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Council pushes to reduce environmental conditions for EU farm payments

Digital tool for nutrients remains most controversial issue

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Agriculture ministers want to delete some of the basic environmental conditions that farmers would need to respect to receive subsidies under the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

At the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on April 15, national Agriculture ministers discussed the CAP’s future “green architecture” that will be laid out in the post-2020 Regulation for the Strategic Plans.

Based on a questionnaire and a state-of-play report drafted by the Romanian Council Presidency, ministers were invited to voice their objections to the specific components of the proposed agri-environmental framework.

They first commented on the so-called “enhanced conditionality” - the basic set of conditions on factors such as public/plant health and animal welfare that farmers will need to respect to be eligible for CAP subsidies.

These would involve an enhanced list of the good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAECs) and statutory management requirements (SMR) now included under cross-compliance, as well as the current greening requirements.

However, only a few ministers - most notably Spain’s Luis Planas – voiced their support for the specific set of obligations proposed by the Commission.

Most of the delegations asked to remove certain requirements from the conditionality, arguing that they are too strict and should only include those rules relevant for all farmers in every member state.

Among others, objections were raised to the foreseen GAECs on animal welfare (Germany), wetlands and peatlands (Latvia) and crop rotation (Czechia).

But the most controversial aspect remains the Farm Sustainability Tool for Nutrients (FaST), a new digital application aimed at helping farmers to improve the use of fertilisers on their fields.

Many ministers – including those from Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Portugal and Spain – spoke out against mandatory application of the instrument.

They argued that it should be placed under the national Farm Advisory Services instead, which would make its implementation voluntary.

Only for small farms?

Meanwhile, the delegations disagreed on the types of farms that should comply with the conditions and therefore be subject to the controls and possible penalties described in the CAP’s Horizontal Regulation.

Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Portugal all defended an exemption for small-scale farmers who benefit from the EU’s farming payments, arguing that this would reduce administrative burdens and bring down control costs for public authorities.

However, agricultural giants France and Germany insisted that the rules should apply equally to all farmers and not just large producers, backed by others such as Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Luxembourg, Slovakia and the Netherlands.

Slovenia’s Agriculture Minister Aleksandra Pivec proposed an alternative solution, stating that national authorities should decide on the possible exemptions themselves, in line with the principle of subsidiarity.

Broad support for eco-schemes and AECM funding

As outlined in the Commission’s reform plans, member states will also need to set out their own mix of mandatory and voluntary environmental measures in their national Strategic Plans.

Under Pillar 1 (direct payments), national authorities would have to make annual eco-schemes available to provide financial support for farmers who adopt “simple” environmental and climate practices such as the application of flower strips.

At the meeting, a majority of Agriculture Ministers backed the plan to make the implementation of the schemes mandatory for member states but voluntary for farmers, with the exception of a few delegates (Croatia, Finland, Poland and Slovenia).

Some nevertheless added that the eco-schemes should be exempt from the proposed capping measure (Czechia, Germany, Greece, Slovakia and Slovenia).

Nearly all of the Ministers also agreed to reserve at least 30% of the Rural Development budget (Pillar 2) for voluntary agri-environment-climate measures (AECMs) under Pillar 2, which would reward more “dark green” multi-annual actions such as the conversion to organic farming.

Only Estonia’s Rural Affairs Minister Tarmo Tamm said that “15% of the funds is enough”, while the Netherland’s Carola Schouten advocated for an ever higher allocation than 30%.

Some member states also asked for these calculations for the 30% share to include the support for Areas of Natural Constraints (ANCs).

Furthermore, a number of delegations – Cyprus, Czechia, France, Hungary Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia – stressed that the higher level of climate and environmental ambitions must be reflected in an adequate budget for the post-2020 CAP, with Polish Minister Krzysztof Ardanowski remarking that “farmers cannot do more with less money."

“Best hope for the future of our planet”

Speaking to ministers at the start of the Council, EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan had called the agri-environmental framework the “cornerstone of the European Commission’s future CAP proposal.”

Referring to the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the farming chief declared: “In my view, the need for aiming higher has never been more urgent.”

The Irishman stressed again that the new plans would be a “game-changer” in terms of increasing the policy’s ambition on climate and environment measures.

“I believe our proposals for the future CAP and Horizon Europe represent the best hope for the future of our planet,” he reiterated. “They acknowledge that the environmental and climate challenges remain significant and see farmers and rural communities as being part of the solution rather than part of the problem."

The Commissioner also warned that he needs “a clear signal from the Ministers that this will be at the heart of the CAP”, otherwise it would be difficult to justify an adequate budget for the post-2020 CAP in the ongoing negotiations on the next Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF).

Hogan already defended his blueprint for the new “green architecture” at the meeting of the AGRIFISH Council on January 28, in an attempt to ease mounting opposition against his plans for a more ambitious agri-environmental framework.

At a previous Council meeting in July last year, eight national ministers started to push the EU executive to lower the CAP’s common environmental requirements and give member states more freedom to adopt their own tailor-made measures.

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