June 26, 2013 6:07 pm

EU agricultural overhaul puts onus on farmers to be green

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English Countryside©Alamy

The number of British farmland sales has doubled since the middle of last year

Subsidy payments worth tens of billions of euros to EU farmers under the bloc’s agricultural policy will increasingly depend on compliance with environmental rules, under an overhaul agreed by EU legislators on Wednesday.

The new common agricultural policy, one of the most politically fraught aspects of the EU, was agreed by negotiators from the European Commission, the parliament and members after more than two years of talks encompassed food security, environmental standards and the ability of European farmers to compete in global markets.

The policy reform will cover the years from 2014 to 2020, gobbling up nearly 40 per cent of the bloc’s €960bn multiyear budget during that time.

Amid strained public finances, Dacian Ciolos, the agriculture commissioner, has sought to justify the latest package as a greener and fairer update of its predecessors in an effort to maintain support among European taxpayers.

Its centrepiece is a requirement that 30 per cent of the roughly €278bn in direct subsidy payments to farmers – the programme’s biggest share – be tied to their satisfying new environmental rules. These include setting aside land for grazing, rotating crops and retaining 5 per cent of their holdings as “ecological focus” areas.

But environmental groups complained that agribusiness interests succeeded during negotiations at watering down those standards to the point of making them meaningless.

Tony Long, the WWF’s European policy director, called the agreement “a wasted opportunity” that would come back to haunt farmers. “The well of public support for a European subsidy system for farmers has just dried up,” Mr Long said. “No one can seriously expect that this type of largesse will continue next time the CAP comes up for review.”

Still, EU officials contend that placing such a large emphasis on environmental issues – even with some shortcomings and compromises – represented a “paradigm shift” for the policy.

“With this agreement a new principle has been established concerning EU agricultural subsidies and environment and climate change: quid pro quo,” said Connie Hedegaard, EU environment commissioner. “To receive payments the farmer must deliver some environmental and climate benefits back to society, back to the common good.”

Copa-Cogeca, the EU’s biggest farm lobby group – which had complained in the past that the environmental standards would hurt its members’ competitiveness – was more muted on Wednesday.

“Under the agreement struck today, support will go to active farmers and measures to further green the CAP will be more practical and flexible and therefore more beneficial for the environment at the same time as ensuring food security,” said Gerd Sonnleitner, the Copa president.

The other thrust of the reform was to create a fairer distribution of money, both within and between member states. Under the current system, for example, farmers in Greece receive €560 per hectare while those in Latvia have garnered less than €90. The CAP also tends to reward large farms that were more productive in the past.

The package will narrow – but not close – the gaps. As a consequence, some large farms in France, Italy and other wealthier member states stand to lose as much as 30 per cent of their payments, according to farm lobby groups.

One of the most intense lobbying fights of the reform surrounded EU sugar quotas. The quotas, which have been blamed for high prices in Europe, represent one of the bloc’s last big agricultural quota regimes.

MEPs, citing the economic crisis, had pushed to keep them until 2020 while the commission had proposed a 2015 phase-out. Negotiators ultimately compromised on 2017.

The agreement does not include a €300,000 cap on payments to large landowners – something sought by Mr Ciolos but rejected by the UK and Germany.

The deal requires final approval of the European Parliament and member states, expected in the autumn.

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