Greek minister: CAP budget should be maintained to ensure agriculture sustainability

Stavros Arachovitis [R]: "The sufficiency in safe and healthy foods of high standards for EU consumers cannot be ensured unless primary production is sufficiently backed." [European Union]

If a proper balance between resources and obligations in the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is not achieved, the future of the EU agriculture and countryside will be uncertain, Greek agriculture minister Stavros Arachovitis told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

Arachovitis is Greece’s minister of agricultural development and food under Alexis Tsipras’ government. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The CAP’s new delivery model has benefits but it also hides some ‘traps’, such as additional bureaucracy for member states.
  • The CAP budget should be maintained at least at the same level as the current one also beyond 2020 in real terms.
  • Athens opposes the external convergence of direct payments as it will mean a sharp reduction in the subsidies Greek farmers receive.
  • Digitisation of Greek farming moves on, focuses on both small and large farms.

How do you see the new CAP delivery model, which gives more room to member states to implement their own strategic plans? Has Greece tabled its own plan?

The new CAP model has benefits for our country, but it also hides some ‘traps’. The greatest advantage is flexibility. The fact that in the previous programming periods we have had ‘tight’ CAP models primarily based on the needs of the northern countries has created several problems in practice. One of these was the definition of pasture, which was pending for many years and was resolved only in 2017, at the initiative of the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and in cooperation with the European Commission in the so-called Omnibus Regulation.

However, the disadvantages of the CAP’s new delivery model include additional bureaucracy for member states. Moreover, we are talking about a completely new process, which, in order to succeed, it will absolutely need the technical support of the Commission services as well as a transitional period to solve all the problems in its implementation.

The Greek plan is in its preparation phase, on the basis of the proposals for a regulation tabled by the European Commission but cannot be finalised or submitted for approval unless the texts of the regulations are finalised. The country’s working groups have been set up and are already shaping the first details of the project.

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The Commission has proposed to reduce the budget for the new CAP, taking into account new priorities such as defense and safety. What is the position of Athens in this matter? Which countries agree with your line?

Our position, as set out from the very moment the Commission published its proposals, is that the CAP budget should be maintained at least at the same level as the current one also beyond 2020 in real terms. We have communicated it in all directions and have already met since 31 May with those member states’ delegations, which share this view.

Greece, together with France, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Finland, signed a joint declaration on the Multiannual Financial Framework and the CAP, on the one hand, to express our disappointment over the reduced CAP budget and on the other hand, to raise the alarm about the sustainability of European agriculture. At a later stage, Cyprus and Bulgaria also joined us.

We believe that we if we do not achieve a proper balance between resources and obligations, then the future of the EU agriculture and countryside will be uncertain.

In addition, the sufficiency in safe and healthy foods of high standards for European consumers, environmental protection and respect for the Union’s environmental commitments, as well as the mitigation of the effects of climate change cannot be ensured unless the primary production and the European agri-food sector are sufficiently backed in general.

Efficient spending at the roots of MEPs divisions over new CAP

The post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) discussions started at long last in the European Parliament, but in a deeply divided Agricultural Committee. MEPs still seem a long way from an agreement on how to spend the money and who should get the subsidies.

Why do you disagree with the external convergence of direct payments? What could it mean for a country like Greece?

There have been too many discussions about the external convergence. Recently, Baltic MEPs intervened in the EU institutions. Let me put it simply, as the “Communication on the CAP” and the “Commission’s Reflection Paper on the Future of EU Finances” say, direct payments cover, in part, the gap between agricultural income and income in other economic sectors.

The proportion of these incomes is specific for each member state and reflects the balance achieved within it. This ensures that farming activity is maintained at certain levels. In Greece, for instance, the agricultural income is 54.9% of the median income, while in Lithuania it is 61.5%, in Bulgaria 78.9%, in Slovakia 88%, and in Estonia 138%.

It is, therefore, obvious that in many of the countries that are pushing for “external convergence” on the basis of the aid per hectare, the ratio of the agricultural to the average income is more favorable for the agricultural income than that of Greece.

In addition, Greece has a particular agricultural structure. Most of its farms are small or very small in size and this explains the fact that most of the direct payments are directed to such farms. 80.7% of direct aid goes to farms smaller than 50 hectares, i.e. smaller than the European average. The average support per farm is only €3,000, which corresponds to only 49% of the EU average and places Greece at one of the last positions in the table of aid per farm.

The measure of full external convergence of subsidies between member states would mean a sharp reduction in the subsidies that Greek farmers have received for many years and based on this money, they have organised their farms and managed to adapt to the needs of an increasingly competitive market.

Greece has clear handicaps compared to countries seeking external convergence, such as fragmented and high percentage of dry land, a marked diversification in the geographical landscape, etc.

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In collaboration with the Ministry of Digital Policy, you have put forward a digitisation plan for Greek agriculture. Where are we; How can a precision farming model be implemented in Greece considering the fragmented land you mentioned before?

We are waiting for the procurement to be announced by the Ministry of Digital Policy. We work closely with Digital Policy Minister Nikos Pappas and his team to meet the needs of the rural world for digital applications and internet access. I want to make it clear that precision agriculture does not require large fields, nor does it require single farm holdings.

Software programs are designed to apply on small and large areas, even on individual pieces of parcels, so it is called ‘precision farming’. It is something that the Greek farmer-owner of a farm with many fields needs in order to adapt his cultivation techniques to different microclimatic conditions, land gradients and, of course, different products.

Our planning concerns the development of a public infrastructure that will produce public data, to which our farmers will have free access and on which a modern system of agricultural advice will be based.

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