Farmers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia protested as EU leaders gathered in Brussels yesterday (22 November), calling for equal treatment of Baltic farmers in the bloc's long-term budget. At the moment, they receive a quarter of what some farmers in other member states receive.
Even though all EU farmers operate within the single market and need to live up to the same environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards, they are not treated in a similar manner when it comes to EU budget allocations.
Currently, farmers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania receive less than €100 per hectare under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy's (CAP) direct payments compared to the more than €400 per hectare for farmers in the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy.
This leaves Baltic farmers at the bottom of the pile when it comes to direct payments under the CAP.
Leaders of the 27-country bloc are meeting in Brussels to debate the budget for 2014-2020 amid a row over spending.
Lithuanian farmer Andrius Gražys was one of the around 50 farmers that had come to Brussels to take part in a protest organised by the Baltic Farmers Coalition. He told EurActiv he was hoping the next seven years for EU agricultural spending would be fairer. If not, things would be difficult for him.
"We have to live up to the same requirements, but the payment is not equal. Our people are going to other countries because the farmers cannot pay them normal salaries. It is difficult to find workers," Gražys said.
On Thursday, Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis also stated that he was ready to veto the EU budget if his country's interests were ignored and referred to the conditions for Latvian farmers.
Gražys said the farmers were in Brussels to show their leaders' support in the ongoing budget negotiations. And even though many member states - including Britain, Sweden and Romania - have threatened to veto the budget, the Baltic farmers were "pretty loud and we will make ourselves heard."
Risk losing Baltic agriculture
The Baltic Farmers Coalition believes that unless current inequalities are addressed in the current CAP reform, agriculture risks disappearing in the Baltic.
"The costs are constantly increasing," said Roomet Sõrmus, chairman of the Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce, explaining that "huge investments, only partially funded by EU rural development funds, have to be made."
"Farmers are forced to take risks and borrow most of the money from a bank. We are facing the threat of our farmers abandoning their farms and stopping production, which will also have an impact on all European consumers," Sõrmus said.
The Baltic Farmers Coalition is calling on European leaders to keep the total EU agricultural spending at least at its current level until 2020, and to create a system of direct payments within the framework of the CAP ensuring fair competition between farmers across the EU.
The coalition also calls for more direct payments in order to bridge the gap between member states.
The Baltic Farmers Coalition says that they hope they are reminding European leaders of European values such as equal treatment, and that a strong, just and competitive European agricultural policy is in the EU's best interest.
Latvian Deputy Chairman of the Farmers Parliament, Maira Dzelzkalēja, commented:
"Despite the fact that fixing the problem of the unequal treatment of Baltic farmers in Europe has been declared a priority, recent proposals on the table would still leave farmers in Latvia receiving almost three times lower direct payments than their counterparts in the Netherlands for example, even though we face similar production costs. We need a clear political decision from the Heads of States and Governments that this unequal treatment must come to an end."
Andriejus Stančikas, Chairman of Chamber of Agriculture of the Republic of Lithuania, said:
"The cost of this unfairness is huge. We are all working in a common labour market so our skilled workforce is leaving our rural areas to work in Western Europe, where they can get better paid. In Lithuania for example, the rural population dropped by nearly 50% within the last ten years. This leads to a chain reaction - many schools, kindergartens, cultural centres and local businesses were closed due to the insufficient number of inhabitants, making it even less likely for people to return."
- 22-23 Nov.: EU budget summit in Brussels.