Farmers Protest EU Agriculture Plan
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Ten of thousands of farmers from across the European Union demonstrated in Brussels today, and some fought pitched battles with police, over plans to reform the EU’s bloated agricultural subsidy programs.
The protesters marched despite hail, snow, sleet and high winds during one of the worst days of a bad winter.
Police cordoned off a wide zone around EU headquarters and intervened with water cannons when some demonstrators attacked them with cobblestones, uprooted trees and traffic signs in attempts to cross heavily-guarded barbed-wire barricades.
The biggest farm demonstration in Brussels in a quarter century coincided with the start of a meeting by EU agriculture ministers on how to cut guaranteed farm prices by as much as 30 percent.
``We demand justice for farmers,″ said Luc Guyau, president of the COPA European farmers union, which organized the rally.
``Whatever happens, we farmers must be guaranteed full compensation for income losses which we may suffer as a result of price cuts,″ Guyau said.
Organizers said some 40,000 farmers from nations as far apart as Greece and Finland took part in the three-mile march across Brussels, with the biggest delegations coming from Germany and France. Police estimated the crowd at just below 30,000.
Wailing horns and firecrackers were all around as the farmers, many carrying black flags, set off for the march. Some protesters went straight to the barbed wire fences and confronted the 4,500-member security force, slamming flag poles into police shields and throwing firecrackers at officers.
When farmers threatened to break into the security zone, water cannons kept them at bay.
``So far, nobody has been injured,″ said Brussels police spokesman Jacques Bertels, adding an extreme-right element at the head of the march was responsible for the fighting.
Farm leaders played down the fighting. ``The farmers are not in Brussels to destroy, they are here to defend their livelihood,″ said Belgian farm leader Jean-Pierre Champagne.
``The EU sells off farming,″ one banner read. ``Without farmers, no future,″ read many others.
Farm demonstrations have been held in France for several weeks, and over the weekend thousands of farmers marched through the Spanish capital Madrid to protest likely cuts in farm subsidies.
A small demonstration was held in Luxembourg today by Italian farmers, who were barred from coming to Brussels with their tractors.
France, the EU’s biggest agricultural producer, is a key defender of farmer’s interests. French Agriculture Minister Jean Glaveny said today there will be no farm deal this week without agreement to cut into other EU subsidy programs within the EU’s $100 billion annual budget.
The farm ministers’ meeting is expected to continue through much of the week. On Friday, the EU government leaders plan to meet in Germany to assess progress on overhauling the EU budget in preparation for up to a dozen new members joining the European Union over the next decade.
Setting budgetary spending through 2006, the farm ministers will seek to at least freeze spending within the current ceiling of $45.8 billion, but cuts could well go beyond this. Farming organizations predict income losses of up to 15 percent in a sector which is already below average income in the EU.
Farmers have complained of belt-tightening throughout the 1990s and strongly resisted the last EU subsidy reform in 1992. EU agriculture represents about 7 million full-time jobs but it has been dwindling at a rate of up to 4 percent per year during the past decade, COPA said.