The Agriculture Council meet in Luxemburg today (Thursday) with a long list of concerns. EU Farm Ministers will hold two full table rounds on proposed measures related to schemes for young farmers and small farmers, Less Favoured Areas, the definition of an ‘active farmer’, capping larger beneficiaries and the internal distribution of direct payments. This will be another opportunity for Member States to state their positions and push for their priorities as the negotiations move forward.
At the same time, Foreign Affairs Ministers from the Baltic States called for a bolder commitment on the redistribution of CAP direct support. A joint proposal submitted by Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia urges a “more ambitious approach for a faster and more considerable convergence of direct payments, seeking to avoid substantial differences between the highest and lowest level of direct payments in the EU”; a position that will be opposed by those countries that would have to take the biggest hit in terms of direct payments.
There has also been considerable disquiet from UK farming unions following reports that UK negotiators in Brussels are trying to give Member States the power to cut CAP direct payments by up to 20 per cent through a system which would replace voluntary modulation. If the current draft regulations were approved, Member States would have the facility to move 10% of the direct payments budget to the rural development budget. News that UK negotiators are seeking to increase this percentage suggests that Defra would like to move more of its direct payments budget to rural development, given the small RD budget. It should be noted, however, that even if this provision were implemented it would be for the Scottish Government to decide on whether or not to use it and that the Scottish Government’s position at present is that it would prefer not to use this sort of tool to move money between budgets: Scottish Government is focusing on trying to get a better budget for rural development to begin with.
Recent meetings in Brussels attended by Andrew Midgley would suggest, however, that we should not hold out great hopes for a large increase in the rural development budget. European Commission staff stated clearly that drastic changes are simply not politically realistic. Any increase in one Member State budget must come through a cut elsewhere and that will be unpopular. The Commission have referred to how rural development budgets will be based on objective criteria and past performance, but have not clarified how these will be weighted and when the decisions will be made. The first hurdle is the agreement of the overall EU budget, which could be delayed until later this year or early next year. And so we will not have clarity on the rural development budget in the UK for some time.