Paterson wins right for controversial CAP greening plans

DEFRA Secretary Owen Paterson has won the right to press ahead with controversial plans to force farmers in England to join a new agri-environmental scheme to collect their Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) greening payment.

As EU Ministers agreed their negotiating position on CAP reform late on Tuesday night, the UK helped secure the flexibility in the package to enable each of the four UK countries to implement CAP regionally.

This will help address issues for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales such as internal convergence, the move towards a universal area-based payment within a region, and Areas of Natural Constraint, Mr Paterson.

At the start of the negotiations member states were required to offer the European Commission’s greening measures in parallel with their own.

Mr Paterson said he had secured an important concession ‘so that England can avoid the costs and confusion of parallel schemes by greening direct payments entirely through its own national scheme’.

In England, there have been concerns since he first mooted his approach in the autumn that Mr Paterson could seek to deny farmers the right to access the full range of greening options available at EU level.

These are likely to exemptions for organic farmers and some livestock farmers with 75 per cent grassland, plus the Commission’s originally-proposed greening options including Ecological Focus Areas, crop rotation and retention of permanent pasture.

It remains unclear at this stage whether the scheme proposed by Mr Paterson will include these sort of alternatives that could ease the burden of greening for some farmers.

If these options were not included, it would provoke a furious response and accusations of ‘gold-plating’ from the coalition of organisations that have come together fight for ‘fair deal for English farmers on the CAP’.

Mr Paterson said he wanted to deliver the European Commission’s greening outcomes through a ‘simple system, achieving environmental benefits without imposing unnecessary costs on farmers and securing value for taxpayers’.

He said he ‘absolutely clear’ the UK needed to avoid the complex system that emerged in the previous reforms and ended up with the UK being ‘fined €550 million for not sticking to the rules’

He said the decision would give England the opportunity to achieve these objectives by building on the success of existing agri-environment schemes, such as Entry Level Stewardship.

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

“A one size fits all approach to CAP just doesn’t work.  England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales must be allowed the freedom to deliver outcomes tailored to their own circumstances.”

Mr Paterson also welcomed the agreement to end sugar quotas in 2017, despite significant pressure from some Member States to them until to 2020, the position recently adopted by the EU Parliament.

“Sugar beet quotas are bad for business and bad for consumers.  They are driving up the wholesale price of sugar by 35 per cent and adding one per cent to hard pressed families’ food bills.  I’m disappointed that they will continue beyond the date previously set for them to end but we have achieved a compromise and fought off calls for the end to be in 2020,” Mr Paterson said.

But he attacked other elements of the Council of Ministers’ deal, signed by 25 out of 27 member states, which paves the way for the last leg of negotiations with the EU Parliament.

He said the majority of Member States were content to allow double funding, farmers being paid twice under two different budgets for delivering the same environmental benefit, a move he said he ‘strongly opposed’.

The EU Council concluded member states, including the UK, which have made the most progress in decoupling payments, will be allowed to pay up to seven percent of their direct payment budget as coupled payments.  The remaining Member States will be allowed up to 12 per cent.

Mr Paterson said: “The UK and our allies are clear that coupled payments are part of the past.  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 per cent or even 18 per cent. We continue to fight for a common low rate.”

 Mr Paterson added that he ‘successfully fought off pressure’ from some member states to extend use of market intervention.  “I’m pressing for further progress towards an open market that makes farmers less dependent on subsidies,” he said.

Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead gave a ‘cautious welcome’ to the deal. However, he said failure to introduce a level playing field on coupled payments to help the Scottish livestock sector had ‘tainted’ the deal for Scotland.

Mr Lochhead is angry that Scotland is on the ‘lower tier system’ for these payments, meaning it is eligible for 7 per cent coupled payments, compared with the 12 per cent available in some member states.

“Mr Lochhead said it was ‘undoubtedly a better package than originally tabled but dealing with a UK Government with different priorities has been challenging’.

He said it was important flexibility has been secured but said this has come ‘hand in hand with more complexity’.

“The failure to secure the level of coupled payments we wanted has however tainted the deal for me and I’m even more concerned at the two-tier system currently being proposed which will leave Scotland unable to spend more than seven per cent, compared to the 12 per cent being offered to other nations. I sincerely hope that this is one area which can be addressed in the negotiations between the European Parliament and the presidency.”

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