17 July 1998

Magyars want full EUbenefits from very start

CENTRAL European farmers looking to join the EU early next century are demanding the same level of grants and subsidies as existing members from day one.

"We have been preparing to join the EU for many years," says Laszlo Vojda, director general of the Hungarian ministry of agriculture in Budapest.

He rejects suggestions that new members should go through some lengthy transition period, with only partial support.

Justifying his claim, Dr Vojda explains that input costs are similar in Hungary to the EU and the same support will be needed if farmers are to compete on equal terms. "That is the only way we can participate in the EU."

Brussels has suggested putting more money into rural development packages to improve infrastructure in countries such as Hungary. It maintains that direct income aid is intended as compensation for price cuts imposed on existing members only.

But Dr Vojda says this is against the Treaty of Rome and smacks of double standards. Despite this, Hungary still wants a derogation to allow it to continue blocking ownership of land by foreigners beyond the intended accession date of Jan 1, 2002.

Peter Bennett of FPD Savills, who farms in Hungary, believes these objectives are unrealistic and could lead to distortions.

But consultant Peter Fane, of Brussels-based Eurinco, says Dr Vojda is right to claim full support in a single market. The timetable is unlikely to be met, however, and by the time Hungary and the four other central European countries join, direct income aid will be reduced anyway, with EU funds shifting to regional and structural support, he suggests.