BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Police fired water cannon and blocked roads to stop nearly 5,000 farmers, with more than 1,000 tractors, marching on European Union buildings in Brussels to demand support for a sector badly hit by a Russian ban on EU food imports.
The protest, timed to coincide with an emergency meeting of EU agriculture ministers, caused gridlock in the center of the Belgian capital amid the smell of burning rubber and smoke from tyres and hay set on fire.
Police fired water cannon to prevent farmers breaking through barricades.
Russia has banned imports of meat, dairy products and fruits and vegetables from the European Union, the United States, Norway, Canada and Australia since August 2014 in response to their sanctions imposed on Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.
The ban closed access to the EU’s main agricultural export market worth some 5.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) per year.
“The countryside has had to shoulder the burden of the Russian ban,” Albert Jan Maat, president of European farmers association Copa, told a news conference “Farmers are paying the price for international politics.”
Copa and related agri-cooperatives group Cogeca said they expected over 6,000 farmers and 2,000 tractors to bring Brussels to a standstill. Police put the figures at 4,800 and 1,455 respectively, with most from Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany.
The European Commission said it would present a comprehensive package of proposed measures before ministers meeting on Monday afternoon.
Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop