Battles over financing and revamping Europe’s agricultural policy are almost certain to push implementation of the future programme beyond next year’s deadline, government and industry officials say.

Agricultural ministers are to get a ‘progress report’ on the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) on Wednesday (19 December), their final meeting under the leadership of the Cypriot presidency of the EU Council.

But little action is expected because of deadlocked talks over the EU’s next seven-year budget and contentious ‘greening’ proposals. The final design of the CAP for 2014-2020 is likely to be decided under the Irish presidency of the European Council.

Farm groups have already expressed alarm at the delays in both financing and policy, including plans to compel farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices.

“We need to have a timely decision on the CAP budget and the CAP contents in order to make sure that those investments that we so much need in the sector will take place,” said Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, representing European farmers and agricultural cooperatives.

Without details, farmers cannot prepare for policy changes or plan crops, Pesonen said in an interview. “This is really risky for us because we see that our margins are already fragile and we need to step up investments in agriculture. We have to become more competitive and this dragging feet phenomenon that is clearly evident in the EU is really killing us.”

Interim policies for 2014

Agricultural officials are already anticipating that interim CAP policies will be needed for 2014. Stéphane Le Foll, the French agricultural minister, said this week that the next CAP could be postponed for a year – to 2015 – the Reuters news agency reported.

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

“We’ve had six months of quite intensive but quite fruitful and successful discussions,” said one official of the Cypriot presidency, which will be succeeded by the Irish on 1 January.

But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that Cyprus had failed to clinch a provisional agreement on the CAP as it vowed to do six months ago.

Talks have been impeded by uncertainty over the EU’s budget after 2013. The farm support scheme could face a €17-billion reduction as national governments try to hold overall spending to under €1 trillion for 2014-2020.

“The technical discussions are continuing but the member states are not willing to make commitments until there is a budget,” the Cypriot official said of the CAP.

CAP annual spending now stands at around €53 billion, much of which is used for direct payments to farmers.

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.

Environmentalists say any voluntary or optional schemes would defeat EU efforts to improve the environmental footprint of agriculture. Green groups backed the Commission’s early recommendations to pay farmers to expand buffer strips and natural areas, and to reduce pesticide and fertiliser use. That proposal now appears dead.

Menu of green options

But groups like Copa-Cogeca have recommended a set of EU-wide options from which farmers could select a few that fit regional growing conditions. They, along with a number of agricultural ministers, say this would reduce administrative costs at a time when spending is being pared down.

Pesonen says farmers share this concern, citing Commission analyses showing its greening proposals could lead to a 15% increase in administrative costs – most of which would be borne by national government.

“On average you would have to hire hundreds of people in a big member state, if not more, to control farmers to distribute less money. And this simply is not an option for member states at a time of austerity measures.”