Hollande to back Kenny over EU farming deal


Taoiseach Enda Kenny is set to align himself with French president François Hollande in an effort to defend Ireland’s share of EU agriculture funding at budget talks tonight in Brussels.

Despite weeks of gloom over the prospects for a deal on a new seven-year spending plan, official sources are reporting a slight pick-up in sentiment about the prospects for the summit.

“There has been a certain increase in optimism over the last couple of days. The pendulum has swung in the direction of greater optimism but we’re still a long way from certainty,” said a senior European diplomat.

British demands

The talks on a package worth some €1 trillion come amid pressure for budget cuts as a result of the economic crisis, threatening allocations for agricultural and cohesion policies. Mr Kenny aims to maintain Ireland’s share of funding in each of these areas.

British demands for a budget freeze have dominated the pre-summit debate but diplomats point out that such countries as France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Portugal have each expressed displeasure at a proposed draft budget from European Council president Herman Van Rompuy.

However, a high-ranking figure in the summit said the present round of talks stands as the best chance for an agreement.

“I can’t see a better timeframe or a game-changer in the coming months,” the source said. “At this stage everyone is unhappy, which gives us the impression that we’re not too far off from a compromise.”

Mr Van Rompuy, who may keep the leaders in Brussels through the weekend to secure a deal, will table a compromise proposal tonight [Thursday] after a day of bilateral talks with government leaders.

While his team has insisted in private talks that there will be no change to his demand for a €80 billion cut from a €1.03 trillion European Commission proposal, he may “reshuffle” proposed cutbacks between policy areas.

The Taoiseach’s meeting with Mr Van Rompuy and EU Commission chief José Manuel Barroso takes place shortly before lunchtime, but the summit proper will not begin until about 9pm.

The discussions are expected to continue late into the night and to resume tomorrow.

Mr Kenny’s top priority is to conserve as much as possible of Ireland’s €1.7 billion share of annual agricultural and rural development spending.

In the year after Mr Kenny’s storied “Gallic spat” with Mr Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Taoiseach’s alliance with the new French president marks a rapid change in relations with Paris.

Budget cut

Mr Van Rompuy has proposed a €25 billion cut in the agriculture budget, leading to claims from Irish farming interests that Ireland could lose as much as €1 billion between 2014 and 2020.

In Dublin this estimate is seen to be a little too high, but it is acknowledged that any cut in the overall allocation would lead to reduced funding for Ireland.

Mr Hollande has pushed back strongly against the Van Rompuy proposal in defence of the agriculture budget and he is expected to rally support from Italian leader Mario Monti.

This marks a big challenge in its own right for Mr Hollande, who has cast France as a “bridge” between troubled southern powers such as Spain and Italy and the group of prosperous northern countries led by Germany.

In contrast to her alliance with Mr Sarkozy, German chancellor Angela Merkel has spent more time in the countdown to the summit cultivating British prime minister David Cameron and Polish leader Donald Tusk.

With Dr Merkel perceived to be in close contact with Mr Van Rompuy, the pre-summit assessment is that she is relatively comfortable with the current draft proposal.

“The French are somewhat exasperated with the effort made by the Germans. The French are used to getting their own way easily,” said the senior European diplomat.

While Ireland’s share of Europe’s cohesion budget fell in the boom years, the Taoiseach is expected to push for recognition of our high unemployment rate as a basis for maintain funding in this area.