Britain’s biggest landowners, including some of the wealthiest aristocrats, would lose hundreds of millions of pounds in farm subsidies under plans being drawn up in Brussels.
Mariann Fischer Boel, EU farm commissioner, will revive plans next year to put a ceiling on the subsidies any single landowner can receive, likely to be set at about €300,000 ($388,000, £206,000) a year.
The move would hit landowners such as the Duke of Westminster and Duke of Marlborough, whose farms were among about 2,000 across Europe which received more than €300,000 in 2003. Collective farms in former East Germany would also be affected.
The British government said on Tuesday it would fight to preserve big payouts for large farms, claiming its blue-blooded gentry were prime exponents of modern, large-scale, efficient agriculture.
British officials said the government had argued “vociferously and rigorously” against the Commission the last time it proposed a ceiling on payments in 2002, when it worked with Germany to thwart the plan.
Britain’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the main objective of CAP reform was to make the EU more competitive in world agricultural markets.
“To achieve that it needs to reward farmers who are the most efficient,” a spokesman said. “There is no point in CAP subsidies propping up a failing market.”
Ms Fischer Boel’s proposal – part of a wider farm package slated for 2007/8 – comes in the week that Gordon Brown, UK chancellor of the exchequer, put CAP reform at the top of his European agenda, calling its protectionist elements a “stain on our commitment to make globalisation work”.
Ms Fischer Boel told the Financial Times: “As part of a health check of the CAP reform in 2007/8, we will propose putting a ceiling on individual CAP payments.”
“At the same time we should consider further shifts of resources from direct payments to farmers to support for rural development, to create a broader base of employment in the countryside.”
Farmsubsidy.org, a group that monitors CAP payments, calculated that the Commission’s original proposal for a €300,000 cap would have hit 1,880 farms in the old EU of 15 countries, worth a total of €979m. Of that figure, 1,430 were in Germany – many of them former collective farms in East Germany – 330 in the UK and just 30 in France.
Jack Thurston, the group’s founder, said the Commission was attracted to the idea of a cap because it was an “easily understood, visible symbol” of CAP reform. But it was not necessarily the best way of dealing with the problem, because large farms might simply split up ownership to get round it.
According to figures released under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act, the Duke of Westminster received £448,000 in subsidies for Grosvenor Farms, while Blenheim Farm Partnership, owned by the Duke of Marlborough, was paid £511,000 in 2004.
■World Trade Organisation talks on agriculture trade concessions between the US and European Union are still at a standstill, but there is room for negotiation if need be, US government officials said on Tuesday, Dow Jones reports from Washington.
Gregg Young, a US Department of Agriculture negotiator on multilateral trade talks, stressed that the US had been very patient, waiting for European and other countries to match a US proposal, and also said that negotiation was still possible.
The US has offered to cut the cap on its most trade- distorting domestic farm subsidies by 60 per cent, and in return US negotiators are demanding stiff concessions on market access from EU countries. The US has been adamant that the EU reduce tariffs on US exports.
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