UK: Owen Paterson issues reform vow after CAP talks

Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs

Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs - Credit: PA

ENVIRONMENT Secretary Owen Paterson vowed today to fight for tougher moves to wean farmers off subsidies as part of a massive overhaul of Europe’s costly agriculture policy.

After late-night talks in Brussels, Mr Paterson insisted that the future Common Agricultural Policy must centre on reducing EU support for the market and making the sector more competitive rather than being propped up by taxpayers.

He said he had successfully resisted bids from some ministers to extend the use of support for the market in a modernised CAP and added: “I’m pressing for further progress towards an open market that makes farmers less dependent on subsidies.”

Last week, after a first vote on CAP reform by MEPs, lobby groups warned of a return to the “bad old days” of costly food mountains and lakes of unwanted wine and milk unless the direct link between subsidies to farmers and production is broken.

Now, after two days of talks between agriculture ministers, the stage is set for marathon joint negotiations steered by the current Irish EU presidency in the hope of a final deal in June.

Mr Paterson made clear he would continue fighting to “decouple” the link between farm subsidies and food production.

The biggest complaint about the CAP for decades was the way it encouraged food production regardless of demand because of a system of open-ended subsidies which simply generated warehouses full of rotting produce.

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Successive reforms have effectively ended the scandal - but the UK and a group of other countries say more must be done to make the sector self-supporting and competitive.

However, they were outvoted overnight when a majority of ministers agreed that the share of CAP cash subsidies linked to production should actually increase.

Mr Paterson said the UK, which had done most to decouple payments, would fight a move which would allow between 7% and 12% of subsidies from the farm budget to be continue to be “coupled payments”.

“The UK and our allies are clear that coupled payments are part of the past,” said Mr Paterson. “It’s disappointing that the council proposed they continue, but today’s agreement is still a clear improvement on the European Parliament’s proposal for 15% or even 18%. We continue to fight for a common low rate.”

But he welcomed an agreement that national authorities should have more control to shape proposed CAP greening measures to regional needs.

“The UK should have the freedom to have a simple, easy-to-manage system that builds on our well-established arrangements,” he said.

“We’re now one very important step closer to being able to set our own greening measures, which work for farmers and use taxpayers’ money more effectively to deliver real environmental benefit.”

The National Farmers’ Union said the negotiating position agreed by EU farming ministers for the future of the CAP largely went against the NFU’s call for a more “common” policy, and posed a high risk of competitive distortions among farmers.

However, NFU president Peter Kendall said that while the outcome of last night’s negotiations on the Council of Ministers’ position for the future CAP was not great he was reassured by Defra’s intentions on greening.

“The industry has worked incredibly hard to raise its concerns with the Secretary of State over plans to reform the CAP. I am pleased that Mr Paterson’s understanding of Article 29 in the Council’s text on greening is the same as mine, that farmers will be able to access greening aid by undertaking, as part of a national scheme, the EU’s three greening options,” added Mr Kendall.

“We will continue to work closely with the Secretary of State and his Defra team to build a simple scheme which delivers our core objective of ensuring English farmers remain competitive and do not face more costly and demanding greening measures than other farmers within the EU.

“I am disappointed, however, that coupled support could be increased beyond current levels, that Member States would be allowed to deviate massively from the proposed flat rate payment system by 2019 and that those Member States who have bountiful rural development budgets would have the luxury of paying their farmers twice for doing the same environmental work.”

The position agreed by farm ministers in Brussels will now form the basis for negotiation with the European Parliament, which adopted its position on CAP last week. Negotiations between the two institutions will commence on April 11 and the Irish presidency hopes to have reached a final compromise by the end of its presidency in June.

“The NFU will continue to work with the MEPs and representatives of the Council and Commission to continue the fight for a more common policy,” added Mr Kendall.