EU budget chief backs controversial farm aid cuts

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The European Union's budget chief called Tuesday for further cuts in EU farm subsidies to pay for other projects, a position that risks angering agriculture powerhouse France.

EU budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski, in an interview with AFP, said he backed a gradual reduction of the portion of the EU budget dedicated to agriculture.

At a time of austerity and national budget cuts across Europe, several governments are pressing the EU to freeze spending and yet they keep asking more from Brussels, Lewandowski said.

"I think that in order to find better financing for immigration, for research and development, for energy networks, energy security, climate change, we have to modify the proportions of the EU budget," he said.

"The tendency of a reduced share of the agricultural budget should be continued," Lewandowski added, noting that farm aid has fallen from 80 percent of the EU budget in the 1970s and 60 percent in the 1980s to 40 percent today.

"It could be slightly less as a proportion to find financing for new needs," the former Euro MP and Polish privatisation minister told AFP on the margins of a European Parliament session in Strasbourg.

He insisted that he was pushing for a "revolution" but that savings could be made "without any damage for the agriculture."

While advocating a reduction in the share of farm subsidies, he did not rule out that in real terms the amount of money dedicated to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) could remain stable at 58 billion euros ($83.3 billion).

A vivid debate on EU spending looms large as the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, must present by the end of June proposals to reform the budget for the next seven-year funding cycle, between 2014-2020.

France, which receives the largest share of EU farm subsidies, staunchly opposes any reductions, with President Nicolas Sarkozy even saying he is ready to spark a "crisis" in Europe to defend French farmers.

Britain has pushed for a reduction in CAP funding and wants priorities to shift to new policies including the environment and innovation.

For its part, London has vowed to defend a rebate it fought hard to obtain in the 1980s, arguing that it should get back a portion of its contribution to the EU budget because it hardly gets any agricultural subsidies.

Lewandowski voiced support for keeping the EU budget's "cohesion fund" intact. With a war chest of 57.7 billion euros, the fund provides aid to Europe's least developed regions.

He will address in June the controversial issue of "own resources" to fund the EU budget. Proposals on the table include a European-wide value-added tax, or taxes on financial transactions and air transport in order to reduce the share of direct state contributions.

"We are to propose alternative sources of financing, but the member states are to decide unanimously," Lewandowski said, adding: "I fully respect fiscal sovereignty."

© 2011 AFP

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