The European Commission on Wednesday approved a radical reform of Europe's 40-year-old Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that aims to shift the focus of aid from production to the farmers themselves. "We want farmers to resume their role as businessmen, producing for their customers rather than for the intervention stocks," said Franz Fischler, European Union Agriculture Commissioner, speaking this week.
He said that farmers would be offered a single "direct payment" based on past income, providing strict environmental conditions are met.
Defending his radical departure from the current CAP, Fischler said: "The EU needs a competitive farming sector that is kind to the environment, provides consumers with safe, high-quality food products and guarantees farmers a fair income. As it stands, however, the Common Agricultural Policy cannot meet these goals. So we cannot afford to take a 'wait-and-see' approach - we must take action now to reform policy."
In Germany, Agriculture Minister Renate Kuenast welcomed new environmental controls but warned that aspects affecting the poorer east of the country might be unacceptable. Defenders of the 40-year-old CAP say it is unfair to revisit the issue only three years after an earlier reform package.
The French argue that the United States recently raised its own domestic subsidies, but Fischer slammed the Farm Bill there as "stone-age" and "deplorable".
A report on the BBC website claims that while the biggest farmers' group in the US welcomed the reform, saying it would remove some of the artificial incentives for EU farmers to produce, Spanish farmers demonstrated against the reform near the Commission's headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. In Britain, the National Farmers' Union fears that since ministers are so keen to see changes to the overall policy, they will be prepared to accept measures which are against the interests of their own industry.
The report continues that UK government sources have indicated that the proposals will do little to cut the overall cost of the CAP, since the reductions in subsidy will be ploughed back into new payments for environmental improvement and rural development.
Each European Member State is acutely aware that the now out-moded CAP must evolve with the times. The first concern for a Europe emerging from the scars of wartime in the 1950s was clearly providing enough food for a hungry population. Today, concerns in the society have shifted - food quality, protecting the environment and safeguarding cultural heritages are first and foremost. The European Commission has made a clear step towards reforming CAP and dragging it into the 21st century with a new set of paradigms. Will the individual Member States facilitate or block the reform? Over the next few months the European agriculture sector is set to become a battleground of conflicting beliefs.