We need fairer share of rural funds

THE past weeks have seen significant changes in political leadership in two member states and a blueprint cobbled together for changes to the functioning of the European Union itself.

THE past weeks have seen significant changes in political leadership in two member states and a blueprint cobbled together for changes to the functioning of the European Union itself.

There is a new Prime Minister in London, a new President in Paris, a new, albeit minority, administration in Edinburgh and a chastened administration in Cardiff faced with the prospect of coalition to guarantee survival.

The Presidency of the Union has transferred from Germany to Portugal, which will hold it until the end of the year – though the proposed treaty will change the arrangement, the six-month rotation will continue until the treaty has been agreed in detail.

“So what?” Farmers will say. The answer is: “Not a lot”, largely because the new office holders have all been, or in the case of Gordon Brown should have been, elected, and the defining characteristic of the EU is that it is run not by elected office holders but by appointed officials.

One of the less circumspect commissioners, Gunter Verheugen, the Commissioner for Enlargement, recently gave the game away, remarking that the real power lay in the hands of the staff of the directorates who initiated most of the legislation.

He may, however, have reckoned without President Sarkozy, who has reiterated his determination “to protect poor French farmers”. The EU Treaty may not lead to many changes in the Common Agricultural Policy. The likelihood is that the proposal in the “defunct” constitution, that the European Parliament should have co-decision powers over agricultural matters, will resurface in the treaty.

Had it had such powers last autumn, the problems it caused by opposing Tony Blair’s “voluntary modulation” would have been much greater, as it might have been able to prevent, rather than just delay, the passing of the regulations for rural development. As it is, the rural development plans for England, Scotland and Wales for 2007-2013 are unlikely to be approved much before the end of the year.

The only member states to take advantage of the voluntary modulation option were the UK and Portugal. While it will allow significant transfers from single payments to stewardship funds in the UK, in Portugal 94% of farmers will be exempt from deductions from their single payments because they are entitled to less than 5,000.

The limited take-up will encourage the Agriculture Commissioner Marian Fischer Boel in her determination to put a stop to it.

She, must, however, be persuaded to recognise that the UK should be given a fairer share of rural development funds. Its present share reflects the small amounts claimed by the UK in the 1990s because they were deducted from the budget rebate and required match funding by the Treasury. No doubt she will suggest that the UK should offer to give up the rebate first. What will our new Prime Minister say to that?

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