EU AGRICULTURE commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel is having second thoughts about allowing sugar quotas to move across national borders – one of the key parts of reform that could benefit UK growers.

Addressing farmers at the Berlin International Green Week, she said a number of member states had “severe reservations” about such a trade in quotas. “I take their reservations very seriously, which is why I am examining other alternatives.”

Cross-border movement of quotas was included in last year”s paper on sugar reform, to encourage production in the most efficient countries, following EU-wide quota cuts.

The concept has been welcomed by UK growers and processors as one possible way of offsetting these cuts and maintaining essential scale in the British sugar industry.

But it was rejected by a group of 10 less efficient countries, led by Spain, who expect to lose out if quotas become transferable. Mrs Fischer Boel insisted there was still room for manoeuvre and explained that formal reform proposals would be published early this summer. “But there is no doubt that the sugar sector must be made more competitive by considerably reducing support prices and by simplifying the quota arrangements.”

Agreement was essential by November “to avoid putting undue pressure on the World Trade Organisation negotiations in Hong Kong in December”, she added.

But German farm leader Gerd Sonnleitner urged Mrs Fischer Boel to maintain a sense of proportion in relation to sugar reform. “You must resist calls for the destruction of what has been an effective means of regulating the market,” he said.

Outlining other priorities for the early stages of her five-year stint as agriculture commissioner, Mrs Fischer Boel highlighted the role of rural development in boosting efficiency, rewarding environmental management and creating alternative employment.

As farmers were more exposed to competition, they would also have to convince consumers to pay more for quality. “Quality is not only linked with purely physical properties,” she said. “It may also relate to the production method or the origin of the product.”