Wasted opportunity as CAP reforms turn the clock back

24-Jan-2013 @ 13:0

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Anthea McIntyre Anthea McIntyre

Anthea McIntyre Anthea McIntyre

Long-awaited proposals to overhaul the European Union's much-criticised Common Agricultural Policy - which have been discussed and voted upon in minutiae by MEPs yesterday and today (Thursday) - represent a huge and regrettable wasted opportunity, a senior Conservative MEP said today.

Julie Girling, Conservative agriculture spokesman in the European Parliament, described proposals put forward by the European Commission as "a complete mess and a backward step".

She said: " Worst of all this protectionists' charter will bring back rampant interventionism.  It threatens to send us back to the bad old days of butter mountains and wine lakes and of inefficient European farmers sitting pretty on a cushion of taxpayers' money.

Members of the parliament's Agriculture Committee have spent two days wrangling over the details of the proposals and voting on thousands  of suggested  amendments.

But Mrs Girling, Conservative MEP for the South West, said the outcome would be "Bad for consumers, bad for farmers, bad for the environment - a failure on every level."

The so-called "compromise" proposals adopted by the committee would allow groups of farmers to form trade union-like groups called Producer Organisations with sweeping powers to order farmers to stop producing or to increase prices if they were selling food more cheaply than others.  These legalised cartels would even have power to force non-members in the same sector to comply with such orders  - and to pay for the privilege through obligatory contributions to the organisation's running costs.

Another proposal would effectively do away with a free market in agriculture. The committee voted to significantly increase the price threshold at which the EU Commission could intervene and buy up stocks in a depressed market. Famers would thus benefit much earlier from intervention and receive considerably more for the food - which the Commission would then be obliged to keep in store and use to force prices up for processors and consumers.

Reinforcing the protectionist nature of the measures, the committee voted to exempt agriculture from EU competition  rules.

The proposals would also offer a retrograde step on the issue of environmental protection and the controversial single-farm payment.

Whereas in previous CAP reforms, Conservatives have encouraged a shift of payments out of so-called Pillar 1 - where subsidies are paid on the basis of land area farmed  - to Pillar 2, where schemes for farmers to improve the environment and expand or protect wildlife habitat are directly incentivised..

However the proposal from the Commission was approved which would reverse these positive moves by proposing a serious of arbitrary "greening" measures which every farmer would have to meet to receive any Pillar 1 payment. To obtain subsidies farmers would have to keep seven per cent of arable land out of production, grow at least three crops and keep at least five per cent of their land as permanent grassland.

Mrs Girling said: "If this is enacted as it stands it means more red tape for farmers, probably higher food prices, certainly less properly-directed support for effective biodiversity projects.

"Farmers would once again be paid taxpayers' money for doing nothing on parts  of their land, a return to the discredited set aside regime . This as the world grows increasingly short of food. It would be a huge step backwards for the process of gradually reforming the CAP towards a market-based system.

"Worst of all it would probably harm the environment, as farmers will be forced to intensify production on the limited amount of land they will be able to use. Some farmers would end up being paid for the same greening measures twice - under both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 - which is ridiculous."

"We all want the CAP greened, but this is not the way to do it. The many successful agri-environment schemes in the UK are the perfect example of how Pillar 2 CAP payments can work. They help farmers reduce their impact on the environment but still let them decide for themselves how they farm their land. Pillar 2 payments can be made at national level. That is where we have the right level of knowledge about where schemes are needed and what will work best.

The committee's proposals will now go to the full parliament before they are considered by the European Council - the gathering of ministers from member states - which has co-decision powers.

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