European Union member governments agreed on Monday to spend one billion euros (861.68 million pounds) of the EU's budget on food aid for Europe's neediest citizens for the next two years, though the deal foresees ending the programme in 2014.
The food aid scheme for the needy will be maintained in 2012 and 2013. This is a victory for European solidarity, French farm minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters in Brussels after the deal was announced.
France has led efforts within the EU to continue funding the scheme after 2011, but agreement had been blocked by Germany, Britain and others, who argued responsibility for social welfare policies should rest with national governments.
The breakthrough came after Germany agreed to the continuation of the scheme for a further two years, in return for a pledge from France that EU funding for the scheme would end in 2014.
We agree to recognise, along with Germany, that the conditions are not in place to continue this food aid from 2014, Le Maire said.
The EU's farm commissioner said he was pleased ministers had decided to keep the programme going until 2014.
I am extremely happy that member states have resolved the problems that were blocking the Aid for the Needy scheme in 2012 and 2013, Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos said in a statement.
As we have shown in recent weeks, the European Commission wants to remain a committed partner for the charities involved in the scheme.
In a news conference after the meeting, Ciolos said the deal to keep the scheme running until 2014 would be formally approved in the coming weeks, but he said he could not predict what would happen to the programme after 2013.
As for what will happen from 2014, that will be the subject of political discussions and decisions in the coming months and years on the EU's long term budget... but it is a question that goes beyond EU agriculture ministers, Ciolos said.
The EU food aid scheme was introduced in 1987, and was originally designed to divert part of the bloc's huge grain and butter mountains to help feed poor citizens.
Reform of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) from the 1990s onwards drastically reduced the size of the bloc's surplus farm stocks, and the scheme was changed to allow the Commission to buy food from the market when its own stocks were too low.
But following a legal challenge from Germany and Sweden, Europe's second-highest court ruled in May that the scheme should only be funded using the bloc's farm intervention stocks -- not directly from the EU budget.
The ruling forced the Commission to slash the programme's budget for 2012 to about 100 million euros from the original 500 million, and Ciolos said a lack of grain stocks could mean there would be no budget for the scheme in 2013.
In October, the Commission proposed changes to the scheme to get around the court ruling by funding it directly from the EU budget.
The EU scheme currently provides about half of the total food aid distributed by charitable organisations in Europe each year, the Commission has said.
(Editing by Rex Merrifield and Jason Neely)