Farmers mire Brussels in gridlock
Furious farmers brought Brussels to a standstill on Monday, but EU agriculture ministers put off a decision on their demands for more generous support for dairy prices.
Around 740 tractors mired the city's European quarter in gridlock with police saying 2,400 protesters, 5,000 according to organisers, descended on EU headquarter buildings, some hurling eggs and chestnuts.
Riot police manned barbed-wire barricades and a security helicopter hovered overhead as firecrackers went off and banners proclaimed: "Ultra-liberalism equals the death of agriculture."
However, the only concrete decision taken was to conceive a panel of experts who have been given nine months in which to devise a report.
Farming leaders had warned beforehand that a strike could resume if emergency aid was not forthcoming.
But the head of the Copa-Cogeca European farmers' federation, Ireland's Padraig Walshe, welcomed the launch of "a debate on the future of the EU dairy sector."
"Milk prices have plummeted to the same level as in 1992 and many farmers are facing bankruptcy," he said after the talks, convened by the European Union's Swedish presidency at France's behest.
"Without any further action, dairy farmers will lose over EUR 14 billion (USD 20.5 billion) in turnover before the end of the year," he added.
EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said member states can already pay farmers "state aid of up to EUR 15,000" (USD 22,000) per producer under temporary crisis arrangements.
Any fresh funding would have to come from member states, she warned, adding: "I'm not sure the finance ministers are exactly of the same opinion."
Long-term solutions regarding prices at which "farmers can survive, make money and invest in the future" will be explored by experts, she said.
The probe into the money-chain between farmers and consumers will start next week with results delivered by June 2010.
Awaiting their conclusions, Fischer Boel stressed: "It would be irresponsible of me to promise 'quick fixes'."
A November 2008 agreement aimed at modernising the Common Agricultural Policy calls for milk quotas to be gradually increased then abolished in 2015.
According to the European Milk Board, producers are paid "between 18 and 24 cents per kilo," which meets only "half of production costs."
Twenty of the 27 EU countries say they back efforts to inflate prices for milk, butter, powdered milk and cheeses.
These are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.
But Fischer Boel warned that protests that have seen farmers pour away millions of litres of milk are damaging trade diplomacy with developing countries.
She said Chile's Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez told her last week that African and Latin American leaders had watched footage during a Venezuela gathering.
"The common view was that in times when hunger is still an increasing problem worldwide, European farmers are destroying foodstuffs on a large scale just to receive more subsidies," she said.