Conservationists angered by efforts to “gut” Europe’s future farm policy are banking on the full European Parliament to protect the environmental standards proposed by the European Commission.
With the full Parliament due to vote on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) the night of 12 March, environmental campaigners hope for a change of course after the Parliament’s agriculture committee and the EU Council both backed changes to weaken some of the Commission’s ‘greening’ proposals.
It will be the first time the Parliament has a vote in shaping the CAP and the EU's overall spending under reforms introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
A senior EU official accused national leaders and the agriculture committee of “opening the door for light-green measures, or green washing” of the CAP and said “the vote in the plenary will be decisive.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity after last week’s budget summit, is not directly involved in the agriculture negotiations.
Sébastien Godinot, an economist in the WWF European Policy Office, also said the agriculture committee’s CAP amendments replace mandates with optional measures and exemptions that would undermine environmental laws.
“They used the excuse of simplification to gut cross-compliance, replacing the Commission’s simple measures with options that undermine environmental protections,” Godinot said at a Brussels conference on the CAP held by WWF and the European Policy Centre, a think-tank.
“In terms of democracy … is it right that [members] of the agricultural committee have almost alone decided about 40% of the EU budget – almost €400 billion?” Godinot asked.
Exemptions for small farmers
Bowing to pressure from farmers’ organisations and some EU members states, the committee voted to exempt small farms from the so-called greening rules, as well as growers who meet individual member states’ environmental certification programmes.
Under amendments adopted by the committee, farmers with less than 10 hectares of cultivatable land will be exempt and those with 10 to 30 hectares can apply for exemptions. According to the Parliament, the exemptions will apply to 82% of the EU’s farmers.
The Commission had recommended that only organic farmers should be exempt from greening schemes.
First proposed in October 2011, the 2014-2020 CAP sought to strengthen environmental protections through mandatory standards for nearly all EU farmers. The proposals included a controversial provision to link 30% of direct payments to compliance with ‘greening’ measures, and preserve at least 7% of their land for ‘ecological focus areas’.
Although environmentalist first attacked the proposals as too timid, they now prefer the EU executive’s draft to the draft that emerged from a marathon agriculture committee session in January.
Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo? has defended the proposals as fair to farmers and environmentally responsible.
In a commentary published by EURACTIV on Wednesday (13 February), Ciolo? called the greening measures “of key importance to keeping a good balance within agricultural ecosystems. They play an important role for the good management of water, fertilizers and pesticides, for fighting erosion and biodiversity loss, and for preserving natural landscapes. The CAP must take them into account and help protect them.”
Farming groups, however, had urged lawmakers to make the proposal more flexible, for example by replacing mandatory greening measures with options, allowing farmers to opt out entirely and reducing the amount of land reserved for buffers.
They argued that high food prices and concern about future food insecurity was not the time for policies that could remove land from production or discourage farmers from expansion.
A diet for the CAP
At the same time, the farmers’ organisations fought – unsuccessfully – against reductions in CAP spending for 2014-2020.
On 8 February, EU leaders agreed to an austerity budget that will cut overall agriculture and natural resources budget by 11.3%, from €420 billion for 2007-13 to €373 billion for the next seven years. Farm support payments would fall from €337 billion to €278 billion, down17.5%.
Even with the cuts, the CAP will remain the EU’s largest single programme.
Besides presenting a draft budget, EU leaders also proposed, for the first time, allowing member states the authorities to shift money from CAP’s fund for rural development to the much larger direct payments budget to give a further assist to farmers.
Environmentalists fear this will take funding away from the CAP’s much smaller Pillar 2 that provides financing for rural development and conservation programmes.
“If the European Parliament really wants a more modern EU budget, it should seek to protect and increase rural development spending through a corresponding reduction in direct payments in the forthcoming negotiations with the Council,” Alan Matthews, an emeritus professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin, told the Brussels conference.
Direct payments to farmers, or Pillar 1 of the CAP, account for more than 70% of the farm budget.