are expected “in the coming days.”
On Thursday, newly appointed French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced new measures for the farming industry, including financial support, in a press conference.
Following the announcement, two of France’s major farming unions urged their members to end roadblocks.
“We believe we need to change our mode of action and so we’re calling on our networks through national channels to suspend the blockades and enter into a new form of mobilization,” said Arnaud Gaillot, president of Jeunes Agriculteurs.
In an effort to address some of the farming industry’s concerns, the European Commission proposed a “temporary” exemption for farmers to an EU rule that would oblige them to keep 4% of their arable land fallow or unproductive for biodiversity purposes.
It also proposed to “renew the suspension of import duties and quotas on Ukrainian exports to the EU for another year, while reinforcing protection for sensitive EU agricultural products.”