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EU: Ministers Discuss Reforms Amid Street Protests

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union this week is in the midst of a hectic series of discussions covering vital internal reforms and major foreign policy issues.

In Brussels, the entire "European quarter," the area which houses the EU offices and institutions, was cordoned off today as tens of thousands of angry farmers demonstrated against reform of the common agricultural policy. The CAP, as it is known, is the vastly expensive farm price support policy which consumes half the entire EU annual budget.

News agencies report that thousands of Belgian police, some mounted on horseback, guided the protesters along the march route in sleet and rain. Water cannon and teargas were used to control the crowd at some points.

Inside the cordon, at the Council of Ministers' building, agriculture ministers of the 15 EU member states were huddled in conference, seeking compromise positions to suit both the farmers and those officials who warn that spending must be brought under control.

Farmers from as far away as Greece and Italy came to Brussels for the Monday demonstration, showing the depth of their fear that reform of the CAP will reduce their incomes. But reform of this and other expensive EU policies is seen as unavoidable, especially if the EU is to take in new eastern members early next century. The West European farmers make no secret of the fact that they consider their eastern colleagues a major threat to their living.

A spokeswomen for the Belgian Agricultural Alliance, Lydia Briclot, told RFE/RL by telephone today:

"The idea is to make cuts in the European budget to try to admit eastern countries into the EU. However, those [eastern] countries are backward in many sectors. Therefore, the adherence of new members to the community would add even more costs to the EU budget, and what is planned is to make cuts in the budget at the expense of the farmers."

Meanwhile, the EU foreign ministers were holding a separate meeting in Luxembourg. That ministerial meeting was originally also set for Brussels, but was moved away in anticipation of the protests. The ministers spent most of Sunday (Feb. 21) discussing agriculture, but achieved little, according to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Today, the ministers discussed a broad agenda, including the Kosovo peace process and the capture by Turkey of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

A provisional statement on Ocalan made available to RFE/RL from Luxembourg says that the EU expects Turkey to resolve its problems with the Kurds by political means, with full respect for human rights and the rule of law in a democratic society, and in full accord with Turkey's commitments as a member of the Council of Europe.

The statement says that if Turkey deals with the problem in this spirit, Turkey-EU relations will benefit positively. At the same time, it says the EU supports the territorial integrity of Turkey, and deplores all forms of terrorism.

Turkish officials in Brussels and Ankara would not comment directly on the latest EU statement. But one senior official in the Turkish Foreign Ministry recalled comments at the weekend by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who said that any international attempt to put pressure on the Turkish courts would be an intolerable affront. Referring to some Western European governments, and what Turkey sees as their lenient approach to Kurdish terrorism, Ecevit also said there is an old Turkish saying, namely "long live the snake that does not bite me."

The two ministerial meetings in Brussels and Luxembourg are in preparation for an informal summit of EU heads of state or government in Bonn on Friday. That informal gathering is in turn a preparation for a full summit in Berlin on March 24-25, at which EU internal reforms are supposed to be finally resolved.