Bumpy meeting of agriculture ministers sees multiple abstentions
EU agriculture ministers have listed a series of reservations regarding the "health check" of the EU's common agriculture policy, tabled by the European Commission last November.
"Despite divergent views, we managed to come up with a uniform platform," Slovenian agriculture minister Iztok Jarc, speaking on behalf of the rotating EU presidency, currently held by his country, said on Monday (17 March) after the ministerial meeting.
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Two delegations - the Czech Republic and the Latvian - stopped short of supporting the final outcome and instead abstained from the vote.
EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, for her part, said: "It was clear that all member states had their own shopping lists ... but we are still in the same shop, that is of crucial importance."
According to the commissioner, all governments will be "surprised" when she presents the commission's new proposal - based on the outcome of the ministerial meeting - on 20 May.
The main sticking point centres around the idea of capping and cutting payments for farmers, as the commission envisages gradually reducing the support level as overall payments to big farmers increase.
The commission proposals "may harm the competitveness of the agricultural sector in several member states," Czech agriculture minister Petr Gandalovic said on Monday (17 March), adding that over 50 percent of the country's businesses - farming 98 percent of overall farm land - would be effected.
Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia also expressed the same objections in a common declaration as a political message to the EU's executive body.
According to Slovak agriculture minister Zdenka Kramplova, capping and cutting payments for the biggest farms could lead to artificial splits into smaller farms so that they can qualify for more subsidies.
In addition, some of the new member states, led by Latvia, questioned a mechanism under which farmers receive their payments fixed on a historical basis, taking account of the amount of EU money farmers have received over 1996-2000.
They argue that such a mechanism offers a disadvantage because their agriculture was "in a period of transformation" back then. "Principles applied to old and new EU states should be the same," as all companies function in the common market," Ms Kramplova, from Slovakia, told journalists.
But the commission indicated that this particular demand is unlikely to fly. "If we re-open the distribution of direct payment, then it is a new reform and there is no support for a new reform at this stage," Ms Fischer Boel said.
"We have to go on and I am sure that in the end we will have a solution satisfactory for large majority," she concluded.
Milk quotas increased
EU ministers have also approved a two percent increase in national milk quotas as of April, although the move did not enjoy full support. Germany and Austria voted against, while France abstained.
"Prices have been falling for several weeks already and a quota rise would put prices under further pressure and put the future numerous producers in jeopardy," German agriculture minister Horst Seehofer was cited as saying by Reuters. His country is the leading milk producer in Europe.
French minister Michel Barnier said: "I can understand that we could increase the quotas very moderately this year because the demand is there, but I would warn against any decision that could have significant consequences in the future."
But the EU commissioner underlined that an increase of quotas meant only the possibility to produce more, not the obligation to do so.
"The market can absorb it. That is the most important thing," Ms Fischer Boel said, adding: "We should give our producers an opportunity of increasing their world market [share], and we have a good reputation" in the area.
In addition, the move is expected to help smooth the transition towards a full abolition of milk quotas in 2015.