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Agriculture and Fisheries Council

Volume 535: debated on Monday 7 November 2011

On Thursday 20 October I represented the UK on agricultural issues at the first day of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg. I was accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Minister with responsibility for agriculture and food. On Friday 21 October my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Minister with responsibility for natural environment and fisheries, the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) represented the United Kingdom on the fisheries items. Richard Lochhead MSP, Michelle O’Neil MLA and Alun Davies AM were also in attendance.

The main item on Thursday was a Commission presentation of the seven proposals which make up the package for reform of the common agricultural policy from 2014. Commissioner Ciolos began by stating that sustainable competitiveness, linked to food security, was at the heart of the proposals before going on to say that greater convergence of payment rates within and between member states was necessary. He stated that direct payments should be made up of basic income support (70%), with the remaining 30% available only if farmers met certain environmental or “greening” conditions. Commissioner Ciolos went on to underline his belief that the first pillar of the CAP should apply in a uniform manner across all member states, with the second pillar offering member states flexibility to respond to national priority needs.

Two full table rounds followed giving member states a first opportunity to offer views on the package. Views varied widely with no unconditional support for the package but the UK made it clear that the proposals represented a missed opportunity, doing nothing to move EU farmers towards a situation in which they could be competitive without direct payments. As tabled, the proposals risked rewarding farmers for normal good practice or, worse, preventing them from making the right decisions for sustainability.

On the detail of the proposals, some themes emerged during the two discussions. On convergence of direct payments, a number of member states had serious misgivings about redistribution of funding between member states with some expressing the view that proposals went too far while others believed it did not go far enough, while the UK, with the support of a number of other member states, repeated opposition to the capping of direct payments.

Proposals for the “greening” of pillar 1 received some support in principle, but the majority of member states questioned the rigid, one-size-fits-all system proposed which appeared to deliver more red tape than actual environmental benefit. This debate led to a discussion of the broader issue of simplification. Member states were of the view that the Commission had promised simplification, but that the package as a whole, with a multi-layered direct payment scheme consisting of various mandatory elements, would increase the burden for both farmers and national administrations.

Few member states had fundamental problems with the proposals on rural development, though all were clearly interested in the allocation criteria for pillar 2 payments for which the UK called for a faster move to objective allocation criteria.

In conclusion to the debate, Commissioner Ciolos stated that, in his view, the proposals had received broad support as the basis for future discussion but that he realised the allocation of payments would be the most contentious issue and that further work was needed. However, he rejected arguments that the package did not deliver simplification for producers and would be writing to Ministers outlining how his package delivered in this area.

Also on the agenda was a discussion of the food for deprived persons scheme. The presidency and Commission together urged the blocking minority of six member states (Germany, UK, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands and Czech Republic) to reconsider their positions and agree to the revised proposal. A number of member states, led by France, intervened to express their frustration that this dossier was being blocked. The presidency then asked members of the blocking minority to confirm that they still opposed the revised proposals. All did, and the UK commented that the revised legal base only confirmed that this was a social scheme for action at a national rather than EU level.

The final agriculture item for discussion on the substantive agenda related to the achieving of an EU common position on four draft resolutions of the International Organisation for Vine and Wine (OIV). The UK remained silent as it is not a member of the OIV and the presidency noted that there remained a blocking majority against adoption of the resolutions.

Under any other business Council heard an update from Commissioner Dalli on implementation of the laying hens directive, which comes into force on 1 January 2013. The Commission was clear that there would be no postponement of the ban on battery cages even though at least 11 member states were unlikely to have complied with the directive by the start of next year. The Commission said it would exercise powers, beginning targeted inspection visits at the start of 2013, and would begin legal proceedings against non-compliant member states. While there was an argument that non-compliant eggs should be destroyed, this would not make political or economic sense. Instead, the use of non-compliant eggs would be limited to production of egg products within the member state of origin. There was no opportunity for member states to intervene.

The second day of Council saw consideration of two fisheries agenda items. The first related to 2012 fishing opportunities in the Baltic sea. The Commission stressed the need for a cautious approach, particularly for stocks where there was no scientific advice; and the need to respect existing scientific advice and management plans where relevant. The aim should be to reach maximum sustainable yield (MSY) levels for all stocks. Member states challenged the Commission’s generic approach of proposing cuts of 25% or 15% for stocks for which there was insufficient advice (“data poor”) and pushed back against the Commission’s ambition to reach MSY sooner than the internationally agreed date of 2015, where possible. The Commission agreed to treat data-poor stocks on a case-by-case basis; an important shift for forthcoming fishing opportunities negotiations of interest to the UK and other fishing member states.

After extensive bilateral discussions and a compromise proposal from the presidency, the Commission was pressed in a final negotiating session to offer reduced decreases across most stocks.

The final fisheries item related to the EU-Norway fisheries agreement for 2012. Ministers had an exchange of views to orientate the Commission’s approach to this forthcoming set of negotiations governing stocks jointly managed by the EU and Norway, and the exchange of fishing opportunities. The UK is the member state with the largest fishing interest in the agreement.

The Commission noted the importance of reaching a balanced agreement on behalf of the EU as a whole and that member states had to be realistic in what they felt should be offered to Norway to secure access to the Arctic cod allocation offered. On this issue the UK said Norway should be pressed to use external waters stocks, while other member states pressed for maximum Arctic cod uptake and stressed the importance of an EU-Faroes agreement. The UK also stressed the importance of ensuring Iceland and the Faroes behaved responsibly and reached a reasonable agreement on mackerel as well as the extension of the “catch quota” scheme which has been shown to reduce discards.