Monday, January 31, 2005

No more nasty surprises says Fischer Boel

EU farmers need not fear fresh unsettling novelties in agricultural policy once sugar reform is complete, farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told women farmers; representatives during Berlin's Green Week. 'I have no further reform package in my briefcase to shake everything up again,' she said.

She also told farmers that she was having second thoughts about letting sugar quota remove across national borders, one of the key parts of the proposed sugar reform. The move has been opposed by a group of ten less efficient countries led by Spain, but backed by UK growers and processors as one possible way of maintaining scale in the British sugar industry.

One might also think that not allowing quotas to move across borders is incompatible with the idea of an internal market, although dairy quotas cannot be traded from one country to another. However, the prevailing mindset among farmers was illustrated by German farm leader Gerd Sonnleiter who urged Mrs Fischer Boel to 'restrict calls for the destruction of what has been an effective means of regulating the market.'

Mrs Fischer Boel may yet be forced into further reform by tight budgetary constraints. Budget commissioner Dalia Grybauskaité, commenting on proposals to cap the EU budget at one per cent of gross national income, described farm spending as an area 'far from competitiveness, only pretending to be competitive, except maybe for the rural development programmes.'

Monday, January 24, 2005

Uncommon Agricultural Policy?

Ever since the 2003 reforms of the CAP, there has been concern about renationalisation of the CAP. Within certain limits, the reforms allowed member states to decide how far they would decouple payments for different commodities. The basis on which the Single Farm Payment was made also varies between (and within) member states. The availability of 'national envelopes' for special payments to particular categories of producer also raises competition issues within a supposedly single market.

Now the issue of co-financing for 'Pillar One' of the CAP has raised its head, particularly in Germany. (The second pillar is subject to co-financing). It has been argued that it should be on a 75-25 basis with member states having to find €25 from their own funds for every €75 they wanted from Brussels. This could be a means of holding down EU spending and allowing net conributor states to keep spending down to one per cent or less of gross national income.

The talk has rung alarm bells in the Commission which has moved swiftly to knock the idea on the head. Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel has argued that if co-financing was compulsory, it would mean a complete renationalisation of the CAP. If it was made compulsory, then the bottom line would always be the same. Resorting to the old argument that the CAP is the foundation stone of the EU, she declared, 'agricultural policy is the only common policy we do have in the EU and this would be the end of it.'

The renationalisation genie is, however, out of the bottle and we may not have heard the last of this idea.

MEPs probe butter fraud

The budgetary control committee of the European Parliament is to probe a fraud scandal involving fake Italian butter that dates back five years. The Italburro affair became public after police discovered that a milk processing plant in Naples had produced large quantities of artificial butter using synthetic ingredients. This led to the payment of hundreds of millions of euros in production and export subsidies in Italy, France, Germany and Belgium

MEPs want the Commission to be more proactive in recovering the money. Legal proceedings were not begun in Belgium until 2003 and action has been confined to administrative fines in Germany. That is, however, more progress than has been made in France where the fraudulently claimed subsidies amount to €100m, but no court case has been brought against anyone involved.

Twelve people are now behind bars in Italy, but not before there had been two members linked to the case.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Royal family farm subsidies may be made public

Under Britain's new Freedom of Information Act, the subsidies members of the royal family receive from the Common Agricultural Policy are likely to be made public. Farm minister Lord Whitty has said that he can see no reason why single farm payments should not be subject to disclosure. At present the only member state in which this happens is Denmark.

In practice the figures may be less interesting than supposed. The Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall estates are farmed by individual tenants so the payments go to them rather than the Queen or the Prince of Wales.

However, last year Oxfam estimated that seven of Britain's richest men collectively earn more than £2m a year in payouts from the EU. It was estimated that the Duke of Marlborough receives £369,000 for his arable farm on the Blenheim Estate in Oxfordshire while the Duke of Westminster, one of the richest men in the country, receives £326,000. One of the largest claimants is in fact The Co-operative Society that owns 100 farms covering 85,000 acres.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Polish farmers gain from EU membership

The impact on Polish farmers of the first eight months of EU membership has been broadly positive, accordance to senior Polish agriculture official Waldemar Guba addressing the Oxford Farming Conference. Before enlargement farmers were concerned about the differences in technologies, the effect on the labour and land markets and what was seen as the unfairness of the accession package.

Farmers had benefited from increased trade, extra investment in food processing, some improvement in land prices, only a moderate loss of jobs but, above all, from a rapid rise in prices. Since accession pig prices had climbed 21%, cattle prices 37% and poultry by 32%. There had only been a two per cent increase in milk prices and wheat prices, affected by drought, actually fell by three per cent.

Total agri-food exports in the first six months after accession rose by 34.7% compared with the same period in 2003. There has also been a significant increase in investment in the Polish agri-food sector. This was helping to prepare the 600 or so food processing plants which are not yet compliant with EU health and hygiene regulations but have to be by 2006.

The biggest problem Poland has faced since accession has been on the currency frint, with the zloty appreciating strongly against the euro. This had hit export competition and lowered the value of subsidies.