BRUSSELS — A wave of European milk protests gathered force on Monday as dairy farmers poured out their disgust at collapsed prices that threaten bankruptcy for tens of thousands of producers.
Led by the dumping of a symbolic "milk lake" by the entrance to the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, farmers from Portugal to Poland expressed their anger at a crisis which France blames on China and New Zealand.
European Milk Board chief Romuald Schaber helped open the taps on three giant vats surrounded by burning bales of hay and model cows, while demanding a meeting with commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso -- who was in New York Monday.
"This action is symbolic, but nearly 40 million litres of milk will be poured away elsewhere in Europe today," warned Schaber, who said in a letter to Barroso that "tens of thousands of milk producers face financial ruin."
Farmers facing rocketing costs for producing milk, cheese and other dairy products under a phased removal of European Union quotas that artificially propped up prices have now been on strike for 11 days in France.
Reports of suicides lay behind a call for a "minute's silence" in southwest France, while protests were also held in Switzerland and the Netherlands, where half a million litres were poured away in one field.
Italian farmers also halted deliveries to industry and announced a blockade of routes through the Alps for Tuesday, despite Brussels allowing temporary aid to farmers being squeezed out of the market.
And Portuguese farmers say they are only waiting for the outcome of parliamentary elections on Sunday before targeting a new government with action there.
EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel has offered to relax conditions for member states that buy up producers' maximum production quotas from those wishing to quit the business.
According to Schaber, that shows "she indirectly recognises that we have to pull quantities of milk from the market" to raise prices.
"Where we are not in agreement is that she wants to force restructuring whereas we are pleading for temporary production quotas," he nevertheless added.
Milk prices in some countries have more than halved since 2007, according to Schaber, whose organisation represents a third of European milk producers.
Brussels said last week it would allow national governments to offer temporary aid of up to 15,000 euros (22,000 dollars) per producer.
But many member states now back Franco-German efforts designed to inflate prices for milk, butter, powdered milk and cheeses.
Poland on Monday said it became the 19th EU country to sign up to plans already backed by Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.
In Warsaw, French agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire said the crisis stems from increased output from New Zealand and a fall in Chinese consumption which has sent twin shockwaves through international dairy markets.
The crisis deepened after EU farm ministers failed to agree on an aid package for the sector during a Brussels meeting on September 7.
Last November, the EU agreed to lift milk production quotas by one percent per year before scrapping them altogether in 2014-2015.
The EU's executive arm has refused to go back on its decision to scrap the quota system.
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