The European Union agreed on a major overhaul of its sugar subsidy program yesterday, cutting prices by 36 percent in a landmark deal. British official Margaret Beckett addressed the media yesterday at the end of a three-day EU Agriculture Council.
EU agrees to overhaul its 40-year-old sugar subsidies
BRUSSELS, Belgium » The European Union agreed on a major overhaul of its sugar subsidy program yesterday, cutting prices by 36 percent in a landmark deal that the EU said will strengthen its hand in upcoming world trade talks.
"I know I'll be in a much better position for the negotiations in December," said EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, referring to the world trade talks in Hong Kong.
She told reporters the agreement reached after three days of arduous talks "complies completely" with World Trade Organization rules and the EU said it would effectively end its dumping of cheap sugar on the world market.
However, Caribbean producers decried the deal, which will phase out their preferential access to Europe's high-price market.
"They have clearly looked after (their) own farmers and left us in the cold," said Ian McDonald, director of the Sugar Association of the Caribbean in Georgetown, Guyana. "This is devastating news."
Britain's Farm Minister Margaret Beckett, who chaired the talks, said the decision to overhaul of the EU's 40-year-old sugar subsidies marked "a historic day," but acknowledged that implementing the reform would be tough for many countries.
"It was a decision of considerable difficulty and complexity," she said. "Every member state faced problems."
There was no immediate reaction in Washington, where government offices were closed for the Thanksgiving holiday.
U.S. food companies have long pressured the government to give them access to cheaper sugar from other countries, proposals fiercely resisted by members of Congress from sugar-producing states.
The U.S. government, seeking to protect its farmers and processors while ensuring a steady supply, limits imports and restricts how much sugar can be sold domestically.
Reform of the sugar sector is a highly sensitive issue and will cause job cuts at refineries and force many farmers to stop growing sugar beet and sugar cane. There are more than 325,000 sugar beet farmers in the EU.
Under the reform, Ireland will be forced to shut down all its sugar beet production due to quota cuts, while Italy will give up half of its production quotas in exchange for millions of euros in aid for farmers
Other countries will also have to make deep cuts. Finland will close one of its two refineries, said Finnish Agriculture Minister Juha Korkeaoja.
While no vote was taken at the end of the talks, Poland, Greece and Latvia remained vehemently opposed to the compromise, arguing the reform was unfair for their producers.
The EU has come under increasing pressure from its trade rivals to follow through on WTO demands it do away with its protected sugar market pricing system.
A successful WTO challenge by Australia, Brazil and Thailand forced the EU into the cuts to its subsidy system.
To persuade nations that opposed the initial reform plan, Beckett and Fischer Boel presented a compromise that boosts compensation to farmers and industry to ease the pain of the cut in prices and quotas.
Under the old system, production was supported by generous EU subsidies and import tariffs that guaranteed and inflated price for sugar. That will now be phased out over four years starting in 2006.
Farmers and industry will benefit from a $7 billion compensation fund to get out of the sugar business, or to diversify the end use of sugar beets, for such uses as bioethanol for example.
Farmers were not placated. "The reform is too drastic and ... it will wipe out production for many growers," said a statement from COPA-COGECA, umbrella groups that represent Europe's 15 million farmers.
EU sugar prices are more than three times higher than the global market rate. Brussels also pays out export subsidies to get millions of tons of sugar a year off its market.
The changes will render the EU a net importer of sugar. Most imports will likely come from a group of the poorest African producers, the EU said. They will get tariff and duty free access to the EU's sugar market from 2009, under a separate aid-and-trade deal.
However, other African and Caribbean producers will see their preferred access to EU markets at inflated prices phased out. The EU has offered them $47 million to help cushion the impact, but Caribbean reaction was furious.
"They are taking from the poor and giving to the rich," said George Bullen, a spokesman for several small Caribbean states. "This is outrageous."
Bullen said Caribbean leaders will take the fight to the WTO talks in Hong Kong.