EU agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler has sharply attacked requests by France and Italy for authorisation to pay national aids to wine producers in connection with the distillation of table wine saying they created  "a serious risk of distortion of competition."

France has asked EU ministers for permission to pay some €45m (US$39m) and Italy for €40m. Both countries are to put around 4.5m hl into distillation.

Dr Fischler said these were "pure operating aids which do not bring about any structural improvement in the sector." Moreover France and Italy had periodically asked for such authorisations since December 2000.

But ministers have always taken a more relaxed view since no EU money is involved. The requests would have been approved last week had Denmark not raised a procedural problem - in any event they are likely to be rubber-stamped at a Council in the near future.