The European agriculture commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, signalled his willingness to make concessions on his original CAP reform proposals when the Agricultural Council met in Brussels to discuss ‘greening’ this week. The three greening measures (relating to permanent grassland, crop diversification and ecological focus areas) have received almost universal criticism and so the Commissioner has set out some ideas of how the proposals might be changed to accommodate different Member States concerns.
The possible changes include an increase in the threshold for exemption from the 3 crop rule from 3ha to 10ha, along with possible exemption for farms below 50ha where the main crop is grass. There is a possible extension of the proposed 5-year rotation definition for permanent grass to 8 years. And critically for Scotland, the Commissioner was prepared to consider that a definition of permanent grassland would include “traditional systems” which would hopefully allow heather to remain eligible for direct support.
In setting out these ideas, the Commissioner has potentially moved the debate on from what was becoming a bit of an impasse. Now that the Commission has signalled its willingness to accommodate some of the criticisms different Member States and negotiating blocs will feel some progress is being made, although, as the reaction to the Commission’s ideas makes plain, most still feel that there is a long way to go.
The Commission did not, however, give way in its opposition to the widely touted ‘menu approach’. While the majority of delegations put their weight behind the menu approach to greening—which would allow Member States some flexibility to choose greening options that were more appropriate to their specific circumstances—Dacian Ciolos said that such a “complex set of provisions would entail a cumbersome administrative burden” and called for the retention of a “uniform system – on the basis of an equivalency of measures”. A menu approach raises all sorts of problems about a level playing field in the EU, so the Commissioner is keen to avoid it. He has, however, signalled his willingness to explore additional options that might be considered equivalent to greening i.e. in addition to the proposed exemption for organic farming. This “equivalence system” could include beneficiaries engaging in an agri-environment scheme under Pillar 2 being deemed to have fulfilled one or more greening measures under Pillar 1. There is also still the possibility of certification schemes providing an approach to greening.
Richard Lochhead, who attended the meeting, said: "Our farmers will welcome the additional flexibility that has been signalled by the Commissioner and although there is still some way to go the door is now open for further negotiations to find a route to greening the Common Agricultural Policy in a way that suits Scotland. There will be relief that the Commissioner has moved from listening mode to responding mode.
"By reconsidering the definition of permanent grassland to include traditional agricultural systems the Commission have opened the door to a wider definition of what is eligible grazing land. This is an aspect has been a major concern for our hill farmers.
"We welcome the Commission re-visiting the exemption threshold for crop diversification. But while an increase in the threshold to between three and 10 hectares - or a holding area of less than 50 hectares of which a significant part is covered by grassland - is a move in the right direction, we still need to see a further increase. And we still need more progress on long-term rotation. The suggested move from five to eight years or longer is encouraging - but we would like this to move further to 10 years or longer.
"Today we have seen a good first step towards striking that balance and delivering more sensible proposals, but the Commission still have a long way to go."
Luke Borwick, Scottish Land & Estates Chairman said: “We are very encouraged that Richard Lochhead was involved in these discussions. The Scottish Government seems to have listened to the industry and be fighting hard for measures that work for us. We very much welcome these signs of change in the debate in Europe and stand squarely behind the Cabinet Secretary as he continues to fight for further changes that will improve the proposals”.