Milk prices up for debate - and protest - in Brussels | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 05.10.2009
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Milk prices up for debate - and protest - in Brussels

Disgruntled dairy farmers drove tractors into Brussels on Monday and hurled eggs at the EU headquarters. They’re trying to influence the EU agriculture ministers' meeting on the milk market and get further concessions.

A cow burned in effigy

Milk protests are becoming commonplace in Brussels

About 1,000 dairy farmers from Germany, France and other countries converged on Brussels on Monday, clogging the streets with around 200 tractors. They also brought cowbells, whistles, and even eggs – which they hurled at the EU headquarters – in a bid to add volume to their cries.

They are campaigning for help from the EU so they can turn a profit. Milk production is higher than demand in Europe and, therefore, prices are currently low, which is putting some farmers' livelihoods at stake.

Germany's agriculture minister Ilse Aigner, like her French counterpart Bruno le Maire, has tried to position herself clearly in the dairy farmers' camp for Monday's informal lunch meeting in Brussels.

"The milk sector is in dire need of further supporting measures," Aigner says in an interview with the Passauer Neuen Presse newspaper.

"Sadly, however, the various representatives of the milk industry still have very different opinions on what should be done. Nevertheless, I am going to Brussels with a clear task at hand."

Aigner says that 20 European nations are in favor of the milk plan spearheaded by Germany and France, which calls for manufacturing subsidies to encourage increased production, and for unused EU funds to be reallocated to national governments so they can help milk farmers. The plan also advocates tighter - or at least unchanged - milk quotas, regional limits on production set by Brussels in a bid to encourage widespread dairy farming.

However, Great Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and others oppose milk quotas, saying that the controlled market is the root cause of the problem.

Farmers spray milk on a field.

"We might as well be throwing it away," farmers say

Frequent protests

The uproar in Brussels is but the latest instalment in a string of dairy farmer protests. They argue that prices are now so low that it's almost impossible to produce profit making milk. Many German farmers already protested by spraying thousands of tons of the white stuff on paddocks, instead of selling it to milk and cheese factories.

Some French farmers even caused consternation by dumping milk in a lake, killing freshwater fish in the process.

The dairy farmers want higher prices, subsidies to help boost production, and schemes to help increase demand - for example pushing milk back onto the menus in European schools. Most EU agriculture ministers seem determined to assuage the farmers; however, many experts see these desires as unrealistic.

A young woman with a glass of milk - and a white moustache!

Europe makes too much, and drinks too little

"It's going to take a long time until the milk sector is stable again," says industry expert Professor Hannes Weindlmaier from the Technical University of Munich.

"The main problem is a simple case of over-production - we make too much milk."

Yet Weindlmaier also acknowledges that the current milk prices - especially for German dairy farmers - barely cover costs, with smaller operations in the south of the country suffering most. If Germany wants to maintain nationwide milk production, government schemes will be necessary to keep higher-cost dairy farmers in business, he says.

Monday’s meeting in Brussels is only meant as a chance to discuss the new proposal from France and Germany to help the dairy farmers. Agriculture ministers are not expected to make a firm decision until a meeting in Luxembourg on October 19.

msh/AP/dpa/AFP

Editor: Andreas Illmer

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