EU negotiators sealed a deal yesterday (26 June) on future farm policy after months of haggling over how ambitious the policy would be on ending quotas, overhauling direct payments to farmers and making agriculture more environmentally responsible.
In the end, negotiators representing national agriculture ministers, the European Parliament, and the Commission ended up with a deal that now heads to the full Parliament and national governments for final approval.
Simon Coveney, the Irish agricultural minister who has overseen the trilateral talks over the past three months, acknowledged the “interinstitutional frictions” in reaching an accord on the 2014-2020 policy before his country’s EU presidency ends on Sunday.
“I think we have found a balance that everyone can agree with,” said Coveney, a former MEP who noted that it was the first time the Parliament had more than a rubber-stamp role in crafting agriculture policy.
“This has been new for everybody. But we do have a responsibility to deliver what in my opinion is the most important sector in Europe, that being the agri and food industry.”
“This was damn tough,” Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness (European People's Party) said at a meeting of the Parliament’s agriculture committee where the trilateral agreement was unveiled. Turning towards Agricultural Commissioner Dacian Ciolo?, she said: “But we worked through it and the Commissioner is smiling now but he wasn’t always smiling.”
Despite the deal, the CAP still awaits a final agreement on the EU’s €960 billion budget for 2014-2020. As it stands, the budget for agriculture and rural development will be around €380 billion, with some €280 billion set aside for direct payments to farmers and around €80 billion for rural development.
The negotiators also left several unresolved finance-related issues for an ultimate decision by the EU Council representing the member states. These include the desire of national governments to be able to swap money between the CAP’s Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 financing pots, the former paid directly to farmers and the latter providing co-financing for rural preservation and development projects.
Environmentalists and other critics say this flexibility would take money away from conservation work and allow national authorities to pay farmers twice for the same environmental projects.
Less money for big farms
The CAP compromise sets in place cuts for Europe’s biggest food growers by requiring that each farmer receives 60% of the average national direct payment by 2019. Currently, 20% of farmers receive 80% of the direct payments under the CAP’s Pillar 1.
Farmers with a few hectares of land could qualify for an additional payment of up to €1,250 per year, while national governments could use up to 2% of their CAP funds to encourage people under the age of 40 to become farmers.
“We have positively discriminated in favour of young farmers to give them mandatory top-ups, which is good for the future of farming in Europe,” Coveney told the Parliament's agricultural committee.
French MEP Michel Dantin (EPP), who led efforts in the Parliament’s agriculture committee to extend sugar quotas and planting rights grape production, welcomed the compromise package.
“We have now reinstated the capacity for organisation and management,” Dantin told news conference on Wednesday. “Farmers now have the certainty that they will not be abandoned by their public authorities.”
Green campaigners disappointed
Environmental groups, meanwhile, saw little to celebrate in a deal that includes broad exemptions from mandatory greening measures first proposed by the Commission’s CAP reform in October 2011.
“This is a major blow to those who championed a more sustainable, forward-thinking policy – one which would deliver for people and the environment as well as protecting the long-term interests of farming,” said Trees Robijns, agricultural policy officer at BirdLife Europe.
Tony Long, who heads the Europe office the WWF conservation NGO, said both the ministers and Parliament had failed to shepherd a greener deal through the negotiations.
“Agriculture ministers have a lot to be responsible for. At every turn they have sought to water down the environmental credentials of the final Common Agricultural Policy deal and have stonewalled any of the limited drives by the European Commission and Parliament to make improvements.
“The European Parliament has proven that it is not ready to handle its new full co-decision powers on the Common Agricultural Policy. At every turn the Agriculture Committee has tried to water down this reform. It even managed to throw out the few improvements the Parliament plenary had requested of them.”
On greening measures, the compromise package:
- Exempts farms of under 15 hectares from new requirements to create “ecological focus areas,” or EFAs, land that is to be set aside to promote biodiversity and help absorb farm runoff. Initially, the requirement will apply to 5% of farmland in 2015, re-writing the Commission’s original proposal to require a minimum 7%. Environmentalists, who wanted a 10% minimum, said the new standards mean little since the new CAP would exempt more than one-third of all farmland and 89% of farmers from the rules.
- Frees farms under 10 hectares – or one-third of EU farms – from new crop diversification rules that are aimed to improve soil quality. Farmers with 10 to 30 hectares would have to plant two crops, while those over 30 hectares would be required to plant three.
- Exempts farmers from some EU environmental and water pollution laws, defeating efforts by the Commission and some MEPs to bring agriculture in line with other industries. Agricultural runoff is a leading source of nitrate contamination of fresh water supplies, environmentalists say.
- Takes a step back from Commission proposals for EU-wide environmental mandates by giving member states flexibility to apply standards, options that environmental groups say will lead to uneven enforcement.
Negotiators held more than 40 sessions over three months to work out a deal. They were under pressure to hammer out an agreement before the end of the Irish presidency and before the European Parliament breaks for its summer recess.
Farm organisations were pressing for a quick deal to end what they said was the guesswork farmers were facing over future policies.
“We clearly do not want a deal at any price but we do not believe that prolonging the talks beyond June will achieve anything,” Copa-Cogeca, which represent European farmers and cooperatives, said in a letter sent to MEPs ahead of the final negotiations held this week in Luxembourg.
“Positions are known. All sides just have to compromise. If no agreement is reached now, it could be years before one is got, causing uncertainty for farmers and political instability. This is the last thing farmers or indeed Europe need.”