BRUSSELS: Belgian police on Monday fired tear gas and water cannon at protesting European farmers as the EU said it would release 500 million euros ($557 million) in emergency funds to help ease the pressure.
EU agriculture ministers held crisis talks in Brussels to face the deep crisis hitting Europe’s farmers triggered by plunging prices for their produce, partly blamed on a Russian embargo.
The protest involved what police said was up 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.
“It is clear that an aid package of 500 million euros is nowhere enough to compensate farmers for the loss of their main export market Russia worth 5.5 billion euros annually,” said Pekka Pesonen, Secretary-General for the European Copa-Cogeca farmers union.
“EU farmers are paying the price for international politics,” he said, after the commission said it would release the emergency funds to help farmers.
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 euros 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 percent 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 impact on the EU market of the import ban on EU agricultural products imposed by Russia.”