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Colloquial name in European politics for a large surplus of butter due to overproduction.

Even during the 1970s, when the European Economic Community was less integrated than it is today as the European Union, agriculture was one of its main interests and was the sector it dabbled in with the most pronounced and controversial results. In fact the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), initiated in 1962, absorbed 70% of the EEC's budget. Perhaps the best known, err, landmark of that era was the agropolitical feature that became known as the butter mountain. The adjoining milk powder and cheese mountains were part of the same harvest of bureaucratic brilliance and interventionism gone awry.

Now, we're talking about a lot of butter here. Farmers in Germany, the UK, Holland, and other countries had been encouraged to produce subsidised products in quantities that ended up dwarfing demand. Enormous dairy subsidies had made milk and butter lucrative on paper but impossible to actually sell once produced. At the rate they were going from the early 1970s until the mid-1980s, they were running out of storage space before the butter ran out. In 1975 there were about half a million tons of unwanted butter waiting to be sold off for next to nothing. Building the butter mountain came hand-in-hand with the CAP's gravy train.

Solutions ranged from the economically twisted yet logical but otherwise absurd and unpopular, such as raising taxes on margarine, which many consumers preferred because it was cheaper, to the innovative suggestion made by the Monster Raving Loony Party in Britain to mold the mountain for use as Eddie the Eagle's ski slope. Given enough refrigeration, the latter suggestion was actually feasible since the mountain was literally big enough to serve the purpose. Milk powder and butter were sometimes given away as food aid.

In the meantime and across the Channel from Brussels, Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher became a slogan of the times as the distribution of free milk to school children was ended under her rule as Minister of Education, seven months before Britain signed the accession treaty to join the common market. This was also her most notable achievement in the post. Clearly they had better things to do with the milk once the country joined the EEC. Like create a butter mountain.

At the peak of the butter mountain madness, butter was virtually given away to the Soviet Union at regular intervals or sold to low-income pensioners at steep discounts. Part of it was even used as fuel in commercial electricity production. The butter mountain almost spawned a couple of trade wars with other dairy producing countries. This meant mainly the United States, where the Reagan administration had perpetuated and "improved" another subsidised surplus problem. The American response to the butter mountain was government cheese. Eventually, in 1985, the EEC negotiated GATT permission to dispose of vast quantities of butter on the world market at low prices without getting nailed for dumping.

The butter mountain had its ups and downs and declined in volume by the end of the 1980s but took a very long time to go away. Even the introduction of quotas for milk production in 1984 failed to stem its growth. It peaked at 1.4 million tons in 1987. Even with dairy subsidies shrinking to 2.6 billion euros in 1999, it persisted and reached a respectable size again after 120,000 tons of unsold export-subsidised butter were inventoried in the first half of 2002. This time the origins had shifted a bit. Ireland and Spain were the largest producers of unwanted butter during that period.

Other "geographical" features to appear on the political map of Common Market Europe were the wine lake, the milk lake, a beef mountain and several varieties of grain mountain. One expects that the admission of eastern European countries to the EU will reduce the excesses of the CAP by stretching funds more thinly. On the other hand, this is the EU we're talking about. Perhaps the madness will be shifted to the results of environmentally friendly and morally admirable directives that come with no plans or budgets for their practical implementation. There already are rumours of growing mountains of tyres and old refrigerators.

The butter mountain was eventually pronounced "melted" in 2007, when the Finns, Czechs, and Spanish finally emptied their refrigerated vaults. The possibility of future butter mountains is slim, though early 2009 did see the appearance of a modest, 30000-ton butter mound. This is not a result of policies such as the CAP, though, but rather a typical EU reaction to market conditions that took a toll on the dairy industry worldwide.

(Voice from Brussels): Perhaps we could store the butter mountain in the fridge mountain...

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