Saturday

19th Jan 2019

EU is 'last hope' for protesting farmers

  • Several hundred tractors drove through central Brussels Monday (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Smokers taking a break outside their offices at the Boulevard du Jardin Botanique in central Brussels had quite a spectacle to behold on Monday morning (7 September).

Protesting farmers dressed in bright colours and carrying flags blew whistles, rang cow bells, and threw fireworks. Their procession was followed by a convoy of tractors.

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  • Dutch placards: 'Less is no longer possible' (Photo: Peter Teffer)

According to Belgian police, 3,000 protesters showed up for the march, held ahead of a meeting by agriculture ministers on Monday afternoon to discuss the market situation in European agriculture.

They arrived from all over Europe, judging by the flags they carried: Polish, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, French, Czech, Slovak, and Bulgarian.

“Everything that we have built, now is threatened to disappear”, Pierre Mille, a retired farmer from the northern French department Somme, told EUobserver.

He said that farmers in the EU were unable to compete with those from other countries around the world, where environmental and food safety rules are less strict.

And despite some measures announced by national governments, the protesters expressed a wish for something to be done on a European level.

Quotas

“Le Foll, Hollande: incapables”, one placard said, referring to the French agriculture minister and French president, respectively. Below that, it added: “Brussels, last hope”.

Someone also carried the blue and yellow flag of the European Union - the institution from which they expect measures to help them cope with falling prices and decreasing demand for their products.

Some argued the milk quota, abolished last April, which put a cap on how much milk each country's farmers were allowed to produce, should return.

“Europe should stop our overproduction with quotas”, said Marc Van Raamdonck, a Belgian farmer from Beveren-Waas, not far from Antwerp.

Van Raamdonck carried a placard that said: "Asylum please, I am also in (price) war".

When asked if his plight was really as bad as that of asylum seekers who fled Syria, he said "not quite", but he added that he feels "there is money for them, but not for us".

The Belgian farmer told this website he keeps dairy cows and broiler chicken.

The market for his chicken is “not bad”, he said, but the average price for milk has dropped from €0.40 at the beginning of 2014, to €0.27 in June 2015, according to the Milk Market Observatory, set up by the European Commission last year to monitor the effects of the end of the milk quota.

“They never should have abolished the milk quota”, Van Raamdonck said.

His message was echoed by another Belgian farmer, Mia Vierendeel.

“When prices are high, you have some room for negotiating”, she said. "But when the price is low, it is take it or leave it."

Suit and tie

Vierendeel works as a teacher to supplement the income of the farm she and her husband have in Halle, close to Brussels.

Before the march started, Vierendeel was among the large group of farmers waiting on a side street cordoned off by police, where Belgian politicians were on a stage giving messages of support.

Vierendeel, wearing a blue poncho with the logo of a farmer's union, was visibly startled when one firework went off.

The noise distracted her from one of the speakers, Joke Schauvliege, the Flemish minister for agriculture.

“You are the victim of measures that have nothing to do with agriculture”, Schauvliege said, referring to the Russian ban on European agricultural products, which was put in place in response to European sanctions over Russia's part in the war in Ukraine.

“You deliver quality products, and should be paid an honest price for it”, the minister noted.

The politician added that the so-called “super levy” of fines that were handed out to EU countries that crossed the milk quota when it still existed, should be used to support struggling farmers now, “because it is your money”.

Biser Chilingirov also said farmers should receive financial compensation.

He was standing among a group of farmers who had travelled by bus from Bulgaria. Unlike most of the protesters wearing colourful clothes and hats, Chilingirov wore a suit and tie - because he wanted to look “respectable”.

“Cow milk and sheep milk are being bought at prices below cost of production”, said Chilingirov, who has 200 sheep and who leads Bulgaria's sheep-breeding association.

“There is no other place to sell it, due to the Russian embargo. We ask for €100 per sheep and €700 per cow, to help cover the losses since the Russian embargo”, he added.

“It's a tough job.”

Why are European farmers unhappy?

EU farm ministers will hold a special meeting to discuss the pressures facing farmers across the bloc. But many factors are beyond their control.

Agriculture ministers accept Commission aid plan

Most of the EU's agriculture ministers were cautiously optimistic about the EU Commission's €500 million aid package for Europe's struggling farmers, after receiving additional details.

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