The European Commission said on Friday it would press ahead with its proposals for radical reform of farm policy regardless of an outburst of opposition by France's President Jacques Chirac.
In an interview on Thursday, Chirac repeated his staunch views that any move to reform the bloc's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was unacceptable before 2006.
EU Commission officials declined to comment directly on Chirac's remarks, merely saying that work on negotiating CAP reform this year would progress according to timetables that were already agreed.
"There is a well-known timetable for further work on the review of the Common Agriculture Policy and the discussions will take place in the normal way in the normal institutional framework," Commission spokesman Jonathan Faull told reporters.
Chirac insists that the 15-nation bloc's budget for farming should not be altered until 2006, as agreed by member states at the EU's 1999 summit in Berlin.
In July, Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler unveiled a radical blueprint to shake up the bloc's 40-year-old agriculture policy, which swallows up nearly half of the EU's entire annual budget of more than €98 billion.
Along with most EU members, France argues that Fischler's proposals go beyond his Berlin mandate and says the latest reform policies -known as the CAP's mid-term review - were supposed to be modest, not "root-and-branch" as Fischler would like.
The other factor affecting timing of the reform talks is the planned accession to the bloc of 10 central and east European nations in 2004, a matter of great concern for many members in terms of the accession's impact on the EU's farm budget.
Denmark, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, is keen to wrap up accession negotiations by the end of the year, including the controversial agriculture chapter.
Tough enlargement negotiations about budget and farm policy are due to take place in the autumn months, while a key decision on the level of subsidies to be offered to new members has been deferred until after the German election in late September.
Fischler's proposals, if implemented, would pay for rural development by limiting outlays to large farms and trimming aid over time. They would also end the link between production and aid, giving farmers a flat-rate historically based payment.
French farmers, championed by Chirac as a former agriculture minister from the early 1970s, say their livelihoods would be damaged by Fischler's plan to shift aid away from direct output subsidies. France is the main beneficiary of EU farm aid.
France is expected to lead the opposition to CAP reform and is expected to enjoy backing from southern European countries, possibly allying with Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece - leaving Denmark, as current EU presidents, with the unenviable task of brokering a deal by the end of the year.
The first forum for the debate to be resumed after the mid-year break will be an informal two-day meeting of agriculture ministers in Denmark starting on 8 September.