Sunday, May 22, 2005

Big row likely over new sugar reform proposals

The European Commission has come forward with new proposals for reform of the sugar sector which propose further cuts in support for the highly subsidised sector. Despite Commission denials, the proposals are intended to address the recent WTO decision which ruled so-called 'C' sugar exports illegal.

In fact DG Agri officials were secretly pleased when the WTO ruled against the EU sugar regime earlier this year, forcing the anti-reform camp to face up to reality. But the new proposals are likely to provoke a major row, with opposition from countries who would lose their sugar industries such as Finland and Ireland on the one hand and development NGOs on the other.

Under the new proposals the support price for white sugar would be cut by 39 per cent compared with 33 per cent in the original plans. The minimum beet price would be cut by 42 per cent compared with 37 per cent.

Planned automatic cuts in sugar production quotas have been shelved with the Commission favouring a voluntary quota buy up scheme which offer producers a financial incentive (a bribe in plain language) to get out of the sector. In the first year of reform (2006/7), producers will be paid €730/t for any quota surrendered, falling to €370/t over four years.

This quota buy up scheme is to be funded in part by a sugar buyers' levy which will be imposed at a rate of €125/t in year one, falling to €90/t the following year. These plans will upset sugar buyers who will lose most of the benefit of the lower market prices. Despite this subvention, the scheme is going to cost taxpayers with a budget of €896m set aside in year one of the reform programme, rising to €1.5bn in year two. A lot of this money will go to 60 per cent compensation compensation for farmers to offset the minimum price of beet which will be incorporated into the Single Farm Payment.

Controversial plans to allow sugar quotas to be traded across member states have been dropped. One might think that in a single market it would be logical to trade quota across national boundaries, but this idea has never been accepted in the dairy sector. Such an approach would, however, allow a more market based adjustment to change, maximising the chances of an optimal rationalisation of the sector.

Oxfam has criticised the draft plan as 'a harsh, blunt reform package that will hurt the most vulnerable ... some of the poorest countries in the world will be robbed of the sweeeter future that sugar production could give them.'

The reform plan will be the first test of Mariann Fischer Boel's mettle as farm commissioner. She is insisting that she has to go further than Franz Fischler in order to avoid a planned revision of the new regime around 2008. She commented, 'The easiest thing would be to sit on my hands and let the industry die by itself, and that would be a painful death.'

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