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Immigration, Farm Subsidies Top EU Ministers' Agenda - 2002-06-16

A crackdown on illegal immigration and hefty farm subsidies are the top issues at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg Monday. The 15 nation bloc is under heavy immigration pressure and farm payments take up a huge part of the EU budget.

The European Union wants countries that provide illegal immigrants to improve their border controls, to crack down on human trafficking, and to be more willing to take back their nationals through readmission agreements.

Britain has suggested that EU aid be cut to those countries that do not comply. But critics say this approach would be counterproductive, and would only anger other key partners. Some EU diplomats say countries of origin should be offered better trade conditions in return for their cooperation.

Pressure for immigration reform in Europe has been increasing with the recent rise in support for right-wing, anti-immigration politicians in Italy, Austria, France, Denmark and the Netherlands. It is estimated that about a half-million illegal immigrants enter the European Union every year, along with almost 400,000 asylum seekers.

The Luxembourg talks will also try to defuse a dispute that could delay the European Union's planned enlargement, with up to 10 nations in eastern and southern Europe hoping to join in two years. At issue is whether farmers in the candidate countries should receive the same large subsidies given to current EU members.

Farm subsidies already take up an enormous part of the EU budget and some member countries, such as Germany, are against extending the program to new members. The European Union is trying to reduce farm subsidies, and some members say payments for new countries will make this reform even more difficult.

But EU countires that benefit from farm subsidies, led by France, say they should be extended to newcomers. The foreign ministers would like to resolve the dispute before the EU summit in Seville, Spain, later this week. But analysts say an agreement Monday is not likely.