BRUSSELS – Belgian police on Monday (Sep 7) fired tear gas and water cannon at European farmers who lobbed hay and fireworks as they demanded EU intervention against plunging food prices partly blamed on a Russian embargo.
The European Commission said it would release €500 million (US$557 million) in emergency funds to help ease the pressure on farmers, as agriculture ministers held crisis talks on the situation.
The protest involved what police said was up to to 7,000 farmers, who blocked streets in Brussels with hundreds of tractors and massed outside the heavily-guarded European Union headquarters where the talks took place.
A combination of factors, including changing dietary habits, slowing Chinese demand and a Russian embargo on Western products in response to sanctions over the Ukraine conflict, has pushed down prices for beef, pork and milk.
“We are here today to demand EU action,” Albert Jan Maat, president of European farmers association Copa, told reporters outside the ministers’ meeting in central Brussels. “EU farmers are paying the price for international politics,” he said, adding the Russian embargo hit the EU’s main export market which is worth €5.5 billion (US$6.1 billion).
Belgian anti-riot police, who were unusually backed up by reinforcements from the neighbouring Netherlands, briefly fired tear gas to prevent protesters using their tractors to push past steel fences coiled with barbed wire, AFP reporters said.
They also fired water cannon to push back protesters and put out burning planks of wood and tyres, which sent thick black smoke wafting over EU buildings. Farmers hurled eggs and bottles at the police and used a machine to throw hay at them.
Most of the protesters were from Belgium, France and Germany, but there were others from Britain, Ireland and other EU countries including Italy, Portugal and Lithuania.
“There have been hundreds of suicides as a result of disastrous agricultural policies,” said Remy Hulin, a retired farmer from the Calvados region of northern France carrying an effigy in farmer’s overalls hanging from a gallows.
French Agriculture Minister Stephane Foll said the EU “must take action” to deal with a “deteriorating market situation”.
The European Commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, said it was “well aware of the difficult situation” faced by farmers, as it announced the plan to immediately release €500 million (US$559 million) in funds for them.
“This is a robust and decisive response. This demonstrates that the Commission takes its responsibility towards farmers very seriously and is prepared to back it up with the appropriate funds,” EU Vice President Jyrki Katainen said.
The aid, mainly targeting the dairy sector, will address the “cash-flow difficulties farmers are facing” and help stabilise markets, he said.
In France, the agriculture minister previously estimated that around 10 per cent of farms – approximately 22,000 sites – are on the brink of bankruptcy with a combined debt of one billion euros.
The European Council, which represents member states, said the ministers were discussing the “the impact on the EU market of the import ban on EU agricultural products imposed by Russia.”
In July, the EU extended until next year a multi-million euro aid package to help struggling European farmers hit by Russian sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.
Police said the protest involved around 7,000 farmers and 1,455 tractors, while the farm associations Copa and Cogeca put the figures at more than 6,000 farmers and 2,000 tractors.
The associations say the EU agri-food sector accounts for 40 million jobs and exports more than €120 billion (US$134 billion) worth of produce every year.