A health check for Europe's agriculture


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin)

After two years of heated debate between experts and officials, and squabbles and compromises between the capitals of the European Union (EU), the European Commission has finally presented the results of yet another health check of Europe's agriculture, and proposals on how to cure it, to the EU. The Commission itself called the process a "medical exam and adaptation of the long-awaited proposals for the current situation on world food markets."

In principle, Brussels could not afford to rush this check-up if it were not for the acute global food crisis, unprecedented increases on food prices, and the deadlock in the Doha round of WTO talks. But Europe can no longer conduct a cautious agricultural policy. Food prices in the Old World are impinging on family budgets, and this always brings mischievous ideas to voters' heads.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) adopted by six European countries in 1962 has been a curse for the EU from the beginning, and only reckless heads dared adjust it, to say nothing of reform attempts. EU Commissioner for Agriculture Mariann Fischer Boel from Denmark (a third-generation farmer) is one of them, or simply unlucky to occupy her current position. The published proposals do not amount to a fundamental reform, but the EU has made the biggest step toward it since 2003, when it went through the last relapse of the reformist upsurge (it announced resolute measures to reduce subsidies for farmers) and recession (these measures were suspended at the demand of France and Germany).

Now the matter is more serious. There are three extremely tough proposals. The European Commission suggests that starting next year farms which receive 300,000 euros in subsidies would get nine percent less; the relevant figures for 200,000 euros and 100,000 euros in subsidies would be six percent and three percent, respectively. The mandatory compensations for land owners who authorize the conversion of 10% of their property into fallow lands will be cancelled. This measure was designed to preserve Europe's environment and prevent overproduction. But now that prices on grain have grown three-fold, farmers are encouraged to produce more. Few people know that even Her Majesty (the British Queen is a major land owner on the British Isles) annually received 500,000 pounds under the CAP policy. If the changes are approved, she will lose 80,000 pounds. Finally, quotas for milk production introduced in 1983 will be reduced every year to avoid overproduction until they disappear by April 2015.

The European Commission has announced that EU agricultural spending - about 42% of the EU common 100-billion-euro budget - will remain the same until it will be slashed in 2013. The European Commission hopes to save about 1.2 billion euros per year with these measures and use it to develop not "productivist" but environmentally safe and high-quality agriculture.

But this will only happen if these measures are approved by all 27 EU members. Under the plan, the EU should do this in late 2008 (starting in January 2009, Europe should have a new Constitution) in order to start retailoring its entire budget. The Europeans will fulfill their plans in time. The question is what will be left of Fischer Boel's plans. All the governments well realize that these far from radical measures will be followed by a much more serious discussion on CAP's surgery rather than cosmetic adjustments. Every government is now thinking of what part of these plans should be removed in order not to lose more in the future.

Britain is the EU's main skeptic, which is only natural considering that France, its permanent antagonist, is getting the biggest subsidies for its farmers from the EU budget. It insists that all subsidies should be cancelled and any regulation of the agrarian sector stopped immediately. But Fischer Boel herself dismissed the UK position by saying: "The market has a very important role to play, but left to itself, it will not care for our landscapes or respond to other public demands...If we strip farming of all defenses against occasional crises, we will gamble with our food supply."

On the contrary, Paris and Berlin believe that CAP should be strengthened, especially now when food prices are skyrocketing. For their part, agricultural trade unions - from Lisbon to Warsaw - do not like any of the European Commission's proposals.

The EU Commissioner for Agriculture has to go through the WTO's nightmarish talks on agriculture, which have been marking time for years. Many developing countries have threatened to withdraw from them - why continue the talks if they fail to produce any results? The EU's most recent compromise proposals to resuscitate the Doha talks have infuriated Europe's biggest and most influential association of European farmers and their cooperatives - COPA COTEGA. Its representative Shelby Matthews said that any of the EU's new compromises spell trouble for farmers. The EU has proposed including beef, milk, poultry, grains, sugar and some other products (20 in all) on the list of "sensitive" foods to be protected with special import tariffs. The association believes that this "protection" will cost European farmers 30 billion euros rather than 18 billion euros per year, as was believed before.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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