EU Decides Not to Cut Food Aid Program for Poor

November 14, 2011 - 12:10 PM

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union broke a political deadlock Monday and extended for two years a euro500 million ($680 million) food program that benefits 18 million of its poorest citizens.

Without such an agreement, the program would have ended Jan. 1.

Six nations had blocked the funding extension, with many saying the program should be funded by individual nations, not from EU coffers. But Germany relented, because scrapping the program would have exposed the poorest at too short notice, and other nations agreed.

"It is a great victory for solidarity in Europe," French Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire said. "Good news is rare in these times of crisis."

The battle over the funding extension had raised outrage among charities in Europe that rely heavily on the handouts to keep soup kitchens going. Last year, the European Federation of Food Banks received 51 percent of its food from the program.

"It would have been a disaster. We just had no backup, no plan B," said Harry Gschwindt of the Brussels Food Bank.

EU farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos said he had been "appalled" that six nations had threatened to block the extension.

The standoff came at a time of rising unemployment and consumer food prices as European countries try to slash budgets.

The six countries — Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden — had opposed the plan on legal grounds. The program, which started in 1987, was supposed to get its food from surpluses in the EU's bloated farm program. But over time, as farming became more efficient, food for the program was increasingly purchased on the market.

In recent years, nations objected to that, saying the program was not living up to its original mandate of using excess products. Germany won a legal case in April to outlaw buying food on the market for it.

Germany still insisted that social policies like this should be funded by EU states individually. German Farm Minister Ilse Aigner said the compromise Monday stated that after 2013, the system would have to be totally revamped.

"It has to be clear: starting from 2014, no more social politics on European level," she said.

Gschwindt of the Brussels Food Bank could live with that.

"We are really thrilled, because this gives us two more years to turn around and find other solutions," he said.

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AP video journalist Mark Carlson contributed to this story