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German rail strikes and farmers’ protests cause disruption in Europe’s biggest economy

By Nadine Schmidt, CNN

Berlin (CNN) — German commuters faced chaos on Wednesday as the country was hit with a three-day national rail strike, adding to travel disruption in Europe’s biggest economy where protesting farmers continued to block roads and highways.

Both cargo and passenger trains were affected by the rail strike which led the main rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) to cancel thousands of trains, a press statement by DB said Wednesday.

DB said that some 80% of long-distance services will be canceled, while regional lines will be affected to varying extents. During the strike which will last until Friday, rail services will run on a heavily reduced emergency timetable.

“The strike by the train drivers’ union GDL has had a massive impact on train services in Germany,” DB spokeswoman Anja Broeker said in a video message posted on DB’s website Tuesday night. “We regret the restrictions and hope that many people who were unable to reschedule their journey will get to their destination.”

DB said that strike action would impact the travel plans of millions of commuters and urged people to postpone or cancel all non-essential travel.

It is the third and largest strike by the drivers since their union took up negotiations with DB and other carriers in November last year. Germany’s GDL union is demanding a reduction in working hours from 38 to 35 hours per week for shift workers, in addition to a pay increase of $606.62 (555 Euros) per month and a one-off inflation compensation bonus of 3,000 euros.

Rail operator DB has offered flexibility on working hours, however refused to reduce working hours without a pay cut.

The nationwide rail strikes come as German farmers vowed to ramp up their nationwide protests against the government’s planned cuts to fuel subsidies.

Since the start of the week, farmers have been blocking numerous roads and highway entrances across the country with their tractors and have also held rallies in towns and cities, causing considerable disruption to traffic.

The protests saw several hundred agricultural vehicles descend upon the German government district at Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate on Monday.

The German government hopes the cuts announced in December will help save €920 million ($1 billion), according to German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

On Monday, a German government spokesperson told a press briefing that the government is not planning on changing its plans despite the protests.

A group of German farmers attempted to convey their fury last week by blocking the Economy Minister Robert Habeck from exiting a ferry in north west Germany. Habeck, who was traveling privately, was trapped in the ferry for several hours.

The incident was condemned by the President of the FarmersAssociation, Joachim Rukwied who called blockades of this nature a “no-go” in a Friday press release.

A rally organized in conjunction with the German freight industry has been announced for January 15 in Berlin while multiple protests are planned for across the country.

Far-right concerns

Authorities have voiced concern that Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is capitalizing on the farmers’ protests to support its own agenda.

CNN has seen footage of convoys of tractors and trucks, some adorned with protest banners and posters from the far-right AfD. Signs of the AfD hanging on tractors taking part in a protest against the cuts of vehicle subsidies read “our farmers first” and “Germany needs new elections.”

On social media, the controversial leader of the AfD in the Eastern German state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke, launched an appeal on his Facebook page: “Fellow citizens, we will see you on the roads!”

The politician is classified as an extremist by Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

The AfD, which has been hitting record highs in polls and is currently scoring consistently above the three governing parties in the German government coalition, is hoping for major gains in three state elections this year.

However, the AfD itself advocates the abolition of subsidies for farmers in its own party manifesto and at the same time as backing the protest, using it as proof of the Germans’ dissatisfaction with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ coalition government.

CNN’s Inke Kappeler and Niamh Kennedy contributed reporting.

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