Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sweet tooth

The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development has produced a paper on how a trade deal on sugar would affect importing and exporting countries. You can read it here: Sugar

The paper finds that a significant amount of sugar trade is conducted under preferential trade agreements which encourages sugar production where it is not competitive at the expense of low-cost sugar producing countries.

The EU sugar reforms had an adverse effect on higher cost producers in the Global South such as Fiji, Guyana and Mauritius. Full access by LDCs to the EU sugar market once the Everything But Arms Initiative is in operation should help countries like Sudan to boost their EU market share.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sarko: the answer lies in the soil

French president Nicholas Sarkozy has unveiled a €1.65bn rescue package to help French farmers cope with lower commodity prices and shore up his support among rural voters. It forms part of a broader thrust to reaffirm French 'national identity' and also to deflect criticisms over local tax reforms and allegations of nepotism in relation to the promotion of his son's career. Mr Sarkozy is facing difficult regional elections next year and needs the support of rural voters.

In a speech in the Jura, the president claimed that 'The word "soil" has a special meaning in French and I was elected to defend French national identity'. The package of subsidies is made of €1bn in subsidised loans and €650 in cuts to land and energy taxes and social charges (which have particularly hit fruit and vegetable producers weighed down by high social charges on seasonal labour).

Mr Sarkozy insisted that the plan, with its focus on tax cuts, would not contravene EU rules on state aid. He attacked the Commission for dragging its feet on proposals to help dairy farmers. French dairy farms are on average smaller than their competitors in other large member states.

The package signals a tougher stance by Paris as the EU prepares for the debate on scaling back CAP subsidies. Mr Sarkozy said that he wanted tighter regulation of the milk market from next year.

Mr Sarkozy has described a complete U turn from the first speech he made to farmers as president in 2007 when he told his audience they had to learn to make a living from market prices rather than subsidies. But now he needs to consolidate his traditional centre-right base and he has reverted to a more typical French stance.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dairy sector measures do not set pulses racing

4000 dairy farmers with 900 tractors demonstrated outside an EU agricultural ministers meeting in Luxembourg yesterday calling for more aid for the sector. Inside, ministers faced a Franco-German memorandum backed by 20 member states with a series of demands for market distorting measures. In the event the concessions the Commission made are probably the least they could have got away with in the circumstances. Farmers' organisation COPA immediately condemned them as insufficient.

The main move was to make an additional €280m of public money available under the Article 186 'disturbance clause' which allows the Commission to step in at short notice when the market collapses. The milk market has hardly collapsed and this is something EU finance ministers may wish to consider when they meet to consider the approval of the move on 19 November.

What the money is to be spent on is yet to be decided, although private storage for cheese has been mentioned. No, this doesn't mean that members of the public can get a subsidy for filling their fridges with cheese, although anything is possible in the Alice Through the Looking Glass world of the CAP.

What is significant is what was in the Franco-German document that has not been acted upon: official intervention buying of chesse, additional funding for school milk schemes (funding for fruit yoghurt had already been agreed) and more targeted export assistance and subsidies for skimmed milk powder to be used in animal feed.

It was this last measure which had the greatest potential for damage. Commissioner Fischer Boel dismissed it by saying that she had not received any convincing evidence that it would increase demand. What it has done in the past is seriously distort other markets, e.g., for pigmeat.

The notion of freezing quotas had already been knocked off the agenda in September, a singularly ill thought out proposal which would have done nothing in the short run and delayed adjustment in the longer run.

It is worth noting that milk prices have been increasing, by 2 per cent in August while butter has gone up by 4 per cent in France, 8 per cent in Germany and even more in the UL. Intervention buying of skimmed milk powder has virtually come to a halt because the market price is higher that the intervention price.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Watchdog slams farm payments mess

In one of its most critical ever reports, the National Audit Office has slammed the way in which the Rural Payments Agency has administered Single Farm Payments to farmers. It accused the agency of showing 'scant regard to protecting public money'.
The agency has wasted around £700m, the capital equivalent of building thirty secondary schools.

The average amount paid to about 107,000 English farmers is about £15,300 a year. However, the watchdog found there were substantial overpayments totalling between £55m and £90m but the data was so unreliable the auditors were unable to find out the precise sum. £280m has been set aside to pay Brussels penalties for administrative errors and late payments to farmers, but a further £43m of overpayments are likely to be irrecoverable.

What the report brings out is the high transaction costs incurred even in a supposedly simplified system of subsidies. It is estimated to cost £1,743 to process each farmer's claim for cash, a rise of 20 per cent in four years.

It is argued that some of the problems arise from the payment system chose by Margaret Beckett, at one time in charge of Defra. The devolved regions opted for a simpler system based on historic payments made to farmers. In Scotland the cost of administering payments is £285 per farmer. However, one reason for choosing an area farmed system was to try to break away from the 'to him that hath shall be given' aspect of the subsidies system.

Of course, some might think that we would better off by phasing out subsidies altogether.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nasty surprises in the green box

Governments are increasingly putting their subsidy payments into the 'green box' of the WTO, but there is evidence that these subsidies are harmful to the environment and farmers in the Global South. Read more here: Green box

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who will be next agriculture commissioner?

The next agricultural commissioner will have the chance to shape the future development of the CAP. So who will it be?

We can eliminate three sets of member states. By convention the post cannot go to a large member state, ruling out the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain (and presumably Poland).

Former Romanian farm minister Dacian Ciolos is the name formally mentioned, but indications are that a candidate from a member state with such a large agricultural population, and possible problems with the use of its EU funding, would not be acceptable. Indeed, one can rule out the new member states altogether as the only two other possible candidates - former Slovenian farm minister Iztok Jarc and his Cezch counterpart Petr Gandalovic - have now left office and are unlikely to get support from their governments.

We can also rule out member states who have appointed non-agricultural commissioners: Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg and Portugal. While it would be interesting to have someone without an agricultural background in the post, it is unlikely to happen in practice. Sweden is also thought not to want the dossier.

Given the recent election in Greece, the unstable political situation in Ireland, and no agricultural expert being discussed from those countries, they are unlikely to provide a viable nomination - although Ireland could spring someone out of the hat at the last minute: remember that Fischer Boel was a late and unexpected appointment. An Irish nominee would certainly be welcome in Paris.

We are really left with Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria. A second Danish appointment seems unlikely. If climate minister Connie Hedegaard is the Danish nominee, she could occupy a similar portfolio at the European level. Farm minister Eva Kjer Hansen is also in the frame but could get a food safety/SANCO dossier if she comes to Brussels.

The Netherlands has perhaps the best qualified candidates in the form of current agricultural minister Gerda Verburg or former minister Cees Veerman.

But the smart money is on another Austrian, former farm minister Wilhelm Molterer, even though Vienna would prefer him to have the budget portfolio. It's certainly not a done deal and there could be a last minute surprise.