More than 30,000 farmers, mostly from France, Belgium and Germany, laid siege to the city to protest about European Union agricultural reforms which they say will reduce their incomes. The protests came as farm ministers from the EU's 15 member states gathered to debate radical European Commission plans to cut guaranteed prices for cereals, beef and dairy products by up to 30 per cent to prepare the bloc for its enlargement and a new round of world trade talks.
The marchers, some of whom uprooted trees and hurled objects including fire-crackers, rocks and cans, were met with tear gas and water cannon by around 5,000 riot police. Although organisers claimed around 50,000 farmers took part in the demonstration, police put the number closer to 30,000.
Even before the tear gas was fired Brussels looked like a war zone, the five-lane highway which runs through its centre blocked off with barbedwire and lined with riot police and armoured vehicles. All the time, police helicopters hovered noisily overhead.
The Belgian police took every precaution. The entire EU quarter was sealed off, schools, shops, creches, offices and metro stations were closed, and staff of the European Commission were given the option of taking the day off. Consequently the main Commission building was deserted.
A stone throw's away, the Cinquantenaire park where the protesters gathered was ringed with police and cordoned off with barbed wire. In the biting wind and rain, speeches began as the crowds massed: in the words of one French demonstrator, unmistakable evidence of the fraternite of Europe's farmers. The march began with the French in the vanguard, many dressed in yellow capes, blowing shrill whistles, chanting, and spraying firecrackers around like confetti. The banners were out: "Santer tu nous enterre" (Santer you are burying us) and "Pas de pays, sans les paysans" (No country without the peasants).
Others carried black flags picturing a crossed plough and sword. "Sometimes we have to drop our ploughs and fight," said Rudolf Bleeker, a farmer from northern Germany. As they progressed down a side street away from the Schuman roundabout, tear gas and water canon was fired as rocks, cans and fire-crackers rained in on some of the police.
Towards the back of the line of protesters, the British contingent was doing its best not to look too incongruous. Only about 30 had made the journey, rather less than the Finnish contingent, and the group included most of the top brass of the National Farmers' Union.
"This is not normally the British way of doing things," confessed Michael Lambert, chairman of the NFU milk committee, "while European governments pay some attention to this sort of thing, the British government usually does not."
His colleague, Rod Thomas, chairman of an equally high-powered committee, agreed the "Gallic style" was rather different: "We have our own way of doing things. We are a representative contingent. The French do it their way."
Hugh Richards, president of the Welsh NFU, said he was not surprised so few had made the journey: "They can all drive, for us it means a Channel crossing." He had not, he added, considered stocking up on fire crackers: "it would be difficult bringing them through customs".
The extraordinary level of security came in for attack from Belgian farmers who claimed they were being treated "like terrorists". But it reflects memories of past clashes between farmers and police in the city. In early 1971, when farmers last staged a demonstration of such a size, mounted police charged rioting protestors, scores of people were injured, and one demonstrator died. In 1992, during a smaller demonstration, a senior NFU official was hit in the leg by a firecracker.Reuse content