E. coli outbreak: The power of the EU farming lobby

  • 7 June 2011
  • From the section Europe
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Farmers have been ploughing crops back into the soil

So it seems that those European farmers hit by the E. coli outbreak are to get compensation. A package worth £134m has been proposed. Growers of salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, courgettes and peppers who can demonstrate losses will get aid. If the crisis persists more money may be made available.

There is growing frustration that the source of the outbreak has not been found. The anger of the Spanish - whose cucumbers were wrongly identified as the source of the outbreak - was on display at the European Parliament today.

A delegate waved a cucumber and said: "we need to restore the honour of this vegetable." "Farmers have a right," he went on to say, "to economic compensation."

More of that in a moment. There was criticism of Germany today. The EU Health Commissioner, John Dalli, took a swipe at the Germans over the release of inaccurate information which he said spread "unjustifiable fears".

The information needed to be foolproof. It is a difficult balance. If Germany had held back information which could have saved lives they would also have been fiercely criticised.

The message from the EU today was that the outbreak was "limited" and that there was no reason to take action on a European level. The implication seemed to be that food grown outside Germany was safe.

Now back to the farmers. They will get 30% of the price they normally get from the supermarkets or wholesalers.

Tractor factor

Where will the money come from? There is, apparently, money in the existing Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget. All of this is to be voted on next week but it would require a qualified majority against to derail the proposal.

But here is the question which I floated in Luxembourg: why did the farmers need compensation? After all, other industries suffer losses without getting a bail-out. A voice near me said loudly: "It's because they have tractors." They have muscle which they are not afraid to use.

A European official was more diplomatic. It is political, he said. The compensation is to keep them from going out of business. It means fewer food imports. It is a public good. Farmers are a special case.

The CAP accounts for nearly half the EU budget yet only 4% of workers are employed in agriculture. For historical reasons they remain a potent force. Their greatest champions are the French who see the CAP as defending not just farmers but the French way of life. It also reflects food shortages before and after World War II.

But compensation as was seen during the foot and mouth crisis has an unhappy history. They can be victims of disease and outbreaks yet they are a protected sector. And this crisis is a reminder that Europe's farmers have power.