10 April 1998

CAPreform plans unscathed despite ministers wrath

EU farm ministers roared with disapproval

at Agenda 2000 last week. But, as Europe

editor Philip Clarke explains, their

antics lacked conviction

COMMISSION plans to reform the Common Agricultural Policy received something of a mauling from farm ministers at their televised meeting in Brussels last week.

One after another, they tore into the Agenda 2000 package, leaving the casual observer wondering what could possibly be salvaged from the tatters.

But more seasoned observers say the "mauling" was little more than a circus act. The tigers of the council made a lot of noise, but their claws were definitely retracted.

Between the lines

Reading between the lines, it was only the Irish who spoke of "damage to the national interest" and said the reforms were "not a basis for negotiation". On this assertion, Irelands Joe Walsh might be expected to stay away from the next round of talks in May.

But that is highly unlikely, and the chances are he will be there at the negotiating table with the 14 other ministers, looking to capitalise on his aggressive opening stance.

The rhetoric is bound to continue – and not just from the Irish. With German elections due in September, current farm minister Jochen Borchert will stick to his line that Agenda 2000 is "inappropriate", offering insufficient compensation for totally excessive price cuts.

No one expects progress to be anything other than laboured, with agreement at least a year off.

But, away from the TV cameras, there is a general acceptance among ministers that change is inevitable. Without further price cuts, the EU will struggle to shift its farm surpluses without breaking international trade rules on the use of export subsidies.

And any chance of integrating new member states into the European club will also be jeopardised unless action is taken to better align markets in the west with those in the east.

Upbeat attitude

Reform architect, Franz Fischler was consequently quite upbeat following last weeks council, reminding everyone that his predecessor, Ray MacSharry, had encountered even stiffer opposition when his proposals were first tabled in 1991.

Those reforms – more radical at the time – had come to fruition with relatively few changes the following year.

As for Agenda 2000, there will certainly be concessions here and there as the negotiations gather pace.

With so much discontent over the farm income effects, there is a good chance the commission will increase the compensation on offer in order to secure a political agreement – though this will depend on how much further it can stretch its agricultural budget.

Extra quota

The controversial plan to allocate extra milk quota to mountain areas alone is another likely casualty, attracting almost universal condemnation at last weeks meeting. Indeed, this proposal has all the characteristics of a bargaining chip. It can go, but only so long as other parts of the package stay.

But, apart from this "fine-tuning", the view in Brussels is that the general shape of Agenda 2000 will emerge more or less unscathed.

The principles of shifting from price support to direct income support were conceded six years ago with MacSharry. In the absence of any meaningful alternatives, more of the same is inevitable.