Agriculture Ministers had their first discussion of the Commission’s Health Check proposals at the first Council meeting under the Slovenian Presidency yesterday. It appears that the two issues causing the most fuss are the Commission’s suggestions to introduce a progressive reduction in single farm payments to larger farms (inaccurately referred to as capping) and to increase the rate of compulsory modulation (which again would only affect larger farms), in both cases with the additional funds going to Pillar 2 rural development measures. At the same time, Ministers were clearly taken by the emphasis on risk management and safety nets in the Commission Communication and called for more specific proposals in this area.
The discussion was organised around three questions posed by the Slovenian Presidency:
1. Does the Council agree that the Commission’s Communication correctly analyses both the principal evolutions since the reforms agreed in 2003/4 and the main challenges to the CAP in the years ahead?
2. In general terms, is the level of ambition and the scope of the adjustments broadly outlined in the Communication an adequate response to these challenges?
3. Does the Council believe that the Communication identifies avenues for action that would at the same time better align the CAP with general societal expectations while preserving the European model of agriculture?
The Slovenian Presidency press release following the Council meeting wraps itself in cotton wool in its final paragraph, suggesting that some member states had difficulty in getting their heads around that third question:
The Member States welcomed the Communication of the Commission and are of the opinion that it correctly assesses the main movements by the implemented reforms adopted in 2003 and 2004, as well as the main challenges for the CAP in the following years. As expected, opinions about the level of ambitiousness and scope of the adjustments defined in the Communication are divided.
Many countries emphasized the need for more specific proposals on measures of risk management and setting up of safety net as response to eventual market crisis. Despite the fact that some countries would prefer more radical and quicker steps towards liberalisation, most Member States… [material missing].
The Council also agrees that the Communication defines the methods of action which would at the same time better coordinate the CAP with the general expectations of society and thereby preserve the European agricultural model.
Somewhat clearer was the UK Guardian report of the meeting which quoted Mrs Fischer Boel as saying, in response to a question about likely problem areas during the debate over her policy changes:
I think the progressive capping of direct payments. And there’s not total unanimity about the necessity of compulsory modulation.
These were also the two areas highlighted by German and French farm leaders at the Berlin Green Week. Although, interestingly, it appears they are quite content to see further decoupling of the single farm payment and the elimination of compulsory setaside.
The Guardian report noted clear philosophy differences between the 15 “older” member countries and those that joined the bloc in 2004 but without specifying further around what issues these differences revolved. Surprisingly, there was no reference to future dairy policy in the discussions, despite the very clear statement by Mrs Fischer Boel of her ideas for dairy policy reform at DG AGRI’s seminar on the dairy sector in the context of the Health Check Review of CAP ten days previously.
There is now a clear timetable for the Health Check in place. The ministers will continue the debate at the Agricultural Council meeting in February. The Presidency intends to draw Council conclusions in March in order to allow the Commission to come back with legislative proposals which will be presented on May 20th with a target for final agreement in November.
One of the key players, France, is due to make up its mind on the Health Check proposals in March. Until then, as one EU official noted, France is “talking in code”. Perhaps it was the country which helped to draft the final paragraph of that Council press release.