Prague, 12 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- European Union agriculture ministers emerged from a marathon 18-hour meeting today with a provisional agreement on reforming the EU's devastatingly expensive common agricultural policy (CAP).
The EU Executive Commission describes the reforms as the most radical since the CAP was first established in the 1960s. Agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler said the outcome is a solid basis for the development of the union's farming sector.
Various member governments have also been quick to hail the agreement, with Britain, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Spain all saying they achieved their aims at the difficult and often stormy negotiations.
Fischler's spokesman, Ewan Reyniers, tells RFE/RL that the accord helps clear the way toward adoption of the EU's overall internal reform package, called Agenda 2000, at the coming special summit of EU leaders in Berlin:
"It's only the beginning, let's say, because we hope the entire Agenda 2000 will be adopted by the heads of state and government on March 24 and 25, but this is the first step. There is agreement, a political agreement, on the agricultural part."
Acceptance of the whole internal reform package by member states is viewed as essential if the EU is to go ahead with its plans to admit new Central and Eastern European members early in the next century.
The widespread jubilation among EU politicians and bureaucrats is not necessarily shared, however, by the people most affected by CAP reform -- farmers.
Brussels last month saw the biggest demonstrations since the 1970s by farmers afraid that reform will undercut their incomes. Agriculture ministers had to continue their deliberations behind barbed wire and police cordons as tens of thousands of farmers from all over the union took to the city's streets.
In a first reaction to today's accord, Luc Raulier -- the deputy director of Agricultural Alliance of Belgium -- said farmers will not stop their protests:
"We will continue the demonstrations. They are not yet finished. We will continue until the EU summit of March 24-25 to exert the maximum pressure because we know it's the decisions there which count."
Raulier said concern is focusing on the heavy cuts the EU foresees in the guaranteed prices for grain and beef, as well as reductions in dairy support prices.
As accepted by the ministers, the cuts for grain and beef prices are 20 percent and for milk 15 percent -- not as heavy as originally proposed. But Raulier says they will cause a loss of income for farmers. Although the EU will offer farmers direct payments to reimburse them for losses through lowered prices, the reimbursements will not be at the level of 100 percent.
Fischler spokesman Reyniers said the reimbursements will be between 50 and 80 percent of the money lost through the lowering of the guaranteed prices.
This, in effect, is the heart of the principle being applied in the CAP reform. The EU plans to cut its overall long-term costs by spending less on direct aid and on upholding the new, lower guaranteed prices than its spends now on maintaining unrealistically high artificial support prices.
With typical EU logic, saving money costs money, and in order to accommodate the adamant wishes of different member states, today's tentative agreement will actually raise farm sector expenditures above the present level by billions of dollars annually over the seven-year period starting in the year 2000.
CAP reform, however, has been the most severe hurdle toward adoption of the whole Agenda 2000 program. If it is now successfully cleared, the road of the 10 Central and East European candidates toward EU membership is now that much clearer.