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UK, France Rivalry Grows — over Farms

The renewed rivalry between France and the UK is still growing. And this time agriculture is the altercation.

Paris will host a meeting on the future of the European Union agriculture subsidies on Thursday to “produce a battle plan” to defend a strong common agriculture policy (CAP), said Bruno Le Maire, French agriculture minister.

He invited 21 EU countries for the meeting, excluding the most vocal countries against these subsidies: Britain, Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands and Malta.

The meeting risks creating a new rift between the French and British governments only a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Michel Barnier’s nomination as EU Internal Commissioner as a “triumph” of French ideas for financial markets regulation over Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

Sarkozy also claimed that the British were the "big losers" from the shake-up of EU commissioners' posts. Later last week, Sarkozy cancelled a visit to London after Prime Minister Gordon Brown refused to fit in a meeting with him.

France and Britain have long been in opposite camps over EU farm subsidies. In 2005, Tony Blair gave away around 20 percent, more than £7 billion ($11.9 billion) of the rebate the UK would have received from the EU between 2007 and 2013. As part of the long negotiation, Blair received promises of cuts to the CAP subsidies paid to farmers.

As negotiations over the next EU six-year budget are about to begin in 2010, the French government is building its camp with other 21 European countries.

Diplomats in Brussels believe the French government wants to create a plan as soon as possible, before the British election next year.

They say that negotiating with a “campaigning Labor party” will be easier than with the UK Conservatives, in case they are elected next year in the UK.

The British government is playing down the French snub. A spokesman for the UK's Environment Minister Hilary Benn said "he is unable to attend the meeting on Thursday due to prior diary commitments."

The French minister Le Maire, though, confirmed the UK was not invited for the meeting but would be welcome to discuss its outcome later on.

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