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25th Sep 2020

Tobacco farmers burn crops in protest at EU subsidy cut

  • Tobacco farmers marching in Brussels against subsidy cuts on Wednesday (Photo: EUobserver)

Thousands of raucous tobacco farmers from across Europe mounted a demonstration in the EU capital on Wednesday (19 November), setting alight a bonfire of tobacco leaves outside the European Council building in protest at changes to EU subsidies.

Claiming a crowd of 10,000 tobacco growers and workers from processing factories, organisers had called the day of action in Brussels to coincide with a meeting of EU agriculture ministers on the Common Agricultural Policy "health check."

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The farmers and workers say the proposed cut of half their subsidies from 2010 will result in massive job losses across the industry.

The protesters demanded that existing subsidies, which link the money to production volumes, be extended to 2013 to give them more time to adjust to EU agricultural sector reforms and said they were hoping for a favourable decision from the agriculture ministers meeting today.

A 2004 agreement by member states will from 2010 see half of the payments to tobacco farmers delivered to a restructuring fund to help the sector switch to other crops.

"Without tobacco, there are no jobs - our countryside will become a desert," read one large red and white home-made banner on sticks.

Tobacco growers from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Greece and also from new member states Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria flew their national flags, chanted, set off sirens and also smoked heavily the length of the boulevard that separates the Council building from the headquarters of the European Commission.

Francois Vedel, delegate secretary of the International Tobacco Planters' Union (UNITAB), said: "We've lost 250,000 jobs in the sector in the last three years, with the largest losses in Greece and Apuglia in Italy - everywhere governments have decided on a full de-coupling."

De-coupling ends the system whereby farmers must keep a particular animal or grow a particular crop to secure a direct subsidy payment.

"De-coupling and tobacco is not working. Tobacco's a different kind of product - it is so labour intensive, with an average of 40 workers per hectare, as opposed to most other crops, which have just one worker per 100 hectares," he said. "It's the most labour-intensive crop in Europe."

"Most tobacco farms are just one to two hectares as well. These sites are very, very small - too small for farmers to switch to other products."

Pierre Haein, president of the processors' association, FETRATAB , said: "The sector today is fighting a battle that is vital for the maintenance of the dignity of small farms and for tens of thousands of associated jobs, for our rural livelihoods and against the stupidity of certain bureaucratic decisions which are completely disconnected with reality."

Meanwhile, Regina Obergfell, an accountant with a tobacco-threshing firm in Karlsruhe, Germany, warned companies as well as tobacco growers will be affected.

"It's not just farmers, but people in industry as well that will be hit. If they can't grow tobacco, we lose our jobs," she said.

Ms Obergfell does not smoke herself, however, saying that she saw a model of a tar-stained lung and it made her want to quit.

Reintroduction of subsidies? No way

The EU agriculture commissioner yesterday said she would not countenance any reintroduction of subsidies, however.

"The tobacco reform was made in 2004, it was supported by all countries and also all tobacco producing member states," Ms Mariann Fischer Boel told MEPs in Strasbourg. "I have said lots of times, I am certainly not going to reopen the tobacco reform."

The sizable protest did not move the Danish commissioner either, with her spokesperson on Wednesday saying: "Everyone reached agreement back in 2004. We are absolutely not about to re-introduce tobacco subsidies now. No way."

However, Italy announced earlier in November that it would support only a partial decoupling of the subsidies from 2010. Rome is supported in its position by Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Spain.

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