Farmers, gov’t dig in their heels

As protesting Thessaly cotton farmers renewed their appeal yesterday for a meeting with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, the government insisted that all negotiations should be conducted with Agriculture Minister Evangelos Bassiakos. Cotton producers – the bulk of whom live in Thessaly – are seeking extra state crop subsidies, effectively demanding an increase in their production quotas. But the government has repeatedly ruled that out, saying it would go against European Union regulations and lead to punitive action from Brussels. Speaking yesterday at an event for female supporters of his ruling New Democracy party, Karamanlis stressed that «the government cannot break the law.» «We will listen to any productive ideas which come within the framework of our country’s obligations toward the European Union,» the prime minister said. «But the state must obey the law. Everybody must show self-restraint and respect for other social groups.» Thessaly cotton farmers took up position, with hundreds of tractors at the ready, at the Tempe highway tollgates, some 400 kilometers north of Athens, on Monday, threatening to block the road unless the government accedes to their demands. Although there is no sign, so far, of that happening, protesters insist that they will try to refrain from a roadblock campaign. Following a meeting by the highway yesterday, Larissa cotton farmer union leader Thanassis Kokkinoulis insisted on the need for a meeting with Karamanlis – as did Greece’s umbrella farmers’ union (GESASE). «We were not allowed to hand in quantities of cotton that were legally produced,» Kokkinoulis said. Tomorrow, the government is due to publish lists of farmers who allegedly submitted fraudulent production claims. The Agriculture Ministry hopes that by weeding out irregular claims, it will be possible to partially satisfy farmers’ demands by creating room for extra quantities of legitimately produced cotton to become eligible for EU subsidies. But Kokkinoulis, who says further talks with Bassiakos would be pointless, said yesterday the checks should have been carried out earlier.