Agriculture ministers from the European Union’s member states agreed a negotiating position on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy late last night (19 March). But Slovakia and Slovenia refused to support the deal, citing objections specific to those countries.
Speaking after the talks ended, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister for agriculture, said the 25-2 backing by member states gives him a “strong mandate” in negotiations with MEPs, which will begin in April. He wants to reach an agreement with the Parliament and the European Commission by the end of the Irish presidency.
The presidency wants to reach deals on reform of the CAP and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) at an agriculture and fisheries council at the end of June.
“We need to do this in this time frame, this isn’t some kind of vanity project for the Irish presidency,” Coveney said. He said the Commission must have time in the second half of this year to put the necessary legal structures in place “so that at the start of 2015 we will see a new CAP reform actually kicking in.”
Dacian Ciolos, the European commissioner for agriculture, said after last night’s agreement that there are “areas where we don’t think the Council has done the right thing,” including the position on convergence of direct payments and on tying CAP payments to environmental measures.
“There’s still a risk of greenwashing on certain elements,” he said.
But Ciolos added that “there are a number of points on which the Council seems to be closer to the Commission position than the Parliament.”
These areas include the coupling of direct payments, which under the Council position would be more limited and target specific needs. “Their position seems to be more reasonable than the Parliament’s,” Ciolos said.
Farmers organisation Copa-Cogeca welcomed the Council position. “Under the agreement struck today, measures to further green the CAP are more practical and flexible than was originally proposed,” said Pekka Pesonen, Copa-Cogeca secretary general.
He also welcomed the ministers’ decision to continue the Single Area Payment Scheme, which benefits new member states, and the decision to strengthen producer organisations and cooperatives by allowing them to negotiate on behalf of all farmers.
But Pesonen said he was disappointed by the Council decision not to extend sugar quotas to 2020, as called for by the Parliament. The quotas are set to expire in 2015, which the Commission has said is absolutely necessary to make the sector competitive. The Council compromise position would extend the quota to 2017.
Environmental campaigners criticised the Council position. “The Council today decided to kill what little hope remained for a greener CAP and to eliminate the few positive outcomes of the Parliament,” said Faustine Defossez of campaign group EEB.
The Council position would allow farmers to receive the 30% of direct payments tied to environmental actions if they have undertaken equivalent measures defined by member states, or if the farm is ‘green by definition’. The Commission proposal had said farmers would need to comply with three specific environmental measures.
One of those measures is setting aside land for biodiversity purposes, called “ecological focus areas”. The Council position would increase the amount of land needed to be set aside from 3% to 5%. But it deletes the requirement that this needs to be arable land, which Defossez said would mean these areas could have no ecological value. National leaders stipulated that funding could not be tied to set-aside of arable land in their position on the long-term EU financial framework agreed in February.
Campaigners were also upset that the Council position removes requirements for cross-compliance with other EU laws and would allow farmers to receive ‘double funding’ for green measures from both the CAPS first pillar on direct payments and its second pillar on rural development. The Commission has said this would be illegal under international trade rules.