BRUSSELS (AP) — Hundreds of dairy farmers drove tractors into Belgium's capital Monday to pressure EU farm ministers on the milk price crisis as 20 of 27 nations called for more protection from the volatile world market.
About 1,000 farmers from Germany, France and other EU nations were waiting for ministers with cowbells, whistles and eggs at the ready, hours before an emergency meeting. Police closed off the EU Council building and set up a major security perimeter, snarling traffic in major parts of the city.
Farmers want regulation to shield them from volatile free market prices that have collapsed milk prices. Some 20 EU nations met ahead of the meeting, agreeing to push for a new system to regulate the market once the EU phases out market-distorting quotas in 2015.
Led by France and Germany, the nations want assurances for the dairy sector in an increasingly globalized world, even if cheaper products can be found elsewhere.
"Farmers are worried we are going to a system where there are no more rules left," said French Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire. "We need regulation; it is not the free market that will get us there," he said.
The 20 nations demanded in a statement that the EU Commission come up with cash to relieve farmers' immediate financial needs.
"We need additional money from the EU, a stimulus program for the farmers," said German Minister Ilse Aigner. "We need help now."
EU Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said she could go along with additional funds but only if the member states provided it and the money did not come out of the existing EU budget.
"I would be happy if the member states would give me another euro5 billion ($7 billion) for the dairy sector," she told reporters. "I'm not sure the finance ministers are exactly of the same opinion."
Farmers have been protesting for weeks, arguing production costs are currently up to twice as high as market prices. They insist the EU must tighten quotas to drive up prices, rather than sticking to a commitment to end the quota policy and free up production by 2015.
"We're here to tell them to make the right decision," said French dairy farmer Antoine Le Marle, who was protesting Monday. "Put in place a true regulatory system for milk production so that milk producers will still be here tomorrow and be paid a fair price for their work."
Swedish Farm Minister Eskil Erlandsson, who chairs Monday's meeting, said that the key to better prices lies not with the ministers but with the middlemen between the farm and supermarkets, who have skimmed off the profits from lower milk prices.
"While the prices have decreased by 40 percent for the farmers ...for consumers, the prices have only decreased by 1 or 2 percent," he told reporters.
Three weeks ago, the EU's executive commission promised steps to combat sinking dairy prices but insisted it would not abandon long-term farm reforms.
For weeks now, many European farmers have dumped milk back onto their fields to underscore the rock-bottom prices they are getting from the food conglomerates. Milk prices have crash to as low as 18 euro cents ($.26) a kilo, well below the 40 cents ($.58) they say they need to cover costs.
This year, the EU will spend an extra euro600 million ($885 million) on "market measures," including earlier-than-usual payment to farmers.
The EU has countered claims they fail to protect farmers, arguing they have already made an extra euro4.2 billion ($6.2 billion) available.
The 27-nation EU pays the agriculture sector euro55 billion ($80 billion) annually for support payments, market regulation, storage aid, rural development and other projects.