The Government raised the stakes in its trial of strength with France over Europe's direction as four senior ministers launched a concerted attack on the EU's farm subsidies. Tony Blair went further than his recent demand for reform by telling MPs that he would surrender the £3bn-a-year rebate on Britain's EU contributions if the CAP was scrapped.
"Of course if we get rid of the Common Agricultural Policy and we change the reason why the rebate is there, then the case for the rebate changes," he said.
Although France is the biggest beneficiary from the CAP, there are Britons who benefit from the policy that soaks up £30bn a year – 45 per cent of the EU budget. They include the Prince of Wales, who was paid £680,000 last year for his Duchy of Cornwall and Highgrove estates and the Queen, who received £545,000 for her farms at Sandringham and Windsor Castle. Disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act also show that the biggest beneficiary in Britain was Sir Richard Sutton, who received £1.17m for his Benham estate in Berkshire. The Duke of Westminster, the country's third richest man and said to be worth £5.6bn, was paid £448,000, while John Fellowes, the fourth Lord de Ramsey (worth £34m) received more than £500,000.
In practice, gradual reform rather than total abolition is the most the Government can hope for – not least because, in 2002, it backed an agreement extending the system to 2013, to which France wants to stick. The Independent has learnt that, during Britain's six-month spell in the EU's rotating presidency starting tomorrow, the Government will the offer a direct trade-off between annual reductions in the value of the British rebate and specific cuts in CAP spending.
Officials believe that the outline of a possible deal to solve the EU budget crisis is clear. One source said: "The formula would be, looking into the future, one that says, 'if we reform the budget in this way, then the British budget rebate will be reformed in that way?'."
Yesterday's strongest words came from Gordon Brown, who linked CAP reform with plans to tackle poverty in Africa to be discussed at next week's G8 summit at Gleneagles. He said subsidies in developed countries were denying farmers and growers in poorer nations the chance to lift themselves out of poverty.
He told Unicef, the UN children's agency, in London. "We should be opening our markets and removing trade-distorting subsidies and in particular, doing more to urgently tackle the waste of the Common Agricultural Policy by now setting a date for the end of export subsidies." The Chancellor added: "Trade justice is not simply about removing the barriers that hurt the poor, but about creating new capacity that empowers poor countries to participate on equal terms in the new economy." Aides insisted Mr Brown's remarks were not directed at France but all the world's richest countries. But he listed a string of examples how African producers lost out as a result of European farm subsidies.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, made clear the Government's hands would not be tied by the deal preserving the CAP until 2013. "There is every opportunity for changing CAP judgements if that is the collective will of Europe," he told foreign journalists in London. "There isn't a government in Europe which has ever sought to set in stone budgetary decisions for 12 years. It's not a sensible way to operate in a democracy. If that isn't a sensible way to operate in a nation state, it can't be a sensible way of operating in Europe as a whole."
Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, said rich countries supported their farmers to the tune of £154 bn a year --10 times the amount given in aid to Africa.
The Chancellor's attack received a frosty response in Brussels. Michael Mann, the European Commission spokesman for agriculture, said: "Radical reforms to the CAP came into force in January this year. Almost none of our subsidies distort trade. We are leading the way in the current round of world trade talks. We have already pledged to phase out export subsidies: other countries must do the same. We already import as much farm produce from the developing world as the US, Japan, Australia, Canada and New Zealand put together. From 2009 the 50 poorest countries in the world will have completely unrestricted access to our markets for all products except armaments. The EU has nothing to be ashamed of."
Another official said Mr Brown was trying "to jump on the bandwagon and find excuses for the fact that his International Finance Facility initiative [to help the world's poorest nations] isn't getting anywhere". A colleague said: "Populism is fine but he should look at the facts first."
Worth £270m, her CAP subsidy last year was £545,897 for Sandringham and Windsor
Duke of Westminster
The sixth duke, Britain's third richest man, is worth an estimated £5.6bn. He is ranked at 34 worldwide. He received subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy of £448,472
The Prince of Wales
Worth £357m, the Duchy of Cornwall made £10m profits in 2003. He received £225,465
Duke of Bedford
Worth £490m, he owns Woburn Abbey. His CAP subsidy last year? It was £365,801
Duke of Northumberland
Made £22m from The Madonna of the Pinks and is worth £300m. He got £450,740Reuse content