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EU: Agriculture Chief Stakes Out Position Before Enlargement Endgame

The European Union's agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, will in the coming days tour Poland and the Baltic countries, preparing ground for the decisive phase of EU enlargement talks involving financial issues later this autumn. In an interview with RFE/RL, Fischler once again said the offer of an initial 25 percent of EU subsidies for candidate farmers remains the only feasible solution, although none of the candidates accepts it and a number of influential member states think the offer is too generous.

Brussels, 9 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler faces a daunting task this autumn: overseeing negotiations to redistribute the largest single item of EU expenditures in such a way that everyone -- old and new members alike -- are left satisfied.

Despite Fischler's official stewardship of accession talks on agriculture, remarkably little of the process is under his direct control.

It was nearly eight months ago on 30 January when the European Commission presented its proposal to start candidate farmers off after accession on 25 percent of what their EU colleagues get, with a promise of a level playing field by 2013 and increased EU investments in rural development.

Yet today, the proposal still lacks the endorsement of the EU's member states. Germany, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands, all net contributors to the EU budget, insist the EU must first cut its farm costs before it can offer new members anything, let alone 25 percent.

The candidates, on the other hand, have been unanimous in rejecting the offer, arguing their farmers would be at an enormous competitive disadvantage without full subsidies.

However, time is running short, given that the EU has committed itself to wrapping up accession talks by the end of the year.

Fischler will begin touring the candidate countries this week with essentially the same message he has been delivering since January: 25 percent is the best the EU can do. "I don't see any chance to add money and to say that the solution will be that we start at a much higher level because, as you know, we have big difficulties to persuade our own member states to accept the starting point of 25 percent," Fischler said.

Fischler readily admits that the EU's position -- provided it is eventually approved by all member states -- is effectively nonnegotiable. "Negotiation [is] not like a carpet deal that we say '10,' you say '100' and we meet then at the level of 50. This is not negotiation. Negotiation has a lot to do, for example, with how these payments [of subsidies] should be implemented, whether one should use the simplified system which we offer, or the normal system and these kinds of things. This is part of the negotiations," Fischler said.

When it comes to the problem posed by intransigent member states, Fischler is equally blunt. To assert a link between the enlargement and cost cutting within the EU's agricultural policies is "nonsense," Fischler said, adding that, "Then we would have no enlargement in the next 10 years."

Fischler makes it very clear that enlargement talks on agriculture are being held hostage to ulterior motives by the EU's net contributors. "Some member states are, in reality, using the enlargement discussion to reduce their financial contribution to the community. But this is another issue. This can't be solved in the future only on the basis of agriculture because in the next financing period after 2006, it is obvious that agriculture will no longer be the biggest expenditure sector," Fischler said.

The biggest expenditure item after enlargement will be the structural-funds budget, which will be used to finance the development of infrastructure in the new member states.

Fischler said that, despite the problems, he is convinced that "in the end, the member states will accept our argument." But, he admitted, very little will move before the EU's Brussels summit in late October. It is an open secret that Germany will not make any binding decisions on the issue before the results of its 22 September elections are known.

Fischler's present predicament begs the question of whether he will have anything at all to discuss with the Polish government this week, and with Estonian and Latvian leaders next week, if the EU offer is nonnegotiable and remains unofficial.

Although Fischler refuses to discuss the details of ongoing negotiations, he has dropped heavy hints that there's room on certain issues for a better deal. In particular, he mentioned production quotas for cereals, meat, and dairy products, which, once set, will for years determine the EU market share of each candidate country's farming sector.

As a rule, the commission's offer in January gives everyone less than they asked for. It also determines production levels, setting "reference years" in the late 1990s, which most candidates consider discriminatory, contending that due to market reforms, production during the reference years was untypically stifled. In addition, the 1998-99 Russian crisis meant great difficulties for agriculture sectors in most candidate countries.

Fischler indicated that the EU sees room to maneuver on the issue. "If there are serious problems, or if, for example, disasters or things like that happen during that [reference] period, or if it turns out that something is wrong with the figures, then clearly we are prepared to correct the figures or to take into account such serious problems," Fischler said.

Again, Fischler keeps his cards close to his vest, saying that he can't promise anything before November when the "necessary analysis" will have been carried out and real negotiations can start.

Finally, Fischler said, the candidates need to keep one thing in mind. He said that, although farmers in the new member states will not get much richer, staying out of the EU would be "the worst possible option" for them, even assuming that they would receive no subsidies at all after enlargement.