Baltic farmers demand fair slice of EU aid

  • 2012-11-21

TALLINN - As the EU braces for bruising budget talks, the bloc's three Baltic states have stepped up their campaign to get what they say is their fair share of farm aid, AFP reports.

After chugging across Europe to Brussels, a Soviet-era tractor is being used to press their concerns by arriving to join up with Baltic protestors outside the bloc's headquarters at the start of a crunch budget summit Thursday.

"I have 60 cows and I also grow cereal. I get around 30,000 euros a year in support, which represents around a third of my income, and that plays a role on the profitability of my holding," Bronius Markauskas, one of the protest organizers, told AFP in Kedainiai, central Lithuania.

"I've cut back the amount of soya and rape-seed I use, so that my milk is cheaper to produce. But I'm not developing my holding at all. There's no question of buying new animals. The future's far from clear."

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are among the smallest members of the EU.

The trio was part of the EU's 2004 big-bang expansion behind the former Iron Curtain, when the bloc's membership nearly doubled from 15.

They argue that they should not have to bear the burden of cuts, given that they have been locked in among the EU's toughest austerity drives since the crisis struck.

The issue of farm aid is their other major bone of contention, stretching back to the pre-crisis era, as the Baltic trio demands a level playing field under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The CAP is a system of EU subsidies to farmers, but east European nations complain that west Europeans, notably in countries such as France, get an unfair share.

On average, European farmers receive 296 euros per hectare from CAP coffers. Currently, Lithuania's farmers receive 119 euros, set to hit 144 euros in 2014 under current spending plans. In Estonia, meanwhile, the sector is similarly disgruntled.

CAP aid was long based on production, as the original goal when it was launched in the 1950s was to provide a buffer against the kind of food shortage seen in post-war Europe.

After that caused the legendary "mountains" of grain or butter, for example, Brussels has tried to add an environmental protection edge to the CAP.

Production still remains a factor, however, and the Baltic States have spent two decades trying to undo the impact of low output by the collective farms that were the norm during their five decades as Soviet republics.

In addition, their small domestic markets are less than competitive, and their farm sectors have struggled, with smaller operations going under.

In Lithuania, the farm sector accounted for 11.3 percent of total employment in 2011, and 16.5 percent of exports.

As reported, the Soviet-era tractor MTZ-80, which is on its way to Brussels to draw attention to the European Union's unequal direct payments to Baltic farmers, has successfully reached Berlin.

After the official welcoming ceremony, MTZ-80 driver Kaspars Gulbis, "Zemnieku saeima" head Maira Dzelzkaleja, "Trikata KS" head Uldis Krievars and Estonian farmers' representative Roomet Sormus met with European agricultural union "Copa" president Gerd Sonnleitner.

The tractor on Tuesday headed its way to Brussels. It will reach the capital of Belgium on Thursday, November 22, and will be parked near the European Parliament's (EP) building on the Schuman roundabout, where the campaign will conclude with around 100 farmers protesting against the bloc's unfair direct payments.

Latvia supports Baltic farmers and wants Brussels to introduce fair direct payments to farmers, stipulating that the lowest payments must constitute at least 80 percent of the average amount of the EU direct payments already in 2014.