After months of complaints by European dairy farmers angry over low prices, protesters in Brussels on Monday poured milk onto the streets, hurled eggs and other missiles, and started fires that filled the air with black smoke.
Police helicopters hovered overhead as hundreds of tractors — and some cattle — blockaded the area outside the European Union’s headquarters while agriculture ministers met in an emergency meeting.
The gathering of ministers, convened after pressure from France, failed to produce any breakthroughs apart from a decision to set up a committee to report on the dairy industry in June.
Monday’s protest was the latest by farmers who dumped around three million liters of milk on fields in Belgium last month.
“There’s a very serious crisis in the milk sector,” said the Swedish agriculture minister, Eskil Erlandsson, who headed Monday’s discussion. “We didn’t take any decisions today, but we identified areas where the future policy needs to concentrate on.”
The protest organizers, the European Milk Board, said that more than 1,000 tractors and 5,000 people took part on behalf of “more than 80,000 dairy farmers”.
The group said milk prices are below 75 percent of production costs. Another European farm union organization, Copa-Cogeca, says that milk prices have plummeted 30 percent in a year and that dairy producers will lose up to 14 billion euros before the end of the year if nothing is done.
The European Commission, however, said that the average milk price increased slightly in the last two months and that the price of butter and skimmed milk powder had risen 7 to 9 percent in three months.
The commission said it expected to spend up to 600 million euros supporting butter and skimmed milk prices this year and proposed to continue this policy throughout the winter.
In recent years the European Union has sought to reform its subsidy system and aims to phase out milk quotas, which limit production, by 2015.
Some 20 of the 27 countries in the European Union have called for changes that would give producers the ability to organize more effectively so as to increase their clout in dealing with supermarket chains and dairy companies.
Other critics want more export subsidies and some would like to keep the quotas — though that has been ruled out by the European Commission.
Harald von Witzke, professor of international agricultural trade and development at Humboldt University in Berlin, said the protests were the symptom of the pain caused by a gradual reform of rigid controls on the dairy sector.
“The system has postponed the pain being felt, but now the pain is even greater,” he said adding that making concessions to the farmers “would make matters worse in the long run.”