26 February 1999

40,000 farmers bring Brussels to a standstill

A CROWD of more than 40,000 farmers, demanding a better deal for agriculture from Agenda 2000, brought Brussels to a standstill at the start of the week.

As farm ministers prepared for their week-long council meeting, intent on finalising CAP reform, union leaders from 15 member states called for a fair standard of living for all their farmer members.

Against a backdrop of firecrackers, whistles and burning tyres, Luc Guyau, president of EU farm body COPA, demanded full compensation for the price cuts that form the basis of the package. If farming was to deliver quality food, a clean environment and regular employment, ministers would have to provide adequate funds, he said.

He struck out at plans to make aid payments degressive. "The commissions proposals were bad enough – massive price cuts with only partial compensation. Now we are faced with a proposal to cut back even this partial compensation," he said. "This is unacceptable."

Mr Guyau also denounced any attempt to renationalise the CAP, either through national envelopes or co-financing.

Representing UK farming interests, NFU president Ben Gill told the crowd he accepted that change was necessary. But reform had to be fair, both between producers and countries. "We want a deal that allows us to compete without bureaucratic burdens and production controls," he said. "A fair deal which rewards farmers for services where the market does not."

More outspoken was Irish Farmers Association president, Tom Parlon, who accused the EU Commission of encouraging widespread rural decay. "The world price route being pursued by commissioner Franz Fischler is unsustainable and will force family farms out of business on a scale which will cause unacceptable stress across rural Ireland."

Other leaders echoed this message. Finnish union president Esa Harmala warned of a 20% drop in his farmers net farm incomes if the commission plans were accepted. And John Lee, president of European young farmers group CEJA, said the reforms would discourage new entrants from investing in agriculture.

"How can ministers defend a situation where 55% of EU farmers are over 55 and less than 8% are under 35?" he asked.

The march itself was mainly peaceful although Belgian police had to use tear gas and water cannon to control one rowdy group of French protesters. There were 12 arrests.