Page last updated at 18:58 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 19:58 UK

Protests outside EU milk meeting


Protests flare at EU milk meeting

Hundreds of farmers have protested in Brussels to put pressure on European Union (EU) agriculture ministers meeting to discuss low milk prices.

The talks came after weeks of protests across Europe, with farmers dumping milk stocks and withholding supplies at what they see as uneconomic prices.

The only decision taken at the meeting was to create a panel of experts to look at the dairy sector.

Milk prices have fallen sharply in Europe as supply exceeds demand.

Amid a heavy police presence, farmers protested outside the main EU Council building where the meeting was being held.

Many rang cow bells, while some poured milk onto the pavements or threw eggs. Others brought some of their dairy cows with them.

'Restructuring and modernisation'

France and Germany led calls at the meeting for the EU to give farmers emergency funds.

A businessman moves to avoid a cow in central Brussels
Farmers have been protesting on the streets of Brussels

Farmers say their current production costs are more than twice the price they get for their milk.

They insist that the EU must tighten milk quotas to drive up prices, rather than sticking to the current commitment to end all quotas by 2015 and move price control wholly over to the market.

But UK Farming Minister Jim Fitzpatrick said more subsidies were not acceptable if it led to paying for production that nobody wanted.

"We want to see a viable and competitive dairy sector in Europe and believe the best way to achieve this is through restructuring and modernisation, not maintenance of the status quo," Mr Fitzpatrick said.

"We'll study the measures proposed today, but we will not support anything that takes us backwards to a regime of heavy market support for inefficient dairy producers at the expense of taxpayers and consumers."

Funding issue

Ahead of the official meeting, ministers from about 20 of the 27 EU member states issued a joint statement, demanding that the EU Commission come up with funds to relieve dairy farmers' immediate needs.

Farmers protest in tractors
Dairy farmers want to see tighter quotas to lift prices

EU Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said additional funds could only be provided if member states provided them, and the money did not come from the existing EU budget.

"There will be no backtracking," she said.

She also confirmed that a "high level expert group on milk" would start work next week "to discuss medium and long-term arrangements for the dairy sector, given the expiry of milk quotas on 1 April, 2015".

Swedish Agriculture Minister Eskil Erlandsson, who is chairing the meeting, said a key problem was that while farmers had seen the prices they receive for their milk decline by 40%, prices in the shops had only fallen between 1% and 2%.

Across its 27 member nations, the EU pays the agriculture sector 55bn euros ($80bn; £50bn) annually for support payments, storage aid, rural development, and other projects.

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