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COLUMN ONE : Europe's Fearful Farmers : The United States wants their subsidies slashed. But farmers are fighting back, relying on the public's love of the countryside and memories of food shortages after WWII.

December 03, 1990|JOEL HAVEMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAULERS, Belgium — Alexis Semaille, 28, represents the future of European farming. No wonder he's so glum.

With his father and his wife, he works seven days a week growing sugar beets and pastry-grade wheat and raising 200 head of dairy and beef cattle. It's hard work, and Semaille needs a helping hand.

The helping hand is stuffed with cash--$100 billion in subsidies for Semaille and other European farmers every year. Europe has been whittling away at those subsidies since 1985, when mountains of unsalable food accumulated in storehouses.

Starting today, after four years of negotiations, trade officials from 108 nations will meet in Brussels to consider much sharper reductions. The United States, under the banner of fair trade, wants to dismantle the subsidy system altogether.

Instead, European farmers like Semaille may dismantle the trade talks. "For me," he says, "subsidies have already been cut about as far as they can be."

If the 12-nation European Community refuses to cave in to American demands, as it has so far, there may be no trade agreement at all. The European farmer, as cherished as the family farmer is in America, would emerge victorious. The European farm system, notorious for excess and fraud, would remain intact.

As in the United States, the farmer has acquired a mythic quality in Europe. Without him, it is believed, the Continent might not be able to feed itself and its countryside would disappear.

And as in the United States, the farmer knows how to use his image to political advantage. At a recent protest rally of cattle farmers in the French town of Nevers, a demonstrator's banner read, " Pas de Paysans, Pas de Paysage ." No farmers, no countryside.

For all their similarities, the European farmer and the American farmer don't see things quite the same way. Americans see the Europeans keeping U.S. products out of their market and subsidizing exports to the United States. Europeans see an assault on their turf by the rich American farmer.

"To Europeans," says Chris Horseman, analyst for the London consulting firm Agra Europe, "Southfork (in the television show 'Dallas') is the typical American farm, and the typical farmer drives a Land Rover over his vast domain. The perception is that America wants to drive prices lower so that their farmers can survive but ours can't. And nobody wants to be clubbed into submission by the Americans."

Europeans' affection for their farmers is part sentimentality and part survival instinct.

Many remember the food shortages and rationing of World War II and its aftermath. "I remember the black bread, which was sometimes all there was to buy," says Jacqueline Maelcamp, a Brussels housewife who was only 10 years old when the war ended. "It was made from an awful mixture of straw and very little flour."

So in the late 1950s, shortly after it was formed, the European Community developed today's program of price guarantees for farmers, not so much to enrich them as to ensure that Europe would always be able to feed itself.

Europe's farmers can now produce far more than its people can eat. "Agricultural production is increasing at an annual rate of 2% while food consumption is growing only 0.5% to 1%," says Albert Ledent, an economist at Belgium's University of Gembloux.

Emile Bossicart, 76 and still raising cattle in southern Belgium, says 85 acres of grazing land supported 40 head of cattle 30 years ago. Now, thanks to modern fertilizer, 80 to 100 head can live on that same land.

Europe developed the ability to feed itself as early as 1975. "That would have been the time to begin scaling back aid to farmers," Horseman says. "But farmers had come to expect high prices, and many politicians knew they owed their jobs to the farmers."

Not until the mid-1980s, when unwanted food was stockpiled to mountainous proportions, did the European Community begin paying farmers not to use some of their land or to reduce their production of particular crops. Pensions were offered to those who retired early. Farmers in some areas were paid to plant trees instead of crops or to develop bird and wildlife refuges.

But when prices guaranteed to farmers for their produce were scaled back, farmers turned angry. "After the war," Semaille says, "our first concern was feeding ourselves. We have built our agriculture to be productive. And now they want to destroy it."

Productive though it is, Europe's farm system is also famous for its fraud and abuse. At a German port, for example, shippers collect thousands of dollars in export subsidies simply by loading tons of wheat onto one side of a Soviet ship and then immediately unloading it from the other side.

And yet, the European farmer has maintained political clout and popular support.

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