The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) who is responsible for natural environment and fisheries represented the United Kingdom at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg on 28 June. Richard Lochhead MSP also attended. This was the final Agriculture and Fisheries Council under the Hungarian presidency.
Commissioner Damanaki spoke about the Commission’s proposed framework for setting catch levels for 2012 and beyond via the total allowable catch (TAC) and quota regulation (TQR). Against a backdrop of the poor state of many EU fish stocks and the continued issue of overfishing, the Commission announced its aim to ensure that all fish stocks should be fished within the threshold of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) by 2015 and where there was insufficient scientific advice or data the precautionary approach should be adopted and a cut of 25% should be applied to the TAC. Commissioner Damanaki also explained that she intended to split the TQR into two parts this year in order to improve the process: “internal” stocks to be decided at the November Council and “external” (those subject to international negotiations, principally joint EU-Norway stocks) in December.
There was near universal opposition to the idea of the 25% cut for data-poor stocks with 19 of the 22 fishing member states (and Austria) explicitly opposing this. There was concern that this approach would merely increase levels of discarded fish in many cases and that a more targeted approach, using all available data or advice, even incomplete, would be preferable.
There was widespread concern among all fishing member states about aspects of the MSY principle. Nearly all noted that 2015 was the target for all fisheries and that this should be achieved on a gradual basis. The UK, along with Ireland, Spain, Belgium and coastal state in the Baltic expressed concern about how individual species MSY targets could be identified correctly in a multi-species environment.
The UK, Spain, Denmark, France, Ireland, Belgium, Portugal and Austria also expressed concern about the idea of splitting the TQR decision-making across two Councils, creating administrative inefficiency.
In response Commissioner Damanaki emphasised the need to follow scientific advice and in the absence of such advice there had to be a precautionary approach. MSY had to be achieved by 2015 and this could be done on a gradual basis up to then, but could not be delayed. She was open to look at the November-December split to ensure that stocks related to the EU-Norway negotiations were not set in November but she wanted to stick to deciding things as early as possible.
There were three points raised under any other business. The first item saw Ireland express serious concerns about unrestricted mackerel fishing by Iceland and the Faeroe Islands. Setting autonomous quotas significantly higher than scientific advice threatened to damage one of the EU’s most valuable, and previously sustainable stocks. Ireland pressed for EU action in the form an immediate ban on all mackerel landings and all imports of mackerel products. The UK supported these concerns and emphasised the possibility of high-level international action to find a political solution. France, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Portugal also supported Ireland. The Commission agreed that action was needed but noted that it could only act within the appropriate legal framework. Commissioner Damanaki said she was talking to Trade Commissioner De Gucht about finding a more effective legal instrument and she hoped to be able to propose something in the autumn.
The second item was a report back from the Netherlands on the high-level conference on common fisheries policy reform that took place in Noordwijk in March 2011. The final fisheries item was a declaration from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania asking for appropriate levels of funding for fisheries as part of the new structural funding arrangements. In particular they emphasised the need for modernisation, research and innovation and small-scale fisheries to be sufficiently funded in the context of CFP reform. There was also a demand for a greater focus on aquaculture. Slovenia, Malta and Slovakia also broadly supported the declaration. Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and Ireland drew attention to a declaration that they had recently sent to the Commission which was largely similar, but which also emphasised the need for the economic and social objectives of the CFP to be properly funded. The Commission said that the new funding instrument would prioritise sustainable fishing, research, aquaculture (inland and marine) and would be administratively simpler.
On agriculture, the main item concerned the Commission’s response to the E. coli crisis. Commissioner Dalli updated the Council on the public health aspects of the crisis. He also explained the actions taken to get Russia to lift its export ban on EU fruit and vegetables; an agreement had been reached, although some implementation action was still needed, and exports were resuming. Member states welcomed the agreement with Russia, and wanted to see its full and rapid implementation. All agreed on the need to review the operation of EU food safety alert systems and learn lessons from the outbreak. The UK stated that the protection of consumers must be the first priority, and noted that the EU alert systems had worked well in the recent French outbreak, allowing supply chains to be rapidly traced across several member states.
Commissioner Ciolos (Agriculture) explained the measures he had put in place to support affected growers, amounting to a budget of €210 million. Member states needed to provide the necessary verified data rapidly to ensure good audit standards, and decisions on how to apportion the money would be made at the Management Committee on 22 July. He argued that this reinforced the case as part of CAP reform for giving the Commission more scope to intervene in such crises. The Commission also stated it would find an extra €5 million to support promotional campaigns over the coming years. The main grower member states welcomed the Commission’s action, and the increased budget, while bemoaning the bureaucratic difficulty of securing the necessary information to support claims. Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Austria wanted more products adding the list of those eligible for compensation or the criteria loosened to allow compensation for having sold at a low price but there were no loud calls for a bigger budget. The UK stressed the importance of restoring consumer confidence to allow producers to get their returns from the market not subsidies. The Commission noted the need to act quickly and simply meant an EU-wide approach, although member states could add national mechanisms (state aids) on top if they so wished. He stressed that proper audit was essential to ensure appropriate financial management.
There were three agricultural items under any other business. The first related to the food for deprived persons programme. Italy called for rapid action to ensure the food for deprived persons programme could continue at its planned level of funding (€500 million a year) following the recent European Court of Justice ruling that would heavily restrict it. Belgium, Slovenia, Cyprus, France, Hungary and Poland agreed. The Commission stated that the European Court of Justice ruling would limit funds to what was available from intervention sales, about €130 million for 2012 and nothing in 2013, but there was a Commission proposal on the table to resolve the difficulties and allow the full spending to proceed, should the Council agree it. Germany, the Netherlands and UK all said they did not agree—this was a social programme, for national Governments, not something for the CAP. Poland indicated they would bring the issue to the Council for decision under their presidency.
The two final items under any other business were reports back from the French on the recent G20 meeting of agriculture ministers, and from Hungary two conferences they had held on the future of livestock sector and on organic farming. There was no further discussion.