Europe’s agriculture chief called for a redistribution of the bloc’s farming subsidies, saying the wide disparities in the current system made it no longer credible.

Among the remedies suggested by Dacian Ciolos, the agriculture commissioner, was a cap on direct subsidy payments to the biggest European landowners – a policy that has been resisted in the past by the UK. “At the moment there are big differences that are not justified – even within one member state or region,” Mr Ciolos said. “It is no longer credible.”

His comments are likely to unsettle farmers in France, the biggest recipient of direct payments, while encouraging those in central and eastern Europe, who have clamoured for a larger share of the pot since joining the EU in 2004.

His remarks and an accompanying report mark the formal launch of a debate over how to reform the Common Agricultural Policy. The €55bn behemoth of subsidies forms the largest – and most contentious – part of the European Union budget.

In addition to calling for a fairer distribution of CAP funds, the commissioner argued payments should increasingly be tied to farmers’ willingness to meet environmental standards.

That suggestion drew a harsh response from Copa-Cogeca, Europe’s largest farm lobby group, which complained that it would undermine its members’ competitiveness.

“The only concrete proposal in the communication is to add more costly burdens on to EU farmers,” said Padraig Walshe, the group’s president.

“Farmers are already losing market shares because they meet the highest standards in the world.”

Other observers said it was impossible to judge how far Mr Ciolos intended to push without hard figures, which the report lacked. Those are expected to come in a formal legislative proposal next June.

“He’s left the door open for a radical reform but it’s not clear he’s plumping for that,” said Jack Thurston, co-founder of, a website that advocates CAP reform.

An essential piece of the puzzle will be a parallel debate about the shape of the EU budget for the years from 2014 to 2020. The UK and Sweden seek to slash the CAP to fund other priorities. France, Spain and other beneficiaries have argued that the programme is vital to ensure Europe’s food security and maintain its rural communities.

Mr Ciolos sought to tread a middle ground, arguing for a strong CAP but one that was fairer, greener and more understandable.

One of his thorniest challenges will be the demands of the new member states. While Greek farmers reap an average of €560 per hectare from the EU, those in Latvia get less than €90.

The commissioner dismissed a recent Polish call for a flat rate across the EU, but hinted at the idea of bringing payments closer to an EU average. “The purpose is not to have winners and losers,” he said. “The idea is to put on the table a more credible distribution for the long term.”

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