Proposals to scrap export subsidies for live cattle have sparked a strong debate as Brussels steps up its efforts to discourage the trade between the EU and Lebanon.

EU farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told the EU farm council on 20 December that ‘the time was now right to put an end to these export refunds’.

“The outlook for our own beef market is positive and no longer justifies the continuation of this support to farmers,” she said.

Mrs Fischer Boel also pointed to the fact that, while the EU had very stringent rules on animal welfare, these were not being fully respected, either at home or beyond the EU’s borders.

Representatives for the animal welfare lobby group Compassion in World Farming were in Brussels expecting to hear council make the decision to end the subsidy.

CIWF had identified widespread abuse of Irish and German cattle in transit to the Middle East and on arrival at Lebanese slaughterhouses.

“We have been campaigning for over a decade to end the use of EU taxpayers’ money to subsidise this cruel trade,” said a spokeswoman.

But the decision was delayed as proposals faced much tougher and more widespread opposition at council than had been expected. Of the 25 member states, 17 opposed the end of the subsidies.

Among the opposition were Irish exporters, who are the main beneficiaries of the refunds.

“The international live export trade out of Ireland was regulated to the highest standards,” said Irish Farmers’ Association livestock chairman John Bryan. “The Brazilians who stand to take this market do not operate to the same standards.”

British farmers are unlikely to be directly affected whatever the outcome, as exports of all beef, alive or dead, are still restricted. But an end to the subsidies could still hit domestic prices if displaced Irish beef were to be diverted to the UK market

 The EU Commission, however, points to the improving market situation at home and the fall in the level of the live export trade.

“Consumption has fully recovered from the BSE crisis, while EU beef production is falling, partly as a result of CAP reform,” said a spokesman. Beef prices had consequently risen from €2.63/kg in 2003 to €3/kg now.

Meanwhile, EU live exports to the Lebanon had fallen to 66,300 head this year from 123,800 head in 2004. At the same time, Brazil had raised its live exports to 84,000 head in the first 10 months of 2005.

Mrs Fischer Boel urged animal welfare groups to continue their campaign to ensure that Brazil and other exporters applied the same high standards as the EU.