“The prices of EU dairy products are lower today than in 1997, while our costs remain very high … If nothing is done to help, the rural economy will be depressed for a long time,” said Padraig Walshe, president of the European farmers’ cooperative, Copa.
The row reached the EU’s capital on Monday, as agriculture ministers met in the glass-and-granite council of EU member states, and several hundred French and German dairy farmers waving flags, billboards and artificial cows faced Brussels riot police outside.
“One job in six depends on farming: the men in the glass buildings should ask what they’re doing to us, bringing down such an ancient profession with police brutality,” Georg Konzett, a farmer from the southern German town of Ravensburg, told the German Press Agency dpa.
The action mirrored much larger protests in France and Germany, two countries whose farmers have been hard hit by recent events.
Over the last year, the price European dairy farmers could demand for their milk and butter has fallen to less than 200 euros (280 dollars) per ton, according to European Commission officials.
At the same time, the bloc’s agriculture ministers have decided to phase out the EU’s system of quotas for milk and butter production by 2015, saying the market should be left free of state interference.
Coming at a time when the EU has pledged billions to save crisis-stricken banks and prop up European car makers, that has enraged farmers, who feel that the EU’s rules have robbed them of a living.
“We want the EU to let us take control of production again, so we can balance supply and demand and get a decent price for producers,” French dairy farmer Maurice Jesu said.
It is not that the EU is short of cash for farmers. Roughly a third of the bloc’s 120-billion-euro annual budget is earmarked for agricultural support, and since March 1 the EU has spent some 600 million euros in buying unwanted butter and milk to keep prices up.
In January, the bloc also re-introduced export subsidies for European milk products in a bid to prop up foreign demand.
Those moves were criticized by pressure groups, who saw the purchase of unwanted milk as a waste of taxpayers’ money, and the export subsidies as a crippling blow to poor, non-European farmers.
The subsidies “heat up milk dumping at the expense of poor countries in the South,” humanitarian group Oxfam said.
But they have met just as unfriendly a response from farmers’ groups, who say that they do not go far enough.
The EU’s executive, the European Commission, should buy up even more unwanted stock, boost export support and encourage Europeans to consume more milk, said Pekka Pesonen, Copa’s secretary general.
The council of EU member states is also under fire, with Jesu calling on them to “get together and say, okay, there’s less and less demand, let’s adjust.”
But with EU governments already diving into the red in their efforts to revive their economies, the farmers’ best bet for a long-term solution is less likely to begin in Brussels than at home.
“Every farmer should milk less, then we would all survive, it’s quite simple,” Konzett said.
“Mercedes, VW, Peugeot, Renault: they all build fewer cars, and the prices go up. We have to do the same,” he said. (dpa)