Farmers appeal to PM after talks with ministry fail

Protesting cotton farmers in Thessaly broke off negotiations on crop quotas with Agriculture Minister Evangelos Bassiakos yesterday, appealing instead to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. Hundreds of farmers with their tractors have taken up position since Monday at the Vale of Tempe tollpost on the national road from Athens to Thessaloniki, some 400 kilometers north of the capital, threatening to block the crucial highway unless their demands for higher quotas and subsidies are met. Union representatives said yesterday they would refrain from such a move today, pending a response from the government, and will decide on further action tomorrow. «Our talks with [Bassiakos] have reached an impasse,» farmers said in a letter to Karamanlis. «We request a meeting with you.» Bassiakos said that while there was no question of state subsidies for the thousands of tons of cotton produced by Thessaly farmers in excess of EU quotas – as that would break Union law – close scrutiny of the crop data submitted by local producers had revealed over 17,000 cases of fraud. He said these mostly concerned fictional fields that had been declared as cultivated, or fields that had been planted with more cotton than allowed by EU regulations. Although these findings will have to be cross-checked – and farmers have the right of appeal – the process should be over in about a month. Ministry officials believe some 32,000 tons of produce will thus be removed from the eligible crop, pushing up subsidies. Apart from Tempe, Thessaly cotton farmers have also gathered with their tractors on main roads near Almyros, Farsala, Velestino and Killeler, while similar protests are brewing in the Karditsa region. Farmers have mounted «symbolic» roadblocks – closing roads briefly and with no prior warning – at four points in central Macedonia.