Environment Ministers fail to endorse Commission's greening proposals

The refusal of the Environment Council meeting on 19 December last to endorse the Commission’s greening proposals in its legislative proposals for CAP reform has been interpreted as a victory for agricultural interests attempting to water down the greening element in these proposals. But this interpretation may underestimate the extent to which there is genuine doubt about the effectiveness and environmental value of the measures that the Commission proposes.
The biodiversity challenge

The Environment Council was meeting to adopt conclusions on the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020. In March 2010, EU leaders recognised that the 2010 biodiversity target would not be met despite successes such as establishing Natura 2000, the world’s largest network of protected areas. They went on to endorse the 2050 long-term vision and the 2020 headline target proposed by the Commission in its Communication Options for an EU vision and target for biodiversity beyond 2010.
Subsequently, the Commission proposed its 2020 Biodiversity strategy in its Communication Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 which includes six mutually supportive and inter-dependent targets that respond to the objectives of the 2020 headline target. The third target is to increase the contribution of agriculture and forestry to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. Specifically, Target 3A is :

By 2020, to maximise areas under agriculture across grasslands, arable land and permanent crops that are covered by biodiversity-related measures under the CAP so as to ensure the conservation of biodiversity and to bring about a measurable improvement in the conservation status of species and habitats that depend on or are affected by agriculture and in the provision of ecosystem services as compared to the EU2010 Baseline, thus contributing to enhance sustainable management.

In June 2011, the Environment Council endorsed the Commission’s Strategy to meet these targets, whilst emphasising the need to further discuss the actions required so as to ensure its effective and coherent implementation. The purpose of the December meeting was thus to focus on the concrete measures required to achieve the biodiversity targets: to protect species and habitats, maintain and restore ecosystems, anchor biodiversity goals in other EU policies, combat invasive alien species and step up the EU’s contribution to averting global biodiversity loss.
Specifically, the Council intended to highlight biodiversity-related objectives linked to the ongoing negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2014-2020, in particular on the reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the Cohesion Policy.
Commission proposals
In its Biodiversity Strategy, the Commission had proposed three actions relevant to agriculture (additional measures addressed forestry and fisheries):
Action 8: Enhance direct payments for environmental public goods in the EU Common Agricultural Policy
8a) The Commission will propose that CAP direct payments will reward the delivery of environmental public goods that go beyond cross-compliance (e.g. permanent pasture, green cover, crop rotation, ecological set-aside, Natura 2000).
8b) The Commission will propose to improve and simplify the GAEC (Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions) cross-compliance standards and consider including the Water Framework Directive within the scope of crosscompliance once the Directive has been implemented and the operational obligations for farmers have been identified in order to improve the state of aquatic ecosystems in rural areas.
Action 9: Better target Rural Development to biodiversity conservation
9a) The Commission and Member States will integrate quantified biodiversity targets into Rural Development strategies and programmes, tailoring action to regional and local needs.
9b) The Commission and Member States will establish mechanisms to facilitate collaboration among farmers and foresters to achieve continuity of landscape features, protection of genetic resources and other cooperation mechanisms to protect biodiversity.
Action 10: Conserve Europe’s agricultural genetic diversity
10) The Commission and Member States will encourage the uptake of agrienvironmental measures to support genetic diversity in agriculture and explore the scope for developing a strategy for the conservation of genetic diversity.

The Environment Council outcome

However, in its conclusions on CAP reform, the Council merely noted the Commission proposals of 12 October 2011 for a reform of the CAP; even though it recognised the importance of an enhanced contribution of the agricultural sector to the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020.
Press reports (see, for example, this European Voice story) reported that the Commission’s proposal for specific biodiversity goals to be integrated into the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was abandoned at the insistence of Germany during the meeting of environment ministers. Apparently, several member states objected to the Commission’s list of several types of biodiversity concerns that should be dealt with under the CAP, saying it prejudged the outcome of ongoing talks among agriculture ministers to reform the CAP.
According to European Voice :

The Polish presidency of the Council of Ministers put forward a proposal changing the list to theoretical “examples,” but this was still not acceptable to Germany. After several hours of discussion, Germany succeeded in having the entire paragraph on biodiversity objectives for the CAP deleted in the final version approved by ministers. Germany’s environment ministry was under strict orders from its agriculture ministry not to accept any list of possible biodiversity requirements for CAP, according to a source involved in the discussions.

Environmental NGOs were very critical of the Ministers’ decision. Ariel Brunner, head of European policy at BirdLife, is quoted as saying :

Looking at environment ministers compromising for hours on the protection of what should be the core of their political mandate – biodiversity – is a dangerous preview of the fate of biodiversity left completely in the hands of agriculture ministers.

Janez Potocnik, the European commissioner for the environment, issued a statement condemning the deletion of the list, adding that the Commission would continue to push for biodiversity objectives to be made part of the CAP during the reform discussions.

Maintaining and restoring agriculture and forest biodiversity is a precondition to attaining our biodiversity objectives. We have already identified specific problems in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and related targets and actions in the Biodiversity Strategy.
Therefore, the Commission can only regret the deletion of all concrete indications on the required way forward to strengthen the contribution of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to biodiversity objectives.
As highlighted in its proposals on the reform of the CAP, the Commission reiterates the importance for biodiversity of maintaining permanent grasslands; of protecting and supporting Ecological Focus Areas; and of ensuring crop diversification; and emphasises in this context the importance of action at farm level. The Commission further underscores the importance of incorporating biodiversity elements – in particular in relation to Natura 2000, High Nature Value farming and the protection and restoration of wider biodiversity – into rural development, and of recognising the value of ecosystem services provided by farmers. These priorities will continue to guide the Commission’s position in inter-institutional discussions on the reform of the CAP.

Mr Potocnik’s annoyance is understandable. Together with the Climate and Agriculture Commissioners, the Environment Commissioner was the driving force in the Commission behind the agreement to maintain the CAP budget in nominal terms, provided that a significant share of the budget was spent on securing environmental public goods. Although it is early days yet in the negotiations, he faces the prospect that farmers will keep their money but taxpayers will not get their public goods.
Is the issue simply farmers vs. environmentalists

The environmental NGOs are right to underline the lobbying power of the farm organisations. Their initial reaction was to dismiss the greening proposals as “further mandatory environmental constraints on farmers, …[which] will just add more costly burdens on to EU farmers, thus threatening their competitivity and economic viability (COPA-COGECA press release).”
But real doubts have also been expressed about how effective the Commission’s proposals would be in practice, and whether they will really deliver value for money. Indeed, the environmental NGOs themselves described the proposals as ‘greenwash’ when they first appeared in the leaked legislative proposals at the end of the summer.
The UK House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is currently taking evidence on the impact of the Commission’s greening proposals, and a wide range of views on their environmental impact have been expressed in the evidence received, including from environmental organisations.
The importance of taking up the challenge of addressing biodiversity decline within Europe should not be minimised, but there remains a debate on whether the Commission’s proposals for greening Pillar 1 are the right way forward. At least in part, this may account for some of the hesitation among Environment Ministers to endorse the Commission proposals this month.
© Picture on home page copyright Paul Gillett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
This post is written by Alan Matthews

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