Reaping the whirlwind

It is a rite of winter: Just before seeding time, farmers drive their tractors onto the nation’s highways and drag the country into their belligerent struggle for survival. Farmers might have many legitimate reasons to be angry as their way of life is threatened but they have also provided the rest of Greece with reasons to be angry. The root of the problem is that, as a class, farmers have been pampered and pandered to over the last three decades to such an extent that they cannot survive without forcing governments – and the rest of the population – to keep acceding to their demands for assistance. The farmers did not complain when successive governments went to bat for them in Brussels and came back loudly proclaiming victory in achieving high subsidies for their products. The farmers did not complain when those same governments neglected to tell them that they should use the subsidies wisely, not as a bonus to be spent in a frenzy but as assistance to become more productive, to adopt new techniques and to make the leap to crops and products that would sell well on the international markets. Even if they did see the clouds on the horizon, farmers, farm unionists and government officials all pretended that farm subsidies were such an important part of the country’s political culture that no one would accede to any demands – whether from the EU or the World Trade Association – for their abolition. The system of farm subsidies (often inflated) in return for votes was, in other words, «too big to fail.» The understanding was that no party would dare start a war with the heartland and would therefore do all in its power to keep farmers happy. And so the merry bands of tractor jockeys took over the highways again. This time, though, things are different. They are not as organized as in the past and their demands and actions differ according to their specific areas. This was more a grassroots movement with media-savvy farmers serving as spokesmen in interminable televised clashes with Agriculture Development Minister Katerina Batzeli and disapproving TV anchors. The hapless minister – an expert on farm policy due to previous work as a consultant for the biggest farm union, PASEGES, and her term as a Euro MP – has battled to keep up with who is who and what is demanded by each «blockade» (as the various groups call themselves). She has the seemingly impossible task of trying to offer the farmers enough changes to the way they work and the way in which they receive aid and subsidies without having any cash to give them. At the same time, she is part of a government that is not quite sure whether it should send prosecutors against the farmers or just wait for them to tire and go home. This from a party that has, with few exceptions, used state money and EU funds to buy farmers’ favor. The simple fact is that the government has no money to give the farmers; even if it did, at a time when markets and EU officials doubt that Prime Minister George Papandreou has the political will to curb Greece’s deficit and public debt, conceding to any financial demands would prove the cynics right. Bulgaria claims it has lost hundreds of millions of euros in trade because of the border blockade and Greek businesses say they are losing about 25 million euros per day. Bad though this is for the economy and for the businesses involved, a government concession that it cannot rein in public spending would cost far more as fears of bankruptcy would increase bond rates. It is ironic that PASOK, which created the monster of subsidy-charged activist farmers, should be faced with this problem. At the same time, staring down the farmers would be the simplest, cheapest way to prove to Greece and the world that this government really does intend to get the country onto its feet.

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