11 December 1998

Austria presidency ends with whimper after little progress

By Philip Clarke

EU FARM ministers meet in Brussels next week for the last time under the Austrian presidency.

To say that Wilhelm Molterers six month stint in the council chair has been low key is something of an understatement. Apart from the lifting of the UK beef ban, progress on most of the other big issues has been positively snail like.

On Agenda 2000, for example, ministers have had to satisfy themselves with a bland political statement, stressing the need for a "multifunctional European model of agriculture", as their contribution to this weekends heads of state summit in Vienna.

This was backed up with a more detailed report setting out the areas of farm policy reform where the 15 member states agree, (very few), and the areas in which they still disagree, (very many).

But next weeks council gives farm ministers an opportunity to exonerate themselves, with a lengthy agenda and some key decisions to be made.

Most important, from a UK perspective, is future agrimoney arrangements for countries not joining the euro on Jan 1, 1999.

Under the commissions plan, farm support prices and subsidies will be converted into national currencies using the daily £:euro exchange rate, rather than the obsolete green rate.

Complex issue

The issue is undoubtedly a complex one. But securing agreement will be largely a formality. The only area of conflict is likely to be on the level of compensation for countries that suffer during the move from green to market exchange rates.

More controversial will be the vexed question of specified risk materials (SRMs) in cattle and sheep. Commission plans for an EU-wide policy, linking the range of SRMs to be destroyed with the risk of BSE in each country, were rejected by member state vets last week.

Farm ministers will debate the issue again. But having already kicked out previous SRM proposals twice in the past 12 months, they look certain to make it a hat-trick next week.

The commission does have the power to force through European controls from Jan 1 under a separate piece of legislation, but wont do so without ministerial backing. The likely outcome, therefore, seems to be another delay in a policy the commission first tried to push through two years ago.

Agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler should have more success in doing away with antibiotics in animal feeds.

Last week, 10 of the 15 member states in the commissions scientific committee on animal nutrition (SCAN) endorsed a proposal to ban four of these so-called "digestive feed enhancers". A similar vote by ministers next week will pave the way for the ban to be implemented, with drug companies given just six months to clear the market.

Also on the agenda will be the recently-announced food aid package to Russia. The deal includes 1m tonnes of EU wheat, 150,000t of beef, 100,000t of pigmeat and 50,000t of skimmed milk powder.

Russia has now given a commitment that the food will be sold at local market prices and not re-exported, with the proceeds used for social programmes.

Farm ministers should have few problems sanctioning the package, though the European Parliament also has to give its opinion before the lorries can roll, and that wont be until the end of next week.

Forestry on table

These are the key issues. Forestry, measures to encourage organic farming and wine are also on the table, though firm decisions are less likely.

But if ministers can agree at least some of the main items, the Austrians can go home for Christmas feeling they have achieved something from their presidency.