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EU: Verheugen Irked By Ungrateful Candidates

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, said today he was unhappy about the way the European Commission's enlargement funding proposals has drawn criticism from both the candidates and present member countries.

Brussels, 19 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The proposals, issued in the last days of January, say the EU will make available 40 billion euros ($35 billion) to the new members between 2004 and 2006 but that it will take up to 10 years before the candidates become eligible for full EU agricultural and development aid.

Although candidate farmers would qualify for direct farm aid, it would be capped at 25 percent of EU levels in 2004, to rise to 35 percent in 2006 and reaching 100 percent only in 2013.

On 15 February, the prime ministers of the four "Visegrad" countries -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia -- signed a statement expressing "regret" over the proposals and noting that the proposals remain "very far away" from the position of the candidates. All of the candidates have said they want to receive full agricultural subsidies from the day of accession.

Verheugen -- who has said the proposals are "fair" and "balanced," as well as the best deal the candidates can hope for -- was showing clear signs of frustration today.

"I find it quite normal that candidate countries are trying to coordinate their position and tell us what they think about our proposals," Verheugen said. "I had expected that; I have expected a reaction. If you ask me whether it helps or not -- I leave it to your judgment. What would you think in my position? If you're attacked from two sides, there are member states who do not like it and there are candidates who don't like it. I think the answer is very simple."

The proposal has also drawn fire from the "net payers" to the EU budget -- Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Britain, and Austria, who all pay more into the budget than they receive from it. Most of the criticism centers on the proposal to make candidate farmers eligible to receive farm subsidies. The net payers fear that once the new members are admitted into the system, reform of the EU's costly agricultural policy would become impossible.

Verheugen's worries were compounded recently by an ultimatum from Polish Agriculture Minister Jaroslaw Kalinowski, who presides over by far the largest agricultural sector among the candidate countries. Kalinowski said yesterday that his country will suspend talks on liberalizing farm trade in protest over the Commission proposals.

Today, Verheugen said he would not comment on Kalinowski's statement before he knows the official position of the Polish government.

Verheugen did say that the candidates should withhold their reactions until the 15 EU members have reached definitive agreement on the issue. He said the Commission proposal had been merely an "information paper" meant to give some orientation to the debate among the member states who alone can determine the shape of the final EU position.

The Commission is expected to prepare the first "draft common position" on the chapters dealing with agriculture, development aid, and budget contributions in early March.

Verheugen said he is confident final agreement on the position will be reached under the EU's current Spanish presidency, which will end in June.

Many observers, however, fear that the impending elections in France and Germany will force a postponement of the decision until September or October.