French seek concessions for their farmers

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FRENCH diplomats, chastened by the opposition of their country's farmers to the Maastricht treaty, are expected today to press their European colleagues for concessions to France's beleaguered agriculture.

'They're asking for sweeteners, for changes that will benefit French farmers,' said a British diplomat at a meeting of European Community agriculture ministers that began in Brussels last night and continues today.

Other European Community members, however, seem resolved not to allow French pressure to endanger the fragile compromise struck earlier this year to reform the discredited Common Agricultural Policy. The CAP reforms, which are intended to cut by about a quarter the prices at which EC taxpayers are forced to buy produce from farmers, are only now beginning to be implemented.

France is likely to be particularly badly affected by the reforms, which force farmers either to leave some of their land fallow under 'set-aside' programmes, or to see the subsidies they receive from Brussels reduced if they refuse.

Sunday's 'yes' in the French referendum has been seized on by American officials, who hope that it will give Europe a new energy to resolve its trade disputes with the United States that have blocked an agreement in the international round of trade talks of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt). 'Had it been a 'no', Europe would have been forced to look inwards,' said one US official. 'Now that we know it's a 'yes', we have the opportunity to reach agreement.'

He said that if an agreement was to be found before the end of the year, it must, in effect, be struck this month. With the American presidential election due in November, it would otherwise be hard to reach a new deal until the winner was in office, and even harder to wrap up the details in time to send the agreement to Congress within the deadline imposed by US law.

A senior EC source in Brussels last night said: 'Bush has said often that a Gatt deal would be good for his re-election chances. Let's now find out whether the Americans are serious.' Both sides are still smarting from a row that erupted after President Bush's recent announcement of a dollars 29bn (pounds 16.5bn) programme of grain-export subsidies. The subsidies were interpreted in the US as an attempt to buy votes, but in Brussels they have been taken as a declaration of war.

With the British government still recovering from the shock of sterling's exit last week from the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, there are few signs of Britain being ready to push for a speedy conclusion to the trade talks.

'We're not ourselves negotiators. We can only urge, or encourage, or point out the advantages of a deal,' said one British official yesterday. 'But in the end, the agreement has to be a general one, and that depends on others, notably the French.'