Luxembourg, 10 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg today were unable to agree on a common position in agriculture talks with EU candidate countries.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, speaking for the EU's current presidency, said four countries, led by Germany and the Netherlands, still object to a European Commission proposal to give the new members 25 percent of EU support levels on accession in 2004.
EU diplomats say the objecting countries want to "phase out" the farm subsidies within the EU and fear that offering them to candidate countries would make them a permanent feature of EU law.
Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen today warned that any delays could create difficulties for the entire enlargement process. "I would like to issue an urgent appeal to those member states which still have problems [with the commission proposal]. I naturally understand these problems, but I must say that it would send a very damaging signal if the common negotiating position were to be delayed as a result. It would not make progress in the process impossible, but it would make it significantly more difficult," Verheugen said.
Spanish Foreign Minister Pique said today he hopes a compromise can be reached in the coming days under which a decision on subsidies will be postponed until the Brussels summit in October. That summit is also expected to finalize the list of applicants to join in 2004.
Pique said he expects that a common position will be approved on 17 June with regard to the rest of the agriculture chapter, allowing the EU to formally respect its enlargement road map endorsed last year at the Gothenburg and Laeken summits. The "road map" says the EU must present the candidates with negotiating positions on all 30 chapters of community law by the end of this month.
According to Pique, all 15 EU member states agree in principle that after enlargement, both old and new members should be subject to the same agricultural policy, i.e., subject to equal rights and obligations, after certain transitional arrangements. The 15 also agree that this policy could be reformed in future, but that the reform should not be linked to accession talks. Finally, there exists an in-principle consensus that the budget ceilings for 2000-2006 set at the Berlin summit in 1999 should not be breached.
The sticking point remains the status of farm subsidies, which are also known as "direct payments." Although Pique said today that even Germany and the Netherlands agree that subsidies are part of EU law, diplomats from the four objecting countries say their interpretation differs radically from that of the others. Namely, Berlin and its allies -- who foot most of the EU's budget -- see farm subsidies as a temporary measure to be phased out in the foreseeable future. They say the subsidies were set up in the early 1990s to compensate EU farmers for income losses stemming from reforms. Extending "direct payments" to the candidates, they argue, would undermine this interpretation.
Others, led notably by France -- the largest beneficiary of the EU's annual 50 billion-euro ($47 million) agricultural budget -- would like to treat subsidies as a permanent feature of EU law.
This interpretive difference, as a diplomat from a "dissenter" country noted, contains a "parallelism" in attitudes toward when and how the EU's agricultural policies should be reformed. In effect, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Britain link accession talks on agriculture to agricultural reform, due to be launched in the second half of this year.
Verheugen today said he thinks it "very improbable" that the candidates will be offered no direct farm subsidies.