I attended the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 18 and 19 March in Brussels. Richard Lochhead MSP and Michelle O’Neil MLA also attended.
The main business of the Council was to agree Council’s position on the four regulations which set out the rules for the common agricultural policy (CAP) over the 2014-20 financial period; and agreement was reached on this late on Tuesday evening.
I am pleased to report that many of the key negotiating objectives for the UK were secured. I worked closely with all the devolved Administrations, and as a result we successfully secured key changes to address concerns for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on issues such as internal convergence—the rules governing the move from historically based to area-based payments for those regions which have not already achieved that transition—and the designation of areas of natural constraint; and in particular, a change which was designed to clarify that implementation decisions on all aspects of the CAP can be taken at regional level. We will continue to represent the interests of the whole of the UK throughout the continuing discussions on the legislation, and in the negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament.
I made it clear that the Commission’s proposed “greening” of the CAP, which will involve part of the subsidy envelope being paid on the basis of compliance with environmental measures, should be delivered through a simple system, to achieve environmental benefits without imposing unnecessary costs on farmers, and to secure value for taxpayers. Council agreed to include an option for member states to design their own certification scheme to deliver the Commission’s “greening” outcomes, which has the potential to simplify implementation significantly, for both farm business and the paying agency.
I was disappointed that the majority of member states were content to allow farmers to be paid twice under two different budgets for delivering the same environmental benefit; but compromises were necessary, and this now forms part of the position. I made it clear that I shared the European Parliament’s opposition to this approach.
Although several member states wanted to extend sugar beet quotas to 2020, I worked with other member states to persuade the Council to agree that they will end in 2017. I am disappointed that they will continue beyond the date previously set for them to end but we have achieved a compromise and fought off calls for the end to be in 2020. The result is that sugar beet quotas will finally be scrapped benefiting consumers and our food processing industries. It is also important that we ensure availability of cane sugar supplies to allow cane refineries to compete on an equal footing; and I am determined to work with the Commission to persuade them to ensure fair treatment for cane sugar refiners.
The Council concluded that the ceiling for coupled payments in each member State—effectively, the proportion of their CAP subsidy envelope which can be linked to production—should increase from that proposed by the Commission. Under the proposals, member states, including the UK, which have made the most progress in decoupling payments, will be allowed to pay up to 7% of their direct payment budget as coupled payments. The remaining member states will be allowed up to 12%. I was disappointed that the Council proposed that coupled payments continue, and that different levels of flexibility should be allowed to different member states, but the agreement is a clear improvement on the European Parliament’s proposal for 15% or even 18%.
The presidency had mistakenly removed from its proposed compromise on the rural development regulation, wording which is relevant to the calculation of a portion of the UK’s rebate. I made it clear that it was essential for this mistake to be corrected, and the presidency ensured that it was corrected in the compromise further changes tabled on the second day. Following objections from a few member states, the presidency maintained the text with the necessary wording, but put the article in square brackets and referred it for resolution in the framework of the Council deliberation on the EU own resource decision. However, at my insistence they also made it clear that this issue needed to be resolved before the rural development regulation could be agreed.
I and other Ministers successfully argued against pressure from some member states to extend the use of market intervention. Reducing market intervention has helped to keep Europe on the path towards a more competitive farming sector, with less of a distorting impact of subsidy.
Under any other business, I raised the issue of the European Commission’s proposed action on neonicotinoids. A total of 11 member states supported my call for the Commission to use all the latest scientific evidence, before any final decisions were taken; in particular I asked the Commission to ensure that any decision was taken in the light of field studies into effects on bee populations. The protection of bees is vital; but action should be considered, proportionate and science-led. I promised to deliver the results of our field studies to the Commission and other member states by the week commencing 25 March 2013.
Also under any other business, the Netherlands presented a paper on trade difficulties with Russia who planned to ban the import of plants from the EU from 1 June. They were supported by other member states and called on the Commission to provide the phytosanitary information Russia requested. I echoed this call, as seed potato exports to Russia are important for Scotland. The Commission acknowledged the situation and indicated that it would raise the issue with the Russians.