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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 June, 2003, 21:22 GMT 22:22 UK
Fudge to CAP it all

By Tim Hirsch
BBC environment correspondent, Luxembourg

Anyone who doubts the need to overhaul European Union decision-making should have been observing the - so far - abortive negotiations here on reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler (L) with colleagues
Fischler: Santa Claus or Scrooge?

Since last week, 15 farm ministers and an army of officials have been locked in the hideous concrete EU complex in Luxembourg, trying to agree on how to change the system which dishes out some 43 billion euros a year to Europe's farmers. And not getting very far.

Enthusiasts of watching paint dry would have enjoyed every minute of the tortuous talking through the impenetrable jargon of degressivity, modulation and suckler cow premiums.

For the rest of us, it has been a frustrating and exhausting process, survivable only with the help of gallons of coffee and diversions such as a sweepstake on when the ministers will finally arrive at a fudge which all sides can live with.

The EU's Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, is trying to reshape the CAP so that it no longer rewards farmers according to how much meat and crops they produce, dumping surplus food on world markets and damaging the environment.

Ranged against him are a group of governments led by the French attempting to water down the reforms, and to keep as many of the existing subsidies as they can get away with.

Compromise Number...

On Wednesday Dr Fischler issued what he called a Final Compromise, toning down his original plan but keeping the basic idea of "decoupling" most farm payments from the amount of food produced.

In a briefing to the already tired journalists, the commissioner's spin doctor reinforced the message that this really was a final offer.

With 25 ministers around that table, as there will be from next May, it is difficult to see how anything will be decided at all

Any ministers with shopping lists of new concessions costing more money "had better send them to Father Christmas", he said.

As it happens, Dr Fischler is a jovial, portly Austrian with a full grey beard who would certainly be cast as Santa rather than Scrooge.

Perhaps confused by this, ministers responded to the warning by submitting a string of demands of special treatment for everyone from Greek goat-herds to Spanish nut-gatherers.

The hours dragged on and finally at 3am everyone went off to get some - but not much - sleep with the promise of some new proposals in the morning.

But if the Final Compromise had already been issued, what could possibly follow?

The answer which arrived after breakfast was... the Revised Final Compromise.

Unfortunately the only copy of the document available to journalists got stuck in the ageing photocopier in the press room so for a while we were none the wiser.

A colleague did spot another machine in a neighbouring office but was told it belonged to the European Parliament and this was European Council business, so he could not possibly use it.

Suspended animation

When eventually the contents emerged, we learned that more concessions were on the table, and it seemed for a while that agreement might be close.

But as Thursday wore on, it became clear that something was badly wrong, with reports that the French minister was now saying "non" to everything and the talks seemed to be moving backwards.

Then, late in the evening, a collective groan went up as it was announced that the talks had been suspended until next week - it later transpired that this was prompted by a threat from President Chirac of France to veto the entire deal.

This is how things work with 15 members of the EU.

With 25 ministers around that table, as there will be from next May, it is difficult to see how anything will be decided at all.

Q&A: EU farm reform
11 Jun 03  |  Business
Fischler's farmyard revolution?
26 Jun 02  |  Europe
Down on the farm
03 Dec 02  |  Business

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