The future of Europe’s agriculture policy shouldn’t be held hostage by the EU’s budget impasse, Ireland’s agricultural minister said in calling for negotiations to move forward even if final figures on spending are unknown until spring.

Simon Coveney, the Irish agriculture and food minister, said on Tuesday (18 December) that winning agreement on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after 2013 was a priority for his country as it takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council on 1 January.

He said another priority would be concluding agreement on the Common Fisheries Policy, which like the CAP is under review in the European Parliament.

Some of the most contentious proposals in the CAP – including measures aimed at setting higher environmental standards and equalising direct payments to farmers from eastern and western countries – are on hold until national leaders agree on the EU’s overall operating budget for 2014-2020.

“We can build the policy principles,” Coveney said of the CAP, “and we will be able to carry on the talks very quickly” when the budget is decided.

The EU’s 27 national leaders failed at a summit in November to reach accord on how to carve up a long-term budget of just under €1 trillion, choosing to postpone action until after the first of the year. The Irish government has previously said it would not tolerate cuts to farm support, but may have to find a more centrist position in its presidency role.

Without a budget framework, nearly all EU programmes have been thrown into doubt, including the two largest, agriculture and cohesion.

CAP delays anticipated

Agricultural officials are already anticipating that interim agricultural policies will be needed for 2014, with the approval process for the CAP now likely to stretch into next summer. Stéphane Le Foll, the French agricultural minister, said last week that the next CAP could be postponed for a year – to 2015 – the Reuters news agency reported.

Senior officials of the current Cypriot presidency of the EU Council concede that some of the most ambitious measures that link direct payments to farmers who improve their environmental performance are unlikely to survive because of anticipated cuts to the EU budget. The ‘greening measures’ recommended by the Commission 14 months ago could be replaced by voluntary measures or a weakened compulsory scheme.

Coveney has reversed course on Ireland’s earlier support of a ‘menu’ of environmental measures that farmers could choose, saying it could be to cumbersome to apply evenly across the EU.

The minister told journalists in Brussels that the Irish presidency would have “an open mind” on so-called greening measures, “but the menu option will certainly not be coming from Ireland.”

Under proposals made by Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş  the EU executive’s plan for ‘greening the CAP’ centred on

using direct payments to encourage farmers to use more sustainable cultivation techniques, such as crop rotation; and preserving at least 7% of land for focus areas such as buffer areas or permanent grassland to help foster biodiversity.

Coveney described the proposals and alternatives “up for grabs”.

Some countries favour voluntary commitments on reducing the ecological impact of farming, while others support allowing farmers the choice of ‘equivalent measures’ to achieve greener farming practices – although Cypriot officials say there has been no agreement on what those measures are.