EU food cuts — poorest first?

IT’S much too early to be arguing over fine print in the CAP reform proposals published by the European Commission yesterday (which came too late for any details to be given here).

It’s unlikely that CAP scheme details — which are so important for individual farmers — will be finalised before 2013.

Much bigger questions need to be sorted out first. The biggest of all is: can Europe afford an agricultural policy?

Whatever about the nitty-gritty of what the Commission came out with yesterday, at least they proposed during the summer that agriculture funding be more or less maintained, at about €387 billion from 2013 to 2020 — 36.2% of the EU budget, compared to 39.4% from 2007 to 2013. That is the first proposal EU leaders will be considering in the month ahead.

Any doubts that some member states would scrap the agriculture policy, if allowed to get their own way, have been dispelled by the row within the EU over food aid — which will probably top the agenda at the agriculture ministers’ meeting next week, while they are still digesting yesterday’s CAP reform proposals.

Food aid within Europe is only a €480 million per year fraction of the CAP’s €50bn per year expenditure.

In its seven-year budget proposal, the commission allocated €2.8bn for the distribution of food to the needy in the EU, within its €387bn CAP funding.

Nevertheless, six member states want to cut food aid by 80%.

The money has been spent for the past 24 years on supplying food to 18 million Europeans who are too poor to afford proper meals, in 20 member states, of which Poland, Italy and France are the biggest recipients.

The head of the French charity, Restos du Coeur, has warned of a humanitarian disaster in 2012 and 2013 on the streets of Europe, unless EU leaders can agree an interim financial measure next week in Brussels.

The commission estimates that some 43 million people in the EU cannot afford a meal with meat or fish every second day. The hungriest of them depend on national food banks, which in turn rely on food aid from the CAP for 50% to 80% of their resources.

Germany, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are against the use of CAP funds for food aid, saying national governments should pay for their poor, rather than the EU. If they get their way, the annual food assistance budget may fall from €480m to €113.5m.

Ironically, CAP food aid may become a victim of the CAP’s success in getting rid of beef and butter mountains, and milk and wine lakes. It’s because these intervention stockpiles have shrank that the EU is forced to buy supplies on the open market to feed Europe’s hungry. The EU Court of Justice found this incompatible with EU rules, when investigating a complaint lodged by Germany. That’s why the food aid programme has to be reduced.

If six member states are prepared to slash central EU aid for Europe’s hungriest, with winter just around the corner, they would have no qualms about slashing EU aid for Europe’s well-fed farmers.

How they handle next week’s talks on food aid will reveal how far EU leaders of cost-cutting are prepared to go.

They will be offered a compromise proposal from the commission which circumvents the court ruling by placing the scheme under the combined responsibility of EU farm policy and social cohesion policy.

Many in Europe are appalled that six rich and mostly eurosceptic member states might block food aid for the poorest Europeans, even as the euro crisis drives them deeper into poverty.

But cost-cutters want national governments to pay it instead — and may then move onto the CAP itself, with calls for the entire agriculture policy to be nationalised.

German Agriculture Minister Robert Kloos said help for the needy is a good basic principle, but now we don’t have food surpluses anymore. A year ago, the commission proposed that EU food aid be co-financed at up to 25% by member states. This was also rejected by Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic, which form a blocking minority in the Council of Ministers.

The Czech position is the most likely to change; unlike the other five, the Czech Republic uses the programme for its needy.

France leads the opposition, with President Sarkozy saying it is unacceptable for Europe to abandon its weakest citizens, and agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire saying that keeping food aid under the auspices of the EU is the only way to guarantee it survives. Maintaining the current level of food aid is supported by 548 MEPs.

Next week’s negotiations will be crucial for the most vulnerable EU citizens, but also for farmers, who could be next for cutting.

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