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EU rethinks support for poor areas

Europe’s agriculture chief wants to revamp the rules for how the European Union pays extra subsidies for economically deprived areas, tightening criteria that may partially redraw the map of Europe’s poorest farmland.

The EU’s system of less favoured areas (LFAs), or regions considered as disadvantaged and eligible for higher farming subsidies, has been under fire for years.

LFA status can be claimed for mountain regions, areas with “specific natural handicaps” and a vague “other” category of zones defined on socioeconomic criteria which is the one that is most used by EU countries.

More than half the farms in the old EU-15 qualified for LFA subsidies at an annual cost of two billion euros ($2.63 billion), half coming from Brussels. Figures from the EU’s 12 newest joiners are sketchy, if available at all, officials say.

Luxembourg is often used to illustrate the system’s shortcomings since its LFA status has not changed since 1975 and around 95 per cent of the country is deemed less favoured. It now has the highest per capita income in the European Union, by far.

In April, EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel will issue recommendations for changing the system, focusing on tightening and updating criteria for the “other” category – used for poor productivity areas in danger of abandonment, regions with high unemployment and below-average incomes.

“We’ll probably have to change quite a lot of the criteria,” one commission official said. “A lot of member states haven’t got the data so they have a lot of work to do. This is part of the problem,” he said.

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