During three hours of deliberation on Tuesday (12 March), deep divisions emerged over the environmental regulations in the draft Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and a move to reverse longstanding plans to phase out production quotas and market support.
MEPs are under pressure to approve the CAP as drafted by the Parliament’s agricultural committee in January. EU officials have already acknowledged that the slow pace in approving a farm policy and the budget needed to finance it mean the new CAP will not be implemented until 2015 - a year late.
Leaders of Copa-Cogeca, which represent farmers and agricultural cooperatives, urged Parliament to approve the reform, even if imperfect, to end the uncertainty for farmers and the agricultural industry.
“We do not love the compromise, but we always have to make compromises in our lives,” Gerd Sonnleitner, president of the Copa, said in Strasbourg. “We need a decision … It’s very important not only for agriculture, it’s important for the whole public in Europe to get a decision this week in Parliament.”
‘Bad for farming’
Critics of the proposal were less willing to concede.
“This is bad for farming, this is bad for farmers, this is bad for the environment,” German Green MEP Rebecca Harms told a news conference, underscoring her political group’s position that the agricultural committee had weakened proposals made by the European Commission to link farmers’ payments to their environmental performance.
Environmental activists rallied in freezing rain outside the Parliament, calling the draft CAP a sell-out to big agricultural and food firms and pressed MEPs to reject it.
“In Europe, 80% of all agricultural subsidies go to just 20% of agricultural enterprises,” said Philippe Collin of the French group Confédération Paysanne, one of the organisers of the protest. “We expect MEPs to vote for the future economic viability of the majority of 80% of farms in Europe.”
The European Commission presented its CAP recommendations for 2014-2020 in October 2011. The package called for harmonising the direct payments system for farmers, linking subsidies to environmental measures and capping payments for big farmers. It also recommended carrying through with the previously-agreed end to quotas for sugar beets and planting rights for grape growers over the next two years.
Though divided, the agriculture committee redrafted the greening proposals. The committee proposal:
- Replaced mandatory ‘greening’ measures with optional standards;
- Exempted many smaller farmers, as well as those meeting national environmental guidelines, from compliance;
- Reduced from 7% to 3% the amount of farmland that should be ecologically protected.
- Exempted farmers from ‘cross-compliance’ with other EU environmental laws, including the Water Framework Directive.
The panel also restored the market protections, leading to criticism that they stonewalled opponents and caved into special interests.
Global anti-poverty campaigners also objected to the committee’s decision to reject amendments requiring the EU to monitor the impact of its farm support polices on developing countries amid accusations that Europe dumps surplus poultry and other goods on poor nations.
Committee defends its turf
But MEPs on the agriculture committee, who sifted through more than 7,000 amendments before reaching a compromise in January, defended their proposal during the parliamentary debate.
“Let me be very direct here, the CAP will be significantly different after these reforms despite what colleagues think and say,” said Mairead McGuinness, an Irish MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) who services on the agriculture and environment committees. “We’ve worked for results, not news headlines.”
The committee’s chairman, Italian MEP Paolo De Castro (Socialists & Democrats) acknowledged it was a “difficult compromise” but added, “If we have a greener CAP, it is because of what we’ve done here in Parliament.”
For all the dissent, there is common ground. The debate showed broad support for two proposed measures:
- The gradual equalisation of payments between farmers in older western countries and those in new Central European nations and the Baltics - where some farmers receive direct payments that are 33% of the EU average.
- CAP incentive payments to encourage young people to become farmers, and to encourage smallholder farmers not to sell out.
History in the making
The debate and vote mark a historic turn in Europe’s 51-year-old CAP. Through powers gained under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the Parliament for the first time has more than a symbolic role in shaping farming policy.
That has not gone unnoticed. On Monday, the agriculture committee took an embarrassing U-turn - at first trying to block a full parliamentary vote on more than 350 amendments, then conceding that it was a mistake and agreeing to allow the 754 MEPs have a vote on all amendments.
“This is a critical vote, colleagues. This is the first time we’ve had a vote and the Parliament needs to shoulder its responsibility,” said De Castro. “What is important is to have a clear negotiating mandate.”