DEEP DIVISIONS emerged this week over the future reform of the EU sugar regime, although all farm ministers meeting in Brussels agreed that maintaining the status quo was not an option.

Leading the list of those opposing the radical changes proposed by the European Commission was Spain, which, with nine other countries, wrote to new agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel with a list of demands.

They say the reform should keep the existing spread of sugar beet growing in the EU. “For environmental, economic and social reasons, sugar beet should continue to be produced as before in the different regions,” says the letter, signed by ministers from Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Portugal, Slovenia and Finland.

To achieve this, the 10-strong bloc calls for import quotas to be introduced for third countries, for price cuts to be much smaller than the 33% proposed, and for quota cuts to be targeted at those countries with large “B quotas” that are responsible for export surpluses. “Furthermore, the transfer of quota among member states should not be allowed,” says the letter.

Mrs Fischer Boel said it was too early to be drawn on these details, but she was not surprised to see that the 10 countries putting their names to the letter were among the less competitive in Europe. “The possibility of keeping up present production levels in all member states will be very difficult,” she said.

But generally Mrs Fischer Boel was encouraged that all 25 member states accepted the need for some reform and viewed the commission’s proposals for price and quota cuts – with compensation – as a good basis for discussion. “We must bring EU sugar prices closer to the world market,” she said.

Countries supporting the commission included Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Estonia. France too said the proposals were “heading in the right direction”, while the UK, for the first time, called for the long-term elimination of sugar quotas.

As for the timing of the reform, farm ministers agreed that the July 2005 start date originally suggested by the commission was unrealistic.

Mrs Fischer Boel conceded that, with the EU appealing over the World Trade Organisation ruling against parts of its export policy, the commission was unlikely to table formal legal proposals for the reform until next May or June.