Farmers disputing Latvia's bid to join EU

  • 2000-06-29
  • Valters Medenis
RIGA - There are two sides of every coin, and that seems the way with the decision on whether farmers should agree to Latvia's bid to join the European Union. Pickets, rallies and government coalition party members prove that not everyone agrees with the Latvian government.

Farmers' meetings in the Latvian towns of Bauska, Dobele, Jelgava and Riga voiced their "no vote" on EU. Their calls for more government assistance for farmers were addressed when three government coalition members from the New Party went against cuts on government expenditure for farmers. The three members were MPs Ingrida Udre, Andris Berzins and Imants Stirans.

There are united calls for more government assistance for agriculture, but not all farmers see joining EU as negative. Some farmers see the need for the government to help the "struggling" farmer so Latvian agriculture can benefit from EU membership.

"The farmers of Latvia need to be cared for. The government's budget needs to be increased to aid the backbone of our nation," said Ingrida Udre.

On June 17, these three members of the government coalition and another 31 government opposition members called for an emergency parliamentary meeting to call for an increase in the government's proposed 3 percent expenditure for agriculture. Some farmers are displeased with the government's budget decision not to give farmers more money. They see the funding cutbacks as suicide if Latvia joins EU.

"Without extra government funding for the rural sector, Latvia would be cutting its throat by joining EU," said Rudite Jaunzeme, spokeswoman >from the Latvian Farmers Federation. "Latvian farmers need a better deal from the government to compete with Europe."

"Extra government subsidies can make us economically competitive in the European market. The average farmer is finding life on the land very hard. Subsidies and credit from Europe are being distributed to the Latvian government, but the assistance is not reaching the farmer. I do not know what the government is doing with all the G-24 credit, but we are not receiving a santim from programs such as these," said Janis Sipols, spokesman from Valka Regional Agriculture Consulting Bureau. "Latvia's agricultural output needs to increase if we are to join EU."

Jekabpils RACB spokeswoman, Astrida Vilcina, said Latvia has no choice. It is inevitable and beneficial for Latvia to join EU.

"We have to join. A good farmer will want to, while a bad one will not. Latvia is not that strong agriculturally, and we can only get stronger by joining. It is the only hope we have," said Vilcina.

Strong opinions against EU are stirring up some farmers who have on numerous occasions held protests at government buildings forewarning agricultural doom if Latvia joins EU.

Andris Silins, from Ventspils RACB, said the Latvian farmer would have no choice but meet the demands of EU.

"My personal view is we are heading in the direction of EU. But I do not believe EU will help the Latvian farmer. It will be the case of Europe sleeping on the bed, while the Latvian farmer is camped out on the front porch," said Silins. "I'm simply not happy with the government's own political degradation. They need to look after our industries so we can produce more."

"To tell the truth, we need game rules so we can play. EU has not delivered these rules to the farmer, and that just shows they do not want to help us. It will be the case of two steps backward for every one step forward," said Janis Dzelskalejs, director of Cirtas Farmers Society. "EU is nice, but it's not for us."

Currently, the government subsidizes farmers for their loss of supply in the market. National subsidies for agriculture are in the vicinity of 30 percent. The promises of subsidies from EU in the range of 50 percent are making some farmers think that EU is not all bad.

"Farmers are skeptical from both viewpoints. We cannot predict what will happen, but there are enticements in 50 percent subsidies. These subsidies could be misleading because it could mean the end for successful pig farmers, but aid for struggling grain growers," said Janis Spulis, spokesman from Daugavpils RACB.

"EU is our only hope. In five to six years' time, subsidies and prices will even out across Europe. Latvia will lose money in the dairy industry but make money in other areas. Prices will become balanced, and the farmer will earn the benefits for his produce in the market," said Vilcina.

Until the predicted 2003 Latvian referendum to join EU, the dispute between farmers on whether EU is a good or a bad path for the future is likely to continue.

"The farmer looks likely to stay helpless. All there is left is the referendum, and after that, who knows. The country on the whole will be helped, but rural areas will still struggle."