Greek farmers keep border blocked, concerns over EU

Greek farmers protesting at low prices kept roadblocks on Bulgaria's border and central Greece on Friday.

Greek farmers keep border blocked, concerns over EU
Greek farmers protesting at low prices kept roadblocks on Bulgaria's border and central Greece on Friday, while concern mounted Brussels may object to a 500 million euro deal that defused a wider national protest.

Thousands of farmers dismantled roadblocks on Thursday which caused 11 days of travel chaos across Greece, easing pressure on the conservative government shaken last month by the worst riots in decades and struggling with a sharp economic downturn.

Farmers continued to block the Promachonas border crossing with Bulgaria, after allowing trucks to pass through overnight, and blockaded the main highway through central Greece near the agricultural town of Larisa.

"The struggle is over because people got tired, not because they are satisfied," said Tzanetakos Karamihas, head of the Confederation of Greek Farmers' Unions. "In three or four days the last roadblocks will open."

Most of Greece's farming sector, which makes up roughly 5 percent of GDP, is composed of small-scale farmers who rely on government subsidies to survive.

However, the European Commission could penalise Greece -- one of its most habitual offenders on illegal farming subsidies -- for the hefty package of aid on products like cotton, olive oil and wheat. It could ultimately insist it is paid back.

The Commission said on Friday it needed more details of the aid package before it could make a decision.

Agriculture Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis has insisted the aid does not break EU rules but said he had not been able to reach the Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel by phone.

"There is not enough information now to determine what it is. We are waiting for Greece to provide that information before taking a decision," Commission spokesman Michael Mann said.

The farmers blockades, which left millions of euros in perishable goods rotting at the border, angered the government in Sofia, which demanded Brussels take action to force open the crossings and compensate Bulgarian truckers for their losses.

Greek business leaders also complained the strike, which came after December's riots inflicted over a billion euros in damage and lost business, had further eroded the country's image with foreign investors.

After years of 4 percent growth since joining the euro in 2001, Greece faces its worst downturn since 1993 with economic expansion slowing to 0.2 percent, the EU Commission says. A rising budget deficit has left the scandal-plagued New Democracy government, which has a tenuous one-seat majority in parliament, with little room to increase social spending to mitigate rising anger at unemployment and pension reforms.

The government slashed its 2009 growth forecast to 1.1 percent on Friday, and raised its deficit estimate to 3.7 percent of GDP.

Reuters
Last Mod: 30 Ocak 2009, 14:46
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