EU ministers split on sugar reform plan

Related tags European union Eu

The first wrangling over EU sugar reform proposals by agriculture
ministers saw protests and a passionate debate in Brussels
yesterday, but the opposition looks increasingly isolated,
reports Chris Mercer.

Thousands of protestors, some dressed as giant sugar beets, took to the streets in Brussels to complain at the intensity of the European Commission's sugar reform proposals.

Meanwhile, the agriculture ministers of all 25 member states met for a preliminary discussion of the proposals, which include a 39 per cent price cut over two years; something generally expected to hit sugar and sweetener suppliers but bring cost-savings for food and drink producers.

A spokesperson for the Council of Ministers described seven members, including Poland, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Portugal as very opposed to the proposals. He said four countries - Belgium, Austria, Latvia and Lithuania - had voiced concerns, but their opposition was less severe.

Some of those opposed have repeatedly argued that the reform proposals will cripple their domestic industries.

In the other corner, three of Europe's 'big four' - the UK, France and Germany - supported the Commission's plan for swift and radical reform, alongside other nations, thought to include Sweden and Denmark.

The spokesperson said that a split along these lines meant that those very much opposed to the reform constituted a "blocking minority"​.

The qualified majority voting system used in the Council means that countries with more people get more votes. Since enlargement, any alliance that can muster 232 votes out of the 321 total will get its agenda passed.

The seven members in opposition as they stand would have enough votes to block the reform proposals, but their position looks tenuous. If the waverers can be appeased, it would only take one of the larger countries in the seven, such as Spain, Italy or Poland, to swing the vote towards yes.

The political weight of France, Germany and the UK's support for the reforms may help to garner enough votes to get the proposals through. France and Germany are also the EU's largest sugar producers, pumping out more than 40 per cent of the total 20m tonnes.

A report on Monday's Council meeting said a large number of delegations supported the strategy of a big price cut and voluntary restructuring in the current proposals. Those against were in the minority.

Another major sticking point was the level of compensation available to sugar producers - currently proposed to be 60 per cent of revenue loss. Again, a large number of states agreed this was fair, yet several wanted it increased.

The proposal to merge the A and B quotas, sugar for domestic use at guaranteed prices and sugar for export at guaranteed prices, was also criticised by some.

The Commission has set a deadline of November for an agreement on reform, to give the EU a better bargaining position at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Hong Kong this December.

The "overwhelming majority of delegations acknowledged the need for a reform of the sugar sector,"​ said Monday's meeting report. It added that this feeling has been reinforced since the WTO ruled the EU sugar regime, which maintains prices three-times higher than world levels, was illegal.

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