My hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), the Minister with responsibility for farming, food and the marine environment, represented the UK at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 16 November in Brussels. Rebecca Evans AM and Aileen McLeod MSP also attended.
The main agenda item was the simplification of the common agricultural policy (CAP). Commissioner Hogan reiterated his commitment to CAP simplification. He provided an update on the changes made so far which included:
preventative preliminary checks;
an extension to the existing provision for member states to reduce on-the-spot checks subject to meeting a number of criteria set out by the Commission;
a collective claims system under pillar 2 for agri-environment; and
allowing farmers to modify their declarations for greening parcels.
There have also been changes to voluntary coupled support, the young farmers scheme and market measures. Furthermore Commissioner Hogan has:
asked his services to simplify the penalty system;
planned a package of delegated and implementing Acts before summer 2016 for greening; and
appointed a high-level group on simplification of rural development.
The Commissioner acknowledged this work would likely reach the limits of what improvements could be made without opening the basic Acts. He indicated he was open to doing this if the Council so agreed.
For the second main agenda item, Commissioner Hogan set out his plans to progress the Commission’s international trade agenda which in 2016 includes plans to visit Colombia, Mexico, India, Japan, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. The focus of these trade visits will include: dairy, livestock, fruit and vegetables, wine and spirits, and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, World Trade Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation negotiations. Some member states, including the UK, France and Ireland, expressed support for trade access efforts. However, a number of others, including Austria, Greece, Belgium and Hungary, urged caution, warning of the possible danger to EU competitiveness.
Commissioner Hogan also provided an update on the dairy aid package. The aid schemes for cheese and skimmed milk powder were accepting applications from member states, and a pigmeat scheme would be implemented in January. The Agricultural Markets Taskforce will begin its work in early 2016, and report with policy recommendations by the end of 2016.
The following were AOB items on the agenda:
Belgium asked the Commission what action had been taken to lift the pork ban which Russia had imposed after the outbreak of African swine fever in the Baltic member states and Poland. They underlined that pork prices were continuing to fall. An urgent need for a solution was supported by 10 other member states. The UK was supported by Poland and Lithuania in recognising the need for a solution, but underlined this could not come at the cost of EU unity.
The Czech Republic provided a report from the conference they hosted on hunting and game management. They concluded that measures could positively help prevent crop damage and the spread of disease by wildlife. Commissioner Hogan noted the Commission was undertaking a fitness check of the EU Natura legislation, which will be published in spring 2016. He also noted game management did not fall within the Commission’s competence.
Italy pressed the Commission to form a high-level discussion group to continue to monitor the sugar sector in order to avoid a crisis when EU sugar quotas end in 2017. They were supported by Austria, Romania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Greece. The UK highlighted the restructuring aid that had already been provided, and reminded the Council to keep in mind developing countries that export to the EU. Commissioner Hogan reminded the Council that extensive restructuring funds have already been given, and an expert group had already been set up at Italy’s request. He was not minded to take any further action.
The presidency updated the Council on the progress of the most recent trilogue for school schemes. The Parliament continues to be reluctant to engage, and no date has been set for the next trilogue. Many member states intervened to voice support for a well thought through deal, over a hasty compromise on the legal basis. The presidency and Commissioner Hogan were still optimistic that a deal could be reached.