Tractors poised for action

Hundreds of cotton farmers from Thessaly who are pressing for higher crop quotas took up position with their tractors on the main highway between northern and southern Greece, threatening to cut the country in two unless the government accedes to their demands. The farmers parked their heavy vehicles in the middle of the Athens-to-Thessaloniki highway at the Tempe tollpost north of Larissa, some 400 kilometers north of the capital, leaving one lane open on either side for traffic to squeeze through. While spokesmen for the protesters insisted that their primary intention was not to block off the road – effectively breaking the country’s road transport backbone – until talks with the government came to a conclusion, it appeared increasingly unlikely yesterday that a mutually acceptable compromise could be achieved. Acting government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros indicated that the ruling conservatives were playing for time, saying that the government has yet to receive in writing specific proposals from the protesters. «When these proposals, which must display good faith and remain within the framework of European Union regulations, are submitted, they will be discussed with due care and seriousness,» he said. Agriculture Minister Evangelos Bassiakos canceled a scheduled trip to Brussels for a meeting of his EU colleagues to monitor developments. He told journalists that cotton farmers’ proposals had been forwarded to the state’s legal council, which would examine whether they complied with EU regulations. However, ministry sources said the proposals were out of line with Union law, which forbids extra state farm subsidies. Faced with demands by Thessaly cotton farmers for an increase in their crop quotas – which are eligible for EU subsidies – the government has ruled out breaking EU regulations. As a compromise, it promised to go through all production figures with a fine comb, in order to weed out illegal claims. This, it hopes, will lead to the extra crop making the quota. In northern Greece, cotton farmers staged off-and-on roadblocks on a highway in the Serres area, and were poised to mount similar protests in other parts of Macedonia. Meanwhile, a senior official in the ruling New Democracy party’s section on agricultural affairs – a sort of shadow ministry set up by the party to monitor the work of the real ministry – resigned from his position as deputy head of the section yesterday. Larissa MP Maximos Harakopoulos said he found it «impossible to understand» why the ministry refused to meet farmers’ demands.