Czech farmers face rocky season

The Czech agriculture sector is facing a rocky season this year. Following the devastating floods in August, harvests are far worse than average and it looks as though neither the government nor the EU will come to the rescue with financial help. Furthermore, progress in the EU enlargement process was dealt a blow on Tuesday, when the Netherlands stated that they would block expansion if reform of the EU's costly farm aid policy were to fail. In Brussels this week EU representatives as well as candidate countries have come together for a summit ahead of the final phase of accession talks that is to be concluded in December this year. The agriculture chapter is on the list of topics of discussion. Martin Hrobsky reports:

The battle between EU states and candidate countries to protect the interests of their farmers may be resolved soon. There have been growing fears in the EU over the cost of supporting candidate countries' farmers and the candidate countries themselves have expressed anger at EU proposals not to grant them the same privileges as their counterparts to the west. Hugo Roldan from the Czech Agriculture Ministry:

"The farmers are calling for equal quotas of production that will enable them to compete on an equal basis with their colleagues of the EU. Of course, the farmers are pushing our negotiators in order to warrant the level of production that will maintain our agriculture even in the future."

Under a Danish presidency proposal, candidate countries are to receive direct farm payments from the day they join, reaching the same level as existing member states in ten years. They are also guaranteed that, as EU members, they will not be worse off than before. At an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, discussion between the so-called "Gang of Four" - the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Britain - who fear the costs of accommodating the new member states, gained momentum in seeking to reform the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) before EU expansion.

But EU requirements are not the only problem faced by Czech farmers. According to the Czech Farmers' Union, 2002 has been the worst since the fall of Communism due to the effects of the devastating floods in August and lower commodity prices. In a letter to Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, union officials called for higher subsidies to prevent farmers from bankruptcy. Calling for an increase in government payments, they said around 80 dollars per hectare would be needed to keep farmers and many of their suppliers in business long enough to plant next year's crop. Given the difficult situation in which Czech farmers find themselves, there have been some voices suggesting that it would actually benefit Czech agriculture to join the European Union later rather than sooner. Hugo Roldan disagrees.

"The Agriculture Ministry and Minister share the opinion of the non-governmental organisations that the current situation in our agriculture is very serious but we do not agree with the opinion of some of the NGO representatives that we should postpone our accession to the European Union. We are convinced that as soon as we become EU members it will be better for our farmers in order to be able to compete with farmers of the Union under the same conditions."

Over the coming weeks the Czech Republic and the other nine countries in the forefront to join the EU will be following developments within the EU with very active concern.