Leading Article: CAP reform: one step forwards, two back

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The Independent Culture
WE TRY to understand European Union politics, we really do. But this is the sort of thing that illustrates the sheer undemocratic obfuscation which hampers the building of a people's Europe. The EU's farm ministers had before them two radical options for reforming the Common Agricultural Policy. One was to reduce progressively the subsidy paid to farmers to compensate them for ending price supports. The other was to require national governments to bear one quarter of the cost of the CAP in their country. They chose neither, and ended up with a deal which means the CAP will continue to cost the taxpayers of Europe as much as it does today for the next seven years.

Nick Brown, the British agriculture minister, claims the deal will eventually save pounds 1bn a year on food prices in this country - but what he means is that food prices will not go up by this amount, as they otherwise would. This is scant consolation for the fact that we must pay much more for our food than we need to until at least 2006.

The failure to agree radical reforms of the CAP additionally undermines the EU's stance in its dispute with the US over Caribbean bananas - which cannot be presented as an exceptional case for tariffs as long as the entire EU food market remains so insulated from world prices. It undermines the sincerity of the EU in negotiating for Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus to join the EU as soon as possible.

And it weakens the whole case for further European integration by emphasising the irrational, opaque and only tenuously democratic processes of decision- making at the centre. Yesterday's deal was a step in the right direction, in that it stopped the bloated farm subsidies getting any larger, but it was a miserable pigeon-toed step which effectively took Europe backwards.