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EU: Drought 'Catastrophe' Forcing Commission To Take Emergency Action

Farmers and politicians from many European Union member states -- faced with a devastating drought -- are demanding emergency aid from the European Commission. The bloc's agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, yesterday said the commission will help farmers weather the effects of what he described as a "catastrophe" but warned the EU cannot increase its already huge farm budget. Meanwhile, many farmers in the hardest-hit areas are already saying any aid will be too little and too late.

Prague, 23 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The heat wave enveloping much of Europe this summer may be a blessing for holidaymakers, but it is rapidly turning into a nightmare for the continent's farming industry.

Sweltering temperatures and lack of rainfall have already resulted in what meteorologists across the continent describe as the worst drought in living memory. As a consequence, farmers in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and a number of other countries face crop failure on a scale rarely seen in Europe.

France, which boasts the largest farming sector in Europe, is preparing a package of emergency measures to help the country survive what a local farm-union spokesman described as a "cursed, black year." Cereal production in the country is down by 40 percent already and is likely to decrease further.

Germany is one of the countries hardest hit. Gerd Sonnleitner, the chairman of the German Farmers' Association, said the damage done by the drought has already reached catastrophic proportions.

"It is very dry in the east of Germany but also in the eastern parts of southern and southwest Germany. The numbers for the wheat farmers -- about 3.5 million hectares have been damaged, that's about 1 billion euros in monetary terms. But other products such as corn, potatoes, turnips and vegetables, fruit and hay -- here the damage has not yet been able to be determined. But altogether it is a catastrophe for the German farmers, and the damage is many, many times higher than that of last year's floods," Sonnleitner said.

Crop losses in some areas of Germany amount to 70 percent to 80 percent of expected harvest yields. German Agriculture Minister Renate Kuenast is also considering an emergency aid package.

In Italy, the northern Po River has dried to its lowest level in a century, and the southern region of Calabria has seen no rain in eight months. Farmers say the country's olive, corn, and fruit industries are in jeopardy.

The situation is severe enough to prompt comments that under ordinary circumstances could only be described as far-fetched. The French environment minister, Roselyne Bachelot, earlier this week said the effects of the drought are perhaps a sign of "extremely profound climate change." Sonnleitner noted that if the drought drags on, the worst-affected regions of Germany could start resembling "deserts" in Mexico or "southern Siberia."

The farm ministers of the worst-hit EU countries yesterday brought their worries to the bloc's monthly Agriculture Council.

The EU's agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, said last night he understands the severity of the situation and promised help within what he called "available means."

"I would like to say that the [European] Commission fully understands how the farmers are feeling in their current predicament. We understand their worries, and we are prepared to help them within the means available to us. I have told the council [of agriculture ministers] what means are available," Fischler said.

In a move unlikely to reassure the tens of thousands of farmers suffering from the drought, Fischler made it clear there are no extra funds available to augment the bloc's agriculture budget. Farm expenditures takes up nearly half of the EU's annual budget, and the bigger net contributors -- led by Germany -- have for years tried to cut down costs.

What the European Commission can do, Fischler said, is bend the existing rules. For example, it has already authorized farmers in a number of regions to recultivate land "set aside" as fallow in exchange for financial compensation. However, the German daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" yesterday said that measure came too late for many areas, as the set-aside land is already too dry for recultivation.

Fischler also said the EU could bring forward subsidy payments scheduled for the autumn to help farmers with cash-flow problems. However, this simply appears to put off the problem. The same applies to Fischler's suggestion that funds from next year's budget could be made available now. This would simply leave less money for contingencies to come since, in overall terms, the EU's agricultural expenditures are fixed until 2007.

Another possible measure floated by Fischler yesterday was the suggestion that "structural" development aid could be diverted to aid farmers. But again, structural funds may not be used to offset "production damage." Instead, the funds must be used as part of investment schemes for the future.

Fischler said the commission would soon issue guidelines on state aid, temporarily relaxing curbs on state-level local support packages.

While most farmers try to decipher what exactly Fischler's promises amount to, Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" points out that a segment of Europe's farming community is rejoicing in the sweltering temperatures. It is viticulturists, or winegrowers, who are looking forward to a harvest expected to equal the best vintage years.