MEPs, divided and under pressure, prepare for CAP vote

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The European Parliament votes today (13 March) on a future agricultural policy that, if approved as proposed, would step back from a generation of liberalisation moves and ease the European Commission’s plan to set new environmental standards for farming. EURACTIV reports from Strasbourg.

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.”

Christian Pees, president of Cogeca, told a news conference in Strasbourg: “A speedy decision from the EU institutions is essential to end the uncertainty facing farmers and cooperatives and enable them to make important production and investment decisions. Countries like China and India are stepping up their investment in their agriculture sectors. We must do the same.”

Tony Long, director of WWF European Policy Office, said: “The EU Parliament has a historic opportunity during Wednesday’s vote to make the right choice and reject the proposals made earlier by its own Agriculture Committee. MEPs need to support coherent “greening “measures that will help restore a natural balance to the countryside and ensure a long-term future for farming.”

Hubert Weiger, chairman of BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) said, “Misguided farm subsidies and monocultures are the main causes of food scandals and the loss of biodiversity in the agricultural regions of Europe. In the places where animal and plant species are on the Red List, so too are farms; displaced by industrialised agriculture.”

In future, Weiger said, “every farm must cultivate at least seven percent of arable land without pesticides and artificial fertilisers. We rely on the good sense of the EU Parliament to finally enforce appropriate policy reforms. With over €50 billion going towards agricultural subsidies, society expects appropriate legal consideration to be given to the environment and animal welfare.”

British MEP James Nicholson, farm spokesman for the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, said: "I hope that our vote will build on the CAP reforms of recent years so that we have less intervention and more freedom for farmers to farm the marketplace. This vote is only the beginning of negotiations on this important reform. In some areas we have made improvements to the European Commission's proposal but in others we risk increasing the level of intervention in the marketplace. "The European Parliament must not turn back the clock on the CAP,” Nicholson said after the plenary debate. “We need farming that is more efficient, and more responsive to consumer demand. Going back to the interventionist policies that gave us butter mountains and milk lakes would seriously undermine European farmers in the long term."

Mairead McGuinness, an Irish MEP who sits on the agriculture and environment committees, said: “We are deepening the environmental delivery and linking 30% of payments to environmental measures is a major re-orientation … On direct payments we have attempted to target greening measures on where they will have a real effect. We decided on a more realistic introduction of econological focus areas to reflect farming realities.”

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik addressed the ‘greening’ of the CAP in speeches on 5 March to the Forum for Agriculture.

“The CAPs success is linked to its proven capacity to adapt,” Barroso said. “That is why I am confident that we will also deal well with one of the most sensitive aspects for the future of agriculture: ecological sustainability. 

“There is a need to match the growing food demand based on a balanced technological progress, and at the same time there is a need to protect our environment and adapt to climate change. The case for action is clear: the degrading quality of the soil and the more frequent extreme weather conditions in all parts of Europe and in the world with floods, drought and new pests and diseases are day-to-day proof. That is why we are driving the genuine greening of the Common Agricultural Policy.”

In his speech, Poto?nik said: “The CAP today goes far beyond production and if we don’t continue the progress of the past 20 years, we deliver an unsolicited poisoned chalice to our children but a welcome gift to those who would destroy the CAP. In coming weeks, I truly hope that all concerned understand the real longer-term issues at stake. In this context it will be fundamental to keep the partnership between environmental and agriculture community alive. If this partnership is broken, this could only lead in a separate environmental fund, more regulation and more legislation.”

The debate and vote on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in Strasbourg on 12-13 March marks a historic moment for the European Parliament.

With powers it acquired under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, lawmakers now have a direct say in shaping the future of farm policy.

The CAP turns 51 in 2013 and remains the most expensive EU programme. But it has fallen from more than 70% of the budget in 1962 to less than 40% for 2014-2020, under the draft budget approved by the EU Council in February. The Lisbon Treaty also gave the Parliament new powers over spending.

Despite its monolithic political and fiscal importance for the EU, agriculture is a small part of the economy: it accounts for 1.7% of GDP and 4.6% of employment, OECD figures show. Agro-food products were 6.5% of exports in 2009.

>> Read our LinksDossier: CAP reform 2014-2020

  • 18-19 March: EU Council discusses CAP general agreement
  • 11 April: Negotiations on CAP scheduled between Parliament, Council and Commission
  • 2014-2020: Next phase of the Common Agricultural Policy
  • 2014-2020: Next EU budget

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