By Thomas Escritt
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Finance Minister Christian Lindner took to the stage on Monday in front of thousands of jeering farmers protesting against tax rises and told them there was no money for further subsidies.
Berlin has been brought to a near standstill by the demonstration, which filled one of its central avenues with trucks and tractors as some 10,000 farmers arrived to cap a week of protests that have become a flashpoint for anti-government anger.
"I can't promise you more state aid from the federal budget," Lindner told the crowd from a chilly stage in front of the Brandenburg Gate. "But we can fight together for you to enjoy more freedom and respect for your work."
The protests have heaped pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz's coalition as it struggles to fix a budget mess and contain right-wing groups.
The protests erupted after a government decision to phase out a tax break on agricultural diesel as it tried to balance its 2024 budget following a constitutional court ruling in November forced it to revise its spending plans.
Facing a backlash, the government has already said it would maintain a tax rebate on new agricultural vehicles and spread the scrapping of the agricultural diesel subsidy over several years.
But farmers, with the vocal backing of the opposition conservatives and the far-right, say that is not enough.
"I have respect for every politician who is prepared to come to us," said Farmers' Union head Joachim Rukwied, who at one moment had to take the microphone from Lindner and beg the crowd to stop jeering for long enough to listen to him.
"The finance minister is here," he said. "It makes no sense to boo him."
The government has taken a conciliatory tone as concern has grown that political debate has become radicalised and demonstrations could turn violent.
Disruption caused by protests and train strikes last week hurt coalition parties in the polls and propelled the far-right Alternative for Germany party to new heights.
At a later meeting with protest leaders in parliament, coalition legislators promised, without giving details, to unveil proposals on Thursday that would lower costs to farmers while making their sector "sustainable".
Lindner, describing himself as a lad from the countryside who had mucked out stables in his time, sought to win over farmers by contrasting their peaceful protest in Berlin to the behaviour of climate activists who had sprayed paint on the Brandenburg Gate - "the symbol of German national unity".
But he said scarce money was needed for long neglected investments in schools and roads and for industrial energy subsidies.
Jeers grew louder when Lindner said money was needed because of the war in Ukraine.
"With the war in Ukraine, peace and freedom in Europe are threatened once again, so we have to invest once again in our security as we used to," he said.
Complaints ranging from high energy costs to competition from Ukrainian grain have driven farm protests around Europe in recent months. On Monday, Romanian farmers protested near border crossings with Ukraine, a vital lifeline for Kyiv's war effort, to drive home their demand for more public support.
Tractors and trucks that arrived overnight from across Germany parked nose-to-tail along the route. Crowds of farmers, wrapped up against the cold, waved German flags and held up banners marked with slogans including: "Without farmers, no future".
The governing parties are divided over how best to meet farmers' demands. Agriculture Minister Cem Ozdemir, a Green, has suggested financial rewards for humane animal husbandry, while some Social Democrats want to offer higher produce prices, and Lindner's Free Democrats want to cut administrative overheads.
Several bus and tram lines closed for the protest, which was patrolled by around 1,300 officers, police said.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt, Linda Pasquini, additional reporting for Sibylle de la Hamaide in Paris; Reuters TV; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Barbara Lewis and Ros Russell)