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EDITIONS
Greening the Cap Monday, 22 February, 1999, 19:24 GMT
Farmers fear reforms' effects
field
The reformers' conundrum: Keeping the countryside productive and ecologically alive
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The European Union's common agricultural policy (CAP), begun in 1962, sprang from the memory of the desperate food shortages of the second world war.

Greening the Cap
Never again, decided the leaders of the Common Market (as the EU was then known), would Europe go hungry.

The CAP's original aims were to increase food production, to ensure supplies, to give farmers a decent standard of living, and to offer consumers food at reasonable prices.

All may be laudable intentions, but experience over the years has shown that one single policy cannot deliver them all.

The CAP underwent some reform in 1992, and some food prices did fall as a result.

Even now, though, the CAP soaks up almost half of the total EU budget, so further reforms are planned. The package of proposals is known as Agenda 2000.

Keeping incomes stable

British farmers are worried. Even though overall spending on the CAP is almost certain to rise, they believe they stand to lose.

The idea is that direct subsidies to farmers for producing food should be cut, but that they should be paid for protecting the environment and keeping the rural economy healthy.

So total incomes should not change very much.

But the farmers, while accepting that reform is necessary and inevitable, believe the devil is in the detail of Agenda 2000.

cattle
Smaller subsidies could hurt farmers
The Country Landowners' Association, with 50,000 members, wants reform that does not discriminate against British farmers.

It says reform should also aim to be "a managed transition bringing agriculture closer to world market prices".

The much bigger National Farmers' Union also argues for equality for all EU farmers.

That is a difficult argument to sustain, because British farms tend to be larger than in many EU states, and British agriculture more efficient and highly mechanised.

For both those reasons, some EU leaders believe that their farmers deserve more help than Britain's.

Specifically, the NFU says there must be:

  • a common system of support throughout Europe which does not disadvantage farmers from any country
  • a common set of conditions attached to payments to all EU farmers
  • equal treatment for all producers, whatever the size of their operation.

The NFU is particularly concerned about one feature of the Agenda 2000 proposals, quaintly known as "national envelopes".

spray
The reforms should help the environment
These are allocations made by Brussels to each member state to distribute according to its own priorities.

So if one country wanted, for example, to help its beef farmers, it could use its national envelope to give them help denied to their competitors in other member states.

The NFU is also pressing for "a sufficient budget to fund the proposed CAP reform".

Inadequate reform, it says, "will make it more difficult for Europe to negotiate in forthcoming trade talks and for EU enlargement to take place".

The NFU includes its analysis of what the reforms should deliver on a sombre note.

"The Agenda 2000 proposals will have a damaging impact on farm incomes at a time when farmers are already suffering considerable financial stress.

"This means there is a very strong case for the introduction of an early retirement scheme."

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