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Food aid for Europe's hungry in limbo

Food aid for Europe's hungry in limbo

Photo © Xavier MARCHANT - Fotolia

(BRUSSELS) - A programme delivering food aid to 18 million poverty-hit Europeans was left in limbo Tuesday due to opposition from six austerity-driven EU nations, the Polish agriculture minister said.

Farm ministers from the 27-nation bloc failed to clinch a deal at talks in Brussels to renew the so-called European programme of assistance to the poor, a scheme dating back to 1987, thrown into jeopardy by a court ruling in April.

"We have not registered a compromise," said Poland's Marek Sawicki, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency. "Six countries are clearly opposed."

Sawicki did not name the nations but diplomats earlier told AFP that Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden would block a deal.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country is one of the top recipients of the aid with Italy and Poland, said it was "unacceptable for Europe to abandon its weakest citizens."

As charities voiced anger over the move, Belgium's Agriculture Minister Sabine Laruelle said it was "incomprehensible as winter approaches, in this period of economic and financial crisis" to reduce aid to the destitute.

She said the scheme, costing one euro per year per European, financed 50 percent of Belgium's food banks.

At stake at the Brussels talks was the future of the food aid, which is to be pared down from a yearly 480 million euros to 113.5 million euros for 2012 and 2013, due to a ruling handed down by the European Court of Justice.

Acting on a request from Germany, the court stated in April that the programme could only use supplies from existing EU food stocks to feed people unable to afford proper meals.

Stocks have fallen in recent years following reforms to the bloc's CAP farm support scheme to make it more market-oriented, forcing the use of EU money to buy supplies on the market to feed the hungry.

"We have nothing against helping the needy but that is a part of social policy, which is the responsibility of each member state," said a diplomat from one of the austerity-conscious objecting nations.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos said the issue would be put to a summit in October to avoid the 80 percent cut in food aid over the next two years.

The EU executive has finessed plans to finance the aid from 2014, he added.

"It will be difficult to explain why a 25-year-old programme is being blocked for two years because some member states do not want to assume their political responsibilities," he said.

In July, the European parliament too pleaded with the EU to avoid slashing aid to 240 food banks and charities that help feed the hungry in 20 of the bloc's 27 member states.

"Halting an existing and functioning aid scheme abruptly without prior notice or preparation has a major impact on the most vulnerable EU citizens," the parliament said in a resolution adopted with an overwhelming 548-52 majority.

Didier Piard, a spokesman for the Red Cross in France, said the 80 percent cut in funding "means charities risk being able to distribute 130 million fewer meals".

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

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