CAP talks show the ‘democratic deficit’ may be narrowing

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During the last major reform of EU farm policy a decade ago, agricultural ministers held virtually unchecked power to make decisions on farming policy. This time around, the political wrestling match suggests decision-making is becoming less one-sided. EURACTIV reports from Luxembourg.

 

Farm ministers were to resume talks on Tuesday (25 June) in a hoped-for push to wrap up a deal on the 2014-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) this week.

Officials set Wednesday as the target for delivering an agreement to the Parliament, which gained powers over the CAP, EU budget and other policy areas under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty reforms.

MEPs have exercised that authority, re-writing parts of the European Commission’s original farming proposal and working through 40 rounds of negotiations with national ministers and the Commission since lawmakers approved, on 13 March, four packages of legislation that make up the next CAP.

“The inclusion of the European Parliament is good for food democracy,” said Samuel Féret, a French environmental campaigner who has been monitoring CAP negotiations since 1996. “It’s not perfect, but it is better than in the past.”

In a Europe where “democratic deficit” is a loaded expression often aimed at the EU Council, the Parliament’s newfound power in shaping the €50-billion annual CAP shows in other ways.

Arm-twisting in Parliament

MEPs have become a chief target of pressure groups fighting for the supremacy of their own interests in the CAP. On 11 March, the agriculture committee’s chairman, Paolo De Castro, lashed out at environmental groups. He blamed their pressure campaigns for halting a legislative manoeuvre that would have allowed the committee to scrap hundreds of amendments before the full plenary vote in Parliament.

“I do not want our committee to be viewed as a committee that does not want the opportunity for a full debate in the plenary,” De Castro (Socialists & Democrats, Italy) said at the time, adding: “We’ve all received letters and e-mails from environmentalists, trade unions” and other pressure groups objecting to the special procedure.

Last week, many of those same environmental groups urged De Castro and the Parliament’s other negotiators to defend CAP environmental mandates that were approved by MEPs but that agriculture ministers have manoeuvred to replace with more flexible measures.

“We would like to remind the decision-makers we were promised a green, fair and local CAP and it looks like we are going to have business as usual,” said Stephanie Roth, a campaigner for Agriculture and Rural Convention, or ARC2020, who was among some 30 demonstrators standing in the rain outside the Kirchberg Conference Centre in Luxembourg, where the CAP talks opened on Monday.

A few steps away, representatives of the Copa-Cogeca farmers and farm cooperative groups were lobbying for a quick deal on the CAP, saying food growers facing climate and economic challenges needed certainty and the support the scheme gives them.

The CAP has always involved political battles – from moves to end wasteful stockpiles of milk and butter in the 1990s to the Commission’s recent push to make farmers more accountable environmentally. Parliament’s new authority adds another layer to the process.

Disagreeing to the end

Seven rounds of discussions last week in Brussels and a ministerial-level meeting on Sunday in Luxembourg still left negotiators with 20 policy disagreements to work out heading into their talks on Monday.

Representatives of the three institutions were grappling with lingering differences that included environmental standards for farmers, a revamped subsidy scheme, and market protections for sugar beet producers.

“As always in a political negotiation, the most difficult things don’t get reached until the end, which is what we’re trying to do today and tomorrow,” said Simon Coveney, the Irish farm minister who is chairing the three-party talks.

He said he was hopeful a compromise CAP would be presented to the European Parliament on Wednesday, four days before Ireland hands over the presidency of the EU Council to Lithuania on 1 July.

Target for 2014 elections

For campaigners looking ahead, the 2014 European elections are seen as an opportunity to hold MEPs accountable for how they voted on agricultural policy.

“It’s very important for citizens of Europe to express what they think about what happens here,” ARC2020’s Roth said of next year’s elections, adding that her organisation had already help mobilise citizen groups to meet with MEPs on the CAP. 

Féret, who heads the Groupe Pac 2013, also sees the elections as a chance to influence farm policy.

“We have the possibility next year to campaign for issues beyond the CAP, like food safety and the TTIP,” he said. TTIP refers the EU’s hoped-for trade agreement with the United States, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which environmental groups say could open the European market to American-grown genetically modified foods.

Paolo De Castro, who heads the agriculture committee and is the chief negotiator for the European Parliament, said: "From the outset of trilateral talks Parliament's negotiators made it clear that we would be working day and night to reach a positive outcome of negotiations on the future shape of the Common Agricultural policy as soon as possible. Even at this stage, just one week before the end of the Irish presidency, we believe that there is still a chance to conclude by the end of June."

In a statment, the Italian MEP (Socialist and Democrats) said: "Although Parliament expected more flexibility from the other two institutions and despite the unwillingness of the Council to negotiate on all aspects of the CAP reform, we will not leave the table and walk away. Parliament's negotiators will go to Luxembourg on Monday to engage in another round of intensive and hopefully fruitful negotiations with our counterparts", Mr. De Castro said.

Several dozen people representing environmental groups and farm organisations gathered outside the Kirchberg Conference Centre as the CAP negotiators began arriving for their meeting. Leaders of Copa-Cogeca, which represents farmers and farm cooperatives, meanwhile, pressed for a final agreement after three months of negotiations between the Parliament, national farm ministers and the Commission.

Gerd Sonnleitner, president of Copa, said reaching a deal now “is not only important for farmers, but for all of Europe.”

Referring to recent flooding in Central Europe and parts of France, Sonnleitner said “large parts of Europe are suffering and this is a good example of why European farming needs stability.”

Joris Baecke, president of the European Council of Young Farmers, said in a statement: “We have all been working on this deal for months, and are getting towards an acceptable agreement for the three institutions and farmers across Europe – you must make sure this is what is achieved this week, or it will be put off too long. It is up to a number of member states now to shift their position on young farmers, and to accept the only reasonable solution on the table: a mandatory top-up of direct payments in the first years of business combined with installation aid and other support measures with a favourable co-financing ratio under rural development. This is your last chance to save the future of European agriculture – don’t let young farmers down now.”

Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo? told journalists Monday that he was a “pragmatic optimist” and that he expected a final CAP deal this week.

Simon Coveney, the Irish farm minister who is chairing the three-party talks, said there were 25 issues that needed to be resolved before Wednesday, when he plans to present a compromise CAP proposal to the European Parliament in Brussels.

“European farmers expect a result this week and we are going to do everything we can to deliver that for them,” Coveney said.

The 2014-2020 CAP has been the target of high-pressure lobbying in the 21 months since Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo? unveiled a “greener” policy that would impose new conservation rules on both farmers and member states.

The CAP and its complex set of proposals will miss its deadline for implementation next year. The European Commission has prepared contingency plans for introducing the new measures in 2015 and a transitional period to shift from the existing to a new payments scheme in 2014.

  • 24-25 June: CAP negotiations in Luxembourg
  • 26 June: Talks move to Brussels where a final agreement could be announced
  • 1 July: Lithuania takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council; Croatia become the 28th EU state and a full beneficiary of the CAP
  • 2014-2020: Next phase of the Common Agricultural Policy

European Commission

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