The European Commission backed a plan on Friday to give 1 billion euros ($1.59 billion) to farmers in Africa next year to help tackle high food prices and boost output, despite opposition by many EU states.
The EU cash, largely the result of underspending and leeway in the bloc's massive agriculture budget, comprises 750 million euros earmarked for 2008 and the remainder for 2009. This year's amount could be given retrospectively from mid-June.
At least eight EU member countries, including Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands, have questioned the legality of the scheme but have not challenged the merit of the idea.
EU ministers and the European Parliament, which has also voiced doubts about using unspent EU farm funds, will have to agree to the plan before it can enter into force. The Commission would like cash to start flowing in early January 2009.
"There's a fairly broad consensus on the need to act here, given the crisis which is taking place," Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger told a daily news briefing.
"In the Commission's opinion, this is the most efficient and most rapid instrument that could be used."
If approved, the money will be channelled to developing countries through international or regional organisations, such as the United Nations and World Food Programme.
Four areas of financial support are envisaged, the main two being to improve access to farming "inputs" like fertilisers and seeds and ways to improve agricultural capacity and production.
But the most difficult debate may come after the summer: how to set eligibility criteria for recipient countries and how much cash will be allocated by country. Those negotiations should be concluded by December, the Commission says.
Criteria are expected to include how much food a country produces to feed itself, its political stability and social vulnerability, its level of food price inflation and reliance on food imports -- including shipments of food aid.
So far, for the 2008 farm budget, the EU has been heavily underspending on classic market support measures such as export subsidies, public intervention buying of staple commodities and subsidised private storage, EU officials say.
Agriculture eats up more than 40 percent of the EU's annual budget, which for 2008 is planned at 120.7 billion euros.
Advocacy group DATA, which campaigns to eradicate extreme poverty and AIDS in Africa, welcomed the proposal as a way for the EU to help struggling African farmers.
"This proposal is significant and is a serious downpayment by Europe to help smallholder farmers in Africa fight back against hunger and poverty," DATA Executive Director Jamie Drummond said in an email sent to Reuters.
Last Mod: 18 Temmuz 2008, 21:21