The European Commission offered measures worth 500 million euros (557 million dollars) to help farmers facing economic problems, as they descended on Brussels to vent their anger, snagging traffic and clashing with police.
Farmers have been hard-hit by a Russian ban on European food exports, implemented amid political tensions over the crisis in Ukraine. Slowing growth in China and a summer drought in Europe have contributed to the pressure on farms, whose incomes have plunged.
“Our message is that we can do a lot, but we can’t do it alone,” said Albert Jan Maat, president of the European farmers’ organization Copa. “In this deep crisis, we need support.”
The situation is said to be especially dire in the dairy, pork, beef, fruit and vegetable sectors.
The commission unveiled its aid package at a special meeting of EU agriculture ministers convened on the issue. The measures include direct funding for member states, with the advice that the bulk of this should go to dairy farmers.
In addition, new storage schemes are to be set up for dairy produce and pigmeat, while measures will be taken to boost exports outside the EU.
Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen also proposed using products such as milk powder to “address the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable refugees,” according to a transcript of his speech. Europe is experiencing the largest influx of migrants since World War II.
Farmers will be able to benefit “immediately” from the proposed measures, Katainen added. However, he ruled out paying farmers more to buy up their excess produce, arguing that this would skew the market, without solving the current problems.
Ahead of the ministers’ talks in the European quarter of Brussels, 4,800 people and 385 tractors descended on the area in a march from the Brussels North railway station, while an overall 1,455 tractors were believed to be in the city, the Belga news agency quoted police as saying.
More than 6,000 farmers and 2,000 tractors had been expected at the demonstration, according to Copa and its partner Cogeca, which serves European agriculture cooperatives. The European Milk Board was also holding a separate protest.
Belgian farmers were thought to make up the lion’s share of the Copa-Cogeca demonstration, but there were also 2,200 producers from France and 800 farmers from Germany expected, spokeswoman Amanda Cheesley said.
German farmer Volker Vienna called for fairer wages. “It’s not enough to make ends meet. The bills are stacking up,” he said. “There has to be something left over for us.”
“If you need new machines you need to take up a credit at the bank, because you can’t put any money aside. We need EU-wide crisis management,” added Jan Borchers, who one day wants to take over his father’s farm.
In the afternoon, police officers used tear gas against demonstrators who were throwing paving stones and bottles, Belga reported. The police also used water cannon to disperse protesters and put out burning bales of hay.
Three police officers were reported injured during the march, but no arrests had been made by mid-afternoon, the news agency wrote.
Hundreds of kilometers of traffic jams had also been reported on Belgian roads and highways leading to Brussels in the morning, because of the tractors.
The EU had already implemented a series of support measures to help farmers cope with the Russian food ban, such as public purchases of agriculture goods and funds to help cover the costs of putting products into storage for later sales.
But the agriculture sector had said it needed more.
“Farmers and the agricultural cooperatives are not responsible for this crisis between the EU and Russia,” Cogeca vice president Antonia Figueirdo said on Monday morning. “The farms are paying too high a price because of the Russian embargo.”