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France Leaves Britain Out Of Farm Spending Talks

08 December 2009

UK - France risked a fresh rift with the British government after declining to invite it to a high-level agriculture meeting aimed at building a coalition to protect European Union farm spending.

Bruno Le Maire, France's agriculture minister, invited counterparts from 21 EU states inclined to support a strong and well-funded Common Agricultural Policy to the conference in Paris on Thursday, reports The Financial Times.

Britain, a staunch advocate of a radical scaling back of CAP, was omitted from the list, as were Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Malta.

The UK government last night tried to play down the snub. Hilary Benn, environment secretary, had welcomed France's decision to open up the debate, a Defra official said, but he was "unable to attend on Thursday due to diary commitments". An official from the department would go.

Mr Le Maire said London would be "welcome to discuss" the meeting's conclusions. "It is normal that states that share the same ambition for the CAP can come together to reflect on its future," he told the Financial Times. "France is the biggest agricultural power in Europe and it is not illegitimate for it to reflect on this and associate all other member states that want a strong CAP. If the UK ever wanted to join us and sign an appeal for a strong CAP, it would be welcome."

France and Britain have long been at loggerheads over EU farm subsidies, of which France is the biggest recipient. But the French attempt to sideline the UK comes at a sensitive time in Anglo-French relations. It follows last week's furore over the nomination of Michel Barnier to the post of European commissioner for the internal market, which Nicolas Sarkozy, president, described as a "triumph" of French ideas for regulation over Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

The meeting will raise British fears of a French-led caucus to outmanoeuvre the UK. A last-minute deal struck in 2002 between France and Germany to protect farm spending still rankles in London.

France is holding the meeting because it wants to mobilise supporters of the CAP before negotiations kick off next year over the EU's next budgetary period from 2014 to 2020.

Mr Le Maire wants to build on his recent success in rallying the same 21 states in a rearguard action against the planned liberalisation of dairy farming.

Paris was alarmed by a document from the European Commission last month that called for a "further significant reduction in the overall share of the EU budget devoted to agriculture, freeing up spending for new priorities". The UK wants to go even further and phase out all market price support and all direct payments to farmers by 2020.

About 45 per cent of the EU's 2008 budget was devoted to agriculture.



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