The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), represented the UK on 26 April covering the agriculture items. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), represented the UK on 27 April covering fisheries business. Richard Lochhead MSP and Alun Davies AM also attended.
The main focus of Agriculture Council was two table rounds on CAP reform, covering several elements of the proposed direct payment scheme.
On young and small farmers, member states repeated their broad support for the measures but the majority view was that they should be voluntary at national level. The UK argued the scheme should be for genuine new entrants and not hereditary. The main disagreement on small farmers was their exemption from cross-compliance and greening. The UK and others opposed a total exemption. The Commission insisted the proposal would deliver benefits to farmers and administrations.
Member states were split over proposals to allow subsidy to be coupled to production. The UK and others warned against any expansion of coupled support. Others wanted to broaden the scope of the proposals and take in new sectors, including pigmeat and tobacco. The presidency and Commission suggested that the balance of the proposals was about right.
Most member states were comfortable with the Commission’s proposed pillar 1 scheme for areas of natural constraint, on the basis that it would be voluntary.
The Commission expressed openness to an alternative approach on the definition of an active farmer. This was broadly welcomed, as was the presidency’s recent text removing the income test element.
The UK and other member states underlined their strong opposition to the principle of capping of direct payments at farm level. Others were in principle in favour of the proposal, but would prefer a simpler system.
On convergence of payment rates within member states and regions, many, including the UK, reiterated the need for national flexibility on the speed of the transition.
There were six items under any other business.
(i) A Commission presentation of its communication on the promotion of EU agricultural products which would lead to a legislative proposal by the end of 2012.
(ii) Hungary supported by seven new member states raised the recent decision to limit the funding available to producer groups in the fruit and vegetables sector, urging reconsideration. The Commission responded that the budget ceiling was necessary.
(iii) Poland with some support from other member states urged the Commission to reintroduce milk export refunds and to raise intervention prices for butter and skimmed milk powder in the medium-term. The Commissioner replied that prices had risen throughout 2011 and recent price falls were in line with seasonal norms: there was no justification for market intervention.
(iv) The Commission updated member states on the implementation of the sow stall ban. Member states must be fully compliant on 1 January 2013 and there would be no extension. Current data suggested that only 16 would be. The UK gave the Commission full support adding that there were significant welfare benefits and experience suggested that those in compliance would see prices rise.
(v) The Czech Republic explained that recent incidences of industrial salt and adulterated egg powder in food, in Poland, demonstrated the requirement for full transparency between member states. Poland responded by saying their food was safe, that the Polish inspection services had launched inquiries into both incidents, and a risk assessment had concluded that the industrial salt incident had posed no risk to human health.
(vi) France drew attention to a recent scientific study which drew a link between bee health and the use of the pesticide thiamethoxame. The European Food Safety Agency was verifying the study and the Commission confirmed they would take any necessary action once the EFSA evaluations had been completed. The UK and the Netherlands both welcomed urgent EFSA consideration of the study.
On Friday 27 the Council debated two aspects of common fisheries policy (CFP) reform: regionalisation and transferable fishing concessions (TFCs).
Under regionalisation the Commission highlighted two key aspects as desirable: increased involvement of the industry and stakeholders, and a simplified decision making procedure. The Commission stressed that regionalisation would only ever be an option for member states and would never be imposed.
The UK, along with other member states supported significant regionalisation allowing member states in any given area to agree the detailed technical measures needed in their shared fisheries, in consultation with the advisory councils. Also where agreements were reached these should be put into effect through EU implementing measures, and the absence of an agreement should not give the Commission a reason to impose measures, but proceed through co-decision. The majority of member states supported this approach. The Commission responded that there was a need to balance the ambition of member states to develop decentralised models and the efficiency of the CFP.
On the proposed TFCs the Commission stressed the need to reduce capacity and the TFC was the best method to so, and were prepared to be flexible on the detail. They were prepared to build in flexibility and safeguards, for example to avoid over-concentration in too few hands, and stressed that member states were obliged to certify by 1 January 2013 that they were compliant with existing capacity ceilings.
Although member state views on the detail differed to a degree, most spoke against the imposition of TFCs, with a few supporting the principle of TFC’s only on a voluntary basis.
The UK stressed that detailed decisions on allocations should be left to the member state. Only a few supported mandatory TFCs for larger vessels and long distance vessels. The majority of member states agreed that any trading should be between existing fishing operators. Some asked for funding from the EMFF for vessel scrapping aid to allow capacity reduction. The Commission undertook to consider member states’ comments.
Over lunch fishery ministers discussed the socio economic aspect of CFP reform, some underlining the importance of supporting fisheries communities, others looking for special funding to support hard pressed communities.