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EU: Eastern Farm Ministers Express Grievances

European Union Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler has told agriculture ministers from the Eastern candidate countries to be "realistic" in talks over financing their farm sectors when they join the EU. Fischler said the European Commission's present proposal is close to the "best deal" the newcomers can expect. But the Easterners have already voiced their rejection of the offer, which they see as unfair.

Prague, 20 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Agriculture ministers from the Central and Eastern European candidate countries had the opportunity in Brussels yesterday to collectively tell the EU their objections to its proposals for farm sector financing.

As one diplomat quoted by Reuters put it, the "candidates got a chance to let off steam."

At issue was the highly contentious proposal from the European Commission to offer farmers in the candidate countries initially only 25 percent of the amount farmers in EU member states are currently getting in direct subsidies. That fraction would gradually rise to 100 percent over a period of 11 years.

When the Commission proposals were unveiled six weeks ago, the outcry from the Easterners was immediate and fierce. They denounced the offer as unfair and relegating them to the role of second class members.

Poland, the candidate with by far the biggest farm sector, in particular was offended by the offer. The reaction at the time of the agriculture counselor at the Polish Mission to the EU, Vladislav Pizkorz, was this: "If direct payments will not be made in full, there is an open question of how it can be assured that there is not distortion of competition on the single market, and one of the basic rules of the EU is that there must be no distortion of competition. The commission monitors very closely the terms of competition and takes action if some companies are receiving too much support, which is not allowed under EU rules, and then the countries [concerned] are punished."

The Commission countered such criticism by issuing a report which has just been presented to the Easterners. It says that giving the incoming farmers full benefits immediately would certainly boost their incomes, but at the same time that would worsen inequalities in rural areas, and reduce incentive for reform. The report also says that in any case, no matter what the level of support, farmers in candidate countries will benefit from EU membership.

And at a press conference yesterday after the joint meeting, EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler basically repeated earlier Commission assertions that, no matter what the complaints, the candidates are not going to get much more money. And he called for the candidates to be practical.

"Altogether, I believe, we must be realistic and that was the reason for the meeting today -- to have more realism. We have indeed succeeded in this. And we believe that we now have a very good basis to continue with the talks," Fischler said.

Formal negotiations on the subject of agriculture begin only in the second half of 2002. Spanish Agriculture Minister Miguel Arias Canete, representing the current EU President Spain, held out some hope for flexibility on the EU side during those negotiations.

"Right now we are in an internal phase, we are looking for agreement [on the offer] among ourselves [as present EU members], and we are seeking the [farthest] point the EU can reach, while at the same time respecting those conditions which limit the formulation of the offer; from that moment the negotiations will start," Canete said.

At the same press conference, Polish Farm Minister Jaroslaw Kalinowski kept up the criticism, maintaining like Pizkorz that the Commission's offer would undermine fair competition: "If the process of enlargement is to benefit both sides, no divisions can be continued, which means there must be the same [single] Europe, on the same terms of competition."

Kalinowski said he has handed to EU officials a report by Polish experts in support of this view. And the Polish minister took issue with the persistent Western view that the candidate countries have everything to gain from EU membership, while the present members have only to bear the expense and inconvenience of the accession process.

"If I recall, according to an [EU] report published in 1999, the [eastward] enlargement to include the 10 new member states alone will boost the [union's] GDP [gross domestic product] by 0.6 percent, which means 70 billion euro," Kalinowski said.

In the case of Poland, Kalinowski said that during the 10-year period in which Warsaw has had an association agreement with the EU, Poland's trade deficit with the union has amounted to tens of millions of euros.

According to Fischler, the meeting in Brussels went off without too much acrimony. But he said that in any event, disagreement is to be expected at this stage: "If you interpret my remarks to mean that there was no criticism, that would be a false impression, because after all we are beginning the negotiations, and when there would be no more criticism, then the negotiations would be already closed -- and that is not the case today, I can assure you."

Negotiations on all topics are scheduled to be wrapped up by the end of 2002, to allow accession of up to 10 of the front-running candidates in 2004.