* Surplus rural development funds could be steered to farmers
* Wojciechowski hears call to delay reforms, but no decision yet
By Kate Abnett and Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, April 7 (Reuters) - The European Union’s chief agriculture official said on Tuesday it was premature to restrict imports of products such as beef to support European farmers as they battle with the fallout of the new coronavirus pandemic.
He also acknowledged reforms to make farming more sustainable in line with EU efforts to move towards a climate neutral economy may need to be further delayed.
So far, the European Commission has set guidelines to keep borders open for goods and cross-border workers, including seasonal farm labour. On Monday, it said farmers would be given longer to apply for direct payments, while the disbursement process could be accelerated.
European farming association Copa Cogeca has said fruit and vegetable growers need exceptional measures. It also believes the Commission, which oversees EU trade policy, should look at managing existing import quotas, notably of beef, which is shipped into the EU from the Americas and Australia.
EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said he understood some sectors were showing signs of strain, but it was not yet the time for intervention.
“We should consider all the consequences of some limitation of import quotas because these are international trade agreements, but of course we are monitoring the situation and we are considering measures in the future, but not now, not yet,” he told Reuters.
Wojciechowski said the farmers could receive up to 100,000 euros ($109,050) per farm as the EU relaxed its approach to state aid.
Some 17 billion euros in unspent rural development policy funds could be diverted to farmers, he said, adding the Commission would take a favourable view when it came to any approvals.
The Commission is also discussing a possible further delay to its Farm to Fork strategy, a vision to make the agriculture sector more sustainable. The EU executive plans to unveil it on April 29, a month later than initially planned.
The strategy would cut the use of pesticides and antibiotics, reduce food waste, and curb the environmental impact of transport in the sector.
Wojciechowski said the Commission’s Green Deal vision to fully decarbonise the EU economy by 2050 was still top priority and, if anything, the Farm to Fork strategy needed to be strengthened, not weakened.
He said the Commission had not made a decision on a further delay, but would consider the matter.
The centre-right European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s largest grouping, has called for the launch to be delayed until at least after summer, saying farmers should not face additional rules as they grapple with the consequences of the new coronavirus.
$1 = 0.9170 euros Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Barbara Lewis