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EU Farm Cuts Hurt Most in France

March 17, 1999

SAINT-QUENTIN, France (AP) _ The latest in fertilizers and harvesters tempted farmers during an annual meeting in northern France, yet Jean Demazure was no taker.

He knows farming’s future in Europe is not as bright as all that shiny gear.

European farmers are at the end of a bountiful ride. In decades past, they pushed up production, turning hunger and food shortages into relics of history.

``There used to be a direct need to feed people,″ said Demazure, a grain farmer. ``Now, everybody has a full belly.″

As a result, EU governments want to slash lavish subsidy programs. Today, the European Union’s 8 million farmers _ once saviors of a hungry Europe _ are often seen as freeloaders living off taxpayer handouts.

Nowhere does austerity hurt more than in France, and no country puts up a bigger fight on behalf of farmers. It is the biggest agricultural producer in the 15-nation economic bloc and the biggest beneficiary of EU farm spending.

The EU must cut that spending to finance the entry of a dozen nations _ mostly former communist countries _ into the union over the next decade, or risk breaking its budget.

From the early 1960s to the early 1990s _ ``30 glorious years,″ Demazure calls them _ the European Union subsidized agriculture with ruthless abandon.

``All they told us was `produce,‴ said cattle farmer Jean-Christophe Cassan. ``Whatever. However.″

The result has proved too good. ``It has never happened before that there is too much to eat. In a sense, it is terrible,″ Cassan said.

EU governments are being pressured to change a system that keeps guaranteed farm prices at artificially high levels. They argue over keeping annual farm spending at $45 billion, half the European Union’s total budget.

EU leaders need to clinch an overall budget deal at a summit next week in Berlin. Failure could jeopardize the union’s eastward expansion.

EU farm ministers have secured a tentative deal, but it is already under pressure from some governments that consider the proposed cuts too modest. The EU head office has proposed price cuts of up to 30 percent, a figure that resonates like a declaration of war here.

``What company could survive this?″ asked Cassan, his pained expression coming from more than his dislocated shoulder caused by a kick from a cow.

European farmers are mobilizing. Politically, they have long been more powerful than their dwindling ranks _ a mere 5 percent of the EU work force. In late February, 40,000 converged on the EU headquarters in Brussels to demand continued support.

But the pressure for change is huge.

Germany and the Netherlands are just two countries complaining they pay too much to the European Union. Spain leads a southern camp demanding regional development aid be boosted. East Europeans will need help once they get in.

In world trade talks, due to start this year, the United States, Australia, Argentina and other trading partners demand a big decrease, if not elimination, of EU farm export subsidies.

Europe’s farming fortress will have to yield. ``That fortress was a security for us,″ said Demazure.

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