Belgian police on Monday fired tear gas and water cannon at European farmers who lobbed hay and fireworks as they demanded EU intervention against plunging food prices partly blamed on a Russian embargo. The European Commission said it would release 500 million euros ($557 million) in emergency funds to help ease the pressure on farmers, as agriculture ministers held crisis talks on the situation.
The protest involved what police said was up to 7,000 farmers, who blocked streets in Brussels with hundreds of tractors and massed outside the heavily-guarded European Union headquarters where the talks took place. A combination of factors, including changing dietary habits, slowing Chinese demand and a Russian embargo on Western products in response to sanctions over the Ukraine conflict, has pushed down prices for beef, pork and milk. “We are here today to demand EU action,” Albert Jan Maat, president of European farmers association Copa, told reporters outside the ministers”” meeting in central Brussels. “EU farmers are paying the price for international politics,” he said, adding the Russian embargo hit the EU””s main export market which is worth 5.5 billion euros.
Belgian anti-riot police, who were unusually backed up by reinforcements from the neighbouring Netherlands, briefly fired tear gas to prevent protesters using their tractors to push past steel fences coiled with barbed wire, AFP reporters said. They also fired water cannon to push back protesters and put out burning planks of wood and tyres, which sent thick black smoke wafting over EU buildings.