Sofoclis Aletraris has been minister of Agriculture, Natural Resources and the Environment in the Republic of Cyprus since 5 August 2011. An engineer who was educated in Greece and the United States, he was the previous director of the Cypriot Water Development Department. Excerpts of an interview with EurActiv’s Timothy Spence follow.
The ‘greening measures’ in the Common Agricultural Policy are major source of conflict between the Commission and environmentalists on one side, and farmers and national governments on the other. Where does Cyprus stand on the greening measures?
We are in favour of greening the CAP. After all, it’s very obvious to us, and to our member states, that … we need to green the CAP. We have an agreement between the Commissioners that CAP should go towards greening if the budget remains unchanged or slightly reduced.
Of course there is the proposal of Commissioner [Dacian] Cioloş for 30% of the direct payments to go to farmers who adopt green measures. It’s a matter of interpretation what ‘greening’ is, and various members states give their own interpretation what greening measures are.
So yes, it needs much more discussion in the Council and before that in the working groups. But I must say that it very much depends also on the MFF [multi-annual financial framework, or EU budget for 2014-2020].
There are positions in the European Parliament that in case the CAP budget is reduced substantially, that greening could be totally eliminated. I mean after all we cannot ask for the farmers to do more for less. If they are to adopt greening actions and measures, they should be compensated in some way. So it’s a very controversial issue – it’s one of the most controversial issues, greening, and very much related to the MFF outcome.
What do you expect to happen in the budget negotiations?
A lot of members of the European Parliament, or even some member states in the Council, do not want to commit themselves unless the MFF is completed. The Parliament made it quite clear that we shall not proceed and agree on anything unless we know the outcome of the MFF discussions.
Something very positive is that the president of the European Council, Mr [Herman Van] Rompuy, announced a special European Council in November fully devoted to reaching an agreement on the multi-annual financial framework. This was a very pleasant surprise, I must say, because if there is an agreement on the MFF, then things will move more smoothly both in the Council and the European Parliament.
So you are not prepared to say today what you would expect the agriculture budget to look like …
It is more obvious to everybody that it will be less than the budget for 2007-2013. It’s more than obvious that everybody expects this to be less. But it is yet to be seen whether it will be substantially reduced or be at a similar level, more or less.
It’s one of Europe’s oldest programmes. Are farmers going to be happy if you come out and say there’s going be substantially less for agriculture.
If there is a substantial reduction, nobody’s going to be happy. But if it is a slight reduction, then, yes, farmers will accept it.
There is a conference scheduled next week in Cyprus on farming in times of water scarcity. You grow tomatoes, among other things, in Cyprus, a water-intensive crop in a water-scarce country. The same is true across the dry Mediterranean. Do think that that EU policies do enough to deal with watch scarcity?
To be honest, when we try to discuss with other water directors in the European Union, they all talk about climate change and more water – floods. To us, and I mean us in the Mediterranean countries, climate change also means drought. And in Cyprus we’ve been hit by drought for a long time. We had a drought between 2006 and 2009 – four years in a row that we had very little rain and our reservoirs at that time were completely empty and most of the aquifers were depleted. So we do know very well what climate change - drought - means. After all, our agriculture is heavily dependent on irrigation and there is no sense in Cyprus and the entire Mediterranean region to have agriculture without having means of providing irrigation water.
Does it make sense to have a CAP, an agricultural policy, that may not be really in line with the climate realities – not just in Cyprus but in Spain, Greece and in all these countries where the reservoirs and aquifers are going dry?
Farmers are free to grow whatever they want and whatever the market requires. You cannot really impose on farmers what to grow and what not [to grow]. If there is a demand and market for a crop, they will grow it. After all, there are some traditional crops and it’s not that easy to change.
You cannot impose on the farmers that this is [a] water-consuming crop and do not grow it and growth something else. But I must say, it’s not a matter of economics really. We do have agriculture in Cyprus because we must have food security. Definitely it’s much cheaper to not grow anything and import everything from Egypt, but that’s not a very wise thing to do.
If changes are made, if farmers are given incentives to grow olives instead of tomatoes, something that requires less water, is that realistic?
No, it is not realistic. You cannot change the habits of farmers.
There is a problem of illegal well drilling …
I’ll tell you why farmers are forced to drill illegal boreholes. Farmers get their water from government irrigation water schemes. When there is drought, which is quite common, the first to suffer are the farmers. In case there is a severe drought, then we have cuts for the domestic supply as well. There were years when farmers received zero water from government schemes. … So it is a tradition, a custom, whenever they don’t receive sufficient water from government irrigation schemes, they would drill boreholes.
That’s one of the reasons. The other reason being, it’s a hot region and that [illegal drilling] was cheaper, much cheaper. Now with the [higher] cost of energy I wouldn’t say it’s cheaper anymore.
We’re making an effort now to persuade the farmers to go ahead and declare these illegal boreholes … and to see if they can get a proper license and have a water meter installed and then a quota – how much they can really pump out in order not to destroy the aquifer.
What should be done at an EU level?
Within the Water Framework Directive, member states are obliged to prepare river basin management plans to be approved by the European Commission, and I think a major issue is to have water security. It’s a matter of national governments instead of the European Union how to solve this problem. Cyprus has decided, and is going ahead with, construction of desalination plants, so this illegal drilling and illegal pumping of the aquifers will not affect the potable water supply of the citizens of Cyprus. It will be purely an issue for farming.
But desalination is an expensive process, it’s an energy-intensive process. Is that really the solution?
I know all these arguments. For Cyprus it’s the only solution. There are many people who are opposing this idea, and say we should not have desalination plants because they are energy-consuming, they are not green and they are expensive. On the hand, they are the only means that people would have, the investors would have, the tourists would have, to have water. You cannot say to tourists to come to Cyprus but shower every other day because we haven’t sufficient water. So we have decided on proceeding with [desalination].
Is there any level of cooperation with the Turkish Cypriot community in terms of agriculture, production, water sharing or technical cooperation?
Unfortunately I must say no, there is no interaction at all.
Is this something that you would welcome, since both sides share the same challenges, water supply being one of them?
There are some technical committees that discuss some of these issues, but not at a political level. At the political level, you are very well aware, the leaders of the two communities are having very intensive discussions to reach a political agreement on the Cyprus problem. At the technical level there are some exchange of views, after all the same conditions apply on both islands. We have a drought, and the northern part of the island has a drought as well. But we don’t have any interaction really or meetings on a political level with my counterpart.
How has the presidency been so far – you’ve assumed this responsibility at a very challenging time, not just the financial crisis but with the debate about the Common Agricultural Policy?
We were from the beginning very optimistic, everything was going very smoothly, I must say much, much better than I originally would have thought. It is a challenge, it is a very crucial period, not only about the economic crisis, but dealing with the reform of the CAP, and my ministry will be dealing with the reform of the common fisheries policy as well. So it is a challenge, but we are confident that we will succeed.
What would you like to see as your main accomplishment in your six months?
The CAP reform – if we manage to have a partial agreement by the end of our presidency, I would say it’s an achievement. But you do understand that very heavily depends on the outcome of the discussions of the MFF.
Do you think it’s realistic that on the 31st of December you can say, look, we have a budget, we have green CAP, I’m going to retire back to Cyprus.’
We must be optimists. So yes, it is realistic and we aim for that.