MEPs exercised their power to shape agricultural policy for the first time on Wednesday (13 March), voting to adopt a controversial package of legislation that now faces a fresh round of negotiations with national leaders. EurActiv reports from Strasbourg.

Votes on hundreds of amendments and four sets of legislation produced a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for 2014-2020 that exposed sharp divisions within the Parliament and proved a setback for those who lobbied for stronger environmental measures and the death of farm subsidies, including those on sugar.

The deal approved in the landmark vote must now be negotiated by the EU Council, Parliament and Commission. Already, full implementation of the new CAP and rules for direct payments to farmers is unlikely until 2015 - one year after the new seven-year CAP is due to go into effect.

Dacian Cioloş, the EU agricultural commissioner, said he hoped a final agreement could be reached by the end of the EU’s Irish presidency in June. “It’s our real ambition, but it will be hard work,” he said.

But the commissioner, who introduced a CAP framework in October 2011, said he was displeased with some outcomes - including the six-year extension of sugar beet subsidies that were to end by 2016 under an earlier agreement.

“We don’t think the sector needs more time for preparation,” Cioloş told a news conference. “The sugar sector in Europe is a competitive one.”

Wielding new power

Among the four sets of legislation, the closest votes were over common market organisation which included the extension of quotas and protections for wine producers, followed by the rules for direct payments. During an afternoon of votes, the Parliament:

  • Narrowly approved, by a vote of 375 to 277, the extension of quotas and other common market rules;
  • Approved, by a margin of 427 to 224, direct payments rules for farmers, or Pillar 1.
  • Voted 556 to 95 for rules on Pillar 2, the rural development programme that involves shared financing with national governments;
  • Backed, by a margin of 472 to 172, rules for financing, management and monitoring.

The vote in Strasbourg marked the first time the European Parliament has had a direct say in shaping the farming policy under powers it acquired under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.

Italian MEP Paolo De Castro (Socialists and Democrats), who guided the CAP legislation through Parliament as chairman of the agricultural committee, called the outcome “a proper balance between food security and improved environmental protection, so that the new EU farm policy can deliver even more public goods to EU citizens".

“But it also must be made less bureaucratic and fairer to farmers, not least to empower them to cope with crises. This will be our position when negotiating its final shape with member states," he told journalists.

Italian MEP Giovanni la Via (European People’s Party) said the agricultural committee’s work “represents the interests of our individual constituencies and our member states. That enriches the mix and is important.”

“I think the overall result is good,” he said during deliberations ahead of the vote.

Green groups dismayed

Defying the agriculture committee’s recommendation, the Parliament did approve amendments aimed at compelling farmers to follow prescribed environmental standards in order to receive up to 30% of their direct payment.

But conservation groups said the outcome failed to live up to the European Commission’s greening recommendations, including mandatory crop rotation and conservation areas.

“The European Parliament has defused some of the worst counter reform proposals that came out of the agriculture committee, but has managed only partial damage-control,” said Trees Robijns, the agriculture policy officer at BirdLife Europe.

“The text coming out of the Parliament today would still leave us with a dysfunctional CAP that does not address the urgent crisis in the countryside and does not justify 40% of the EU budget being spent on the CAP,” she said.

Meanwhile, political groups on the right and left, joined by the food and beverage industries, lost their fight to prevent the extension of market protections for sugar and dairy producers.

Reacting to the extension of subsidies, James Nicholson, a British Conservative MEP said: "If today's vote by MEPs were enacted it would not be a reform of the CAP but a regression back to the excesses of the 1980s".

Drama, but no delays

There were brief moments of drama during the vote.

British MEP Robert Atkins called for a halt to all voting until the Union Jack, hanging upside down next to the 26 other EU national flags outside the Parliament, was displayed properly.

Atkins also called for sending the CAP legislation back to the Parliament’s agricultural committee, saying the number of amendments - some 350 - were too unwieldy for the full Parliament. His motions were rejected and the vote proceeded.

Another British MEP, John Agnew of the UK Independence Party, sought unsuccessfully to send amendments on the sugar quota back to the farm committee, saying approval would reverse earlier market liberalisation agreements and lead to the loss of the sugar refining industry in his district of eastern England.