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.
There were widespread reactions to the vote on Wednesday in Strasbroug. Here is a sampling, based on statements sent to EurActiv:
Gerd Sonnleitner, president of the Copa farm organisation: "The decision today, which includes measures which are more practical for farmers to apply, is a good basis to work on and marks a key step forward in the EU decision process. The EU agriculture sector makes a significant contribution to growth and employment in the EU, employing nearly 40 million people mostly in the EU rural areas, and this decision should help to maintain this. I urge EU Farm Ministers next week to agree their position on the new CAP so that negotiations can commence between MEPs, EU Farm Ministers, the EU Commission to reach a final agreement by June."
Cogeca President Christian Pees: “A strong CAP, with a good budget behind it, is vital to help stabilise markets and ensure that we have a competitive agri-food sector in the future to meet growing food demand."
Jan Plagge of IFOAM, a group representing organic farmers: "Especially with regard to the growing pressure on the EU budget, the CAP must be used to help reach European objectives. The European Parliament missed the chance to allocate European tax payers' money to measures that promote sustainable, smart and inclusive economies in rural areas, and the enhancement of biodiversity, soils and water quality."
Karin Ulmer, a member of Concord, the European confederation of relief and development NGOs and the APRODEV development network: “MEPs have failed to come to terms with the damaging role the CAP can have in developing countries. Development concerns have been ignored, which is a failure for voices who want to ensure that the CAP is living up to the global sustainability challenge of the 21st century. The majority of parliamentarians have voted down amendments in support of a monitoring system to assess the external impact in developing countries, as well the introduction of crop rotation including protein plants.”
Laust Leth Gregersen, director of Concord Denmark: “Export refunds have been allowed to remain in the EU Parliament’s CAP position, despite evidence that shows that they harm farmers in developing countries. Under the Lisbon Treaty all EU policies are meant to be made coherent with development objectives. MEPs have failed to stand up for the principle of Policy Coherence for Development.”
Andrea Kohl, programme director at the WWF European Policy Office: “While it’s good that the Parliament’s plenary has blocked the worst aspects of its Agriculture Committee’s proposal, this vote is still very disappointing for us. The Parliament did not integrate basic water legislation nor did it give support to strong greening measures which ensure that farmers are rewarded for undertaking good environmental farm practices.”
“The best that can be said about today’s outcome is that it is not a step backwards,” said Faustine Defossez, senior agriculture policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, a conservation group. “This was an important day for the future of agriculture and for democracy but sadly the opportunity for a major shift to sustainable farming has been missed. Few will celebrate the scraps that the Parliament passed.”
Speaking during a parliamentary debate on Tuesday, German MEP Britta Reimers (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) expressed concern about market protections and insurance included in the agricultural committee’s CAP proposals. “History has demonstrated that we have made mistakes and that we have seen things go wrong,” she said. “We don’t want milk lakes and butter mountains. European farmers over the last few years have shown that they can cope with market conditions, they are to a very large extent able to compete and we have to help them take that final step rather than going back to the old world and what we have got in the proposal at the moment might actually backfire on us, because if we have a couple of crises in the first year, the we’ll have the problem of how we are going to fund direct payments, because we are going to be forced to curtail direct payments and how are we going to be able to explain that back home.”
Dutch Greens MEP Bas Eickhout, said: “Are the proposals honest? No, they aren’t. If you look at developing countries, it’s still possible to have export subsidies and the agriculture committee was in agreement. If we’re looking at cross-compliance, all sorts of things are removed, such as the Water Framework Directive and the pesticides directive - it’s all been removed from the greening measures. We have to make these points directly in the plenary.”
- 18-19 March: EU Council discusses CAP general agreement
- 11 April: Negotiations on CAP scheduled between Parliament, Council and Commission
- 30 June: Irish presidency of the EU Council ends
- 2014-2020: Next phase of the Common Agricultural Policy
- 2014-2020: Next EU budget