Wildlife to suffer if UK proposals for European funding cuts are approved

Europe's wildlife will suffer if EU leaders next week accept the UK proposals for a reduced European budget, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has warned.

It said Britain, which holds the rotating EU presidency, had proposed massive cuts in eco-friendly rural subsidies as part of its attempt to broker agreement on a new-look EU budget for the next seven years. That would reverse a hard-fought reform two years ago that geared the common agricultural policy (CAP) subsidy closer to environmental concerns, the group said.

The CAP's "rural development" pot pays for schemes to support rural communities and protect wildlife in agricultural areas. The UK government has pencilled in only €66bn (£44bn) for the 2007-13 budget, against the EC's original proposal for €89bn. The main CAP budget of farmers' direct payments is untouched at €300bn.

The rural development arm of the CAP has been seen as the future for EU farm spending and a way of changing agricultural subsidy from market-distorting payouts.

Graham Wynne, the RSPB chief executive, said the British Government's budget blueprint "undermines the spirit of recent agriculture reform, which the UK strongly backed. Last week, the Government published its vision for European agriculture backed by rural development payments and a brighter future for farmers, wildlife and rural communities. This week it is proposing to slash the payments across the continent."

A British official said there was nothing stopping individual EU countries making environmental protection a policy priority independent of any budget deal. He said the UK had also created leeway to transfer up to 20 per cent of the main CAP payments into rural development to top it back up again.