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Agriculture Council

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

The Minister responsible for farming and the environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), and the Under-Secretary responsible for the natural and marine environment, wildlife and rural affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), represented the United Kingdom at April’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg. Richard Lochhead also attended.

There were only five substantive agenda items—three for fisheries and two for agriculture—and a number of AOB items.

On fisheries, the Council adopted conclusions, which had been agreed in advance, welcoming the Commission’s recent action plan on sharks. The action plan set out some principles and future work streams regarding the conservation of sharks, rays and chimeras, which are vulnerable species.

The Commission then gave a brief initial presentation of the Green Paper on Common Fisheries Policy Reform. It stressed that there was a need for fundamental reforms and insisted that member states should not stand in the way of necessary reform; the long-term interest of all was in creating sustainable fish stocks. A more thorough discussion on the Green Paper will take place at the Council in May.

Next, the Commission introduced its communication on the sustainable development of Community aquaculture. It had concerns that EU production was stagnating while demand was increasing, the gap being filled by imports from third countries. It warned, however, that there was no additional funding available. There will be a full debate on this issue at the June Council.

There were four fisheries AOB items. Spain highlighted its concern about the problem of Somalian piracy and called on the Council to take appropriate measures that might include extending the range of the EU NAVFOR Somalia/ATALANTA operation and the establishment of an operating base in the area.

The Netherlands then explained that the official Dutch control body had recently prevented exports of glass eels outside the Community. They wanted a similar ban at EU level.

The Netherlands also raised concerns that the increased activity in coastal zones of gill net fishing has had a negative effect on the porpoise population. They called for EU measures to limit the use of gill nets and entangling nets for all vessels not just the over 10 metre ones.

The Commission expressed its concern that the slow implementation of the European Fisheries Fund (EFF) budget commitments by member states was delaying the spending of the available funds. They identified the main problem as being delays in putting the management and control plans in place.

On agriculture, the presidency introduced its questionnaire seeking member states views on CAP simplification to date; Commission ambition regarding further simplification; and the role Payment Agencies might play in the debate going forward. Member states rehearsed familiar views, all of whom supported further simplification with an emphasis on control burdens and cross compliance. Denmark tabled a list of 39 specific proposals for simplification, which 12 member states, including the UK, signed as co-sponsors. Denmark called for the creation of a high-level group for simplification to consider its proposals and for a commitment from the Commission to report on progress to the October Council.

The Commission then presented its Communication on Less Favoured Areas (LFAs) stressing that its review was limited to intermediate LFA; that is, areas with natural handicaps, encompassing neither mountainous regions nor areas with specific handicaps. The Communication responded to a call from the Council for reform in 2005 and to a 2003 Court of Auditors report, which pointed up shortcomings with the existing instrument. Application of the existing instrument was flawed on two counts: (1) it was based on socioeconomic criteria, whereas the challenge was to address land-use problems not income levels; and (2) there was little coherence at EU level about what constituted an area with a natural handicap leading inevitably to inequalities.

The Communication also constituted the initiation of a technical exercise wherein member states were required to simulate the application of biophysical criteria for areas with natural handicaps, reporting back to the Commission with detailed maps of their findings in six months’ time. Only after the completion of this technical exercise would the Commission come forward with legislative proposals. The new definition would not come into force until the next programming period; that is, post-2013. The presidency concluded that it would put draft Council conclusions to the June Council.

There were four agriculture AOB items. Denmark tabled a paper urging the Commission to take a more proportionate approach to financial corrections in respect of farm payment irregularities. Flat-rate corrections often overstated the real risk for Community funds. The process was also too drawn-out and needed to be speeded up.

Germany called on the Commission to permit partial payments to be advanced to farmers before the opening of the existing payment window and without checks having being completed on the respective claims.

Ireland rehearsed the March Council debate on the perceived difficulties in the dairy sector, eliciting merely a reiteration of the Commission’s position.

Belgium rehearsed the March Council debate on the perceived difficulties in the pigmeat sector, again eliciting merely a reiteration of the Commission’s position.