12 March 1999

11th hour for deal on CAPas farming budget date nears

By Philip Clarke

Europe editor

EU FARM ministers came under increased pressure to strike a deal on CAP reform this week, following two weeks of false starts and frustration.

As FARMERS WEEKLY went to press (Wed), the council was awaiting a fresh compromise from the German presidency, expected to offer a watered-down version of the commissions original Agenda 2000 proposals.

The so-called London club of the UK, Italy, Denmark and Sweden, had also issued a paper urging other member states to push for meaningful reform.

"Ministers accept they are starting to look foolish," said a council official. "They realise they cant go on like this."

The real pressure for an agreement, however, comes from EU finance ministers, who meet in Brussels next week. Without a deal on agricultural reform, the finance council would have carte blanche to set a budget for the next six years within which farm ministers would have to operate.

Rumours were rife mid-week as to what form a final deal would take – and if it could be achieved at all.

Least controversial is the arable package, where a support price cut of 20% is expected, with half the loss made good with extra area aid. Oilseed aid is likely to be cut in three stages until it matches that paid for cereals.

To the relief of some delegations, milk appears to be back on the agenda, though it seems the reform will only kick in from 2002 or 2003.

There had been pressure from the French and Irish to drop it altogether as a way of balancing the budget. But UK farm minister Nick Brown threatened to vote against any extension of milk quotas when the current regulations end next March if there was no commitment to reform the sector now.

Necessary compromise

Delaying the reform is seen as a necessary compromise between the opposing parties. "If we really want to make a collective mistake, then it is better to do it later rather than sooner," was how French farm minister Jean Glavany summed it up. In the delicate process of negotiation, that was interpreted as an important concession.

In the beef sector, delegations seemed to be homing in on a 20% price cut, rather than the 30% proposed by the commission. The real debate, however, has been around the level at which safety net intervention is triggered, and the rate of headage payments to be applied.