Welcome to the Irish Presidency

Ireland took over the EU Presidency from 1 January 2013 and the Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney, will chair the Council of Agricultural Ministers for the next six months. Coveney is an energetic Minister and the Irish have an experienced bunch of officials (see who’s who in the Irish delegation) who will do everything to ensure an agreement on CAP reform on their watch.

Securing an agreement under the Irish Presidency is conceivable. But I am going to argue that the institutional decision-making process between the Council and the Parliament, as well as the linkage with the Multi-annual Frinancial Framework (MFF) negotiations, will make it extraordinarily difficult, even assuming that the European Council will reach an agreement on the next MFF at its next meeting on 7-8 February 2013.

In this post I discuss my understanding of the decision-making process (the ordinary legislative procedure, also known as co-decision) over the next six months. Some of the same ground is covered in this Agra Europe blog post by Paul Hutchinson.

There are a number of official descriptions of the legislative process, including from the Council and the Parliament, as well as an unofficial but helpful description on the Lobby Planet Wiki on which I have relied. The procedures are not simple for an outsider to understand, so if there are mistakes in this description, I hope to be corrected in the comments.

It will be helpful to keep in mind the schedule of meetings of the main players (see table). The Agricultural Council timetable is the one prepared by the Irish Presidency. The other data are taken from the excellent European Union pages maintained by the Irish Farmers’ Association (an essential guide for anyone interested in following the CAP reform process).

First step is the Parliament

The co-decision process requires that the two institutions independently draw up their views on the Commission’s proposals in the form of amendments and then converge on an agreed set of regulations. The process formally starts when the Commission transmits its draft regulations to the Parliament and the Council.

The Parliament’s amendments are prepared by COMAGRI, the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. Just before Christmas, the COMAGRI rapporteurs announced that they had reached agreement with the shadow rapporteurs and political group coordinators on a set of compromise amendments to the Commission’s proposals. These will be voted on by the Committee on 23-24 January. The Parliament has announced that it will vote in plenary on the COMAGRI resolution on 11-14 March, assuming that the MFF budget is agreed in February. At that stage, the Parliament’s amended proposal (‘first reading position’) is passed to the Council.

In passing, MEPs have made much of the fact that co-decision now means that the European decision-making process is more transparent and more open to democratic scrutiny (a point reiterated by Mairéad McGuinness MEP in her thoughtful contribution to the Oxford Farming Conference this week). But the unavailability of the main compromise amendments just two weeks before the Committee vote is not, in my view, very conducive to transparency.

Mairéad McGuinness noted in her speech: “For those of us who have been negotiating we face difficult days ahead of the vote to keep our colleagues on side as they unpick the details and see things which they dislike. We need to work hard to secure a decent majority”. Is it being too cynical to see the delay in publishing the amendments as a way of limiting the lobbying to which MEPs will be exposed before the vote and thus the likelihood that individual MEPs will be tempted to break party ranks?

The Council’s general approach

Of course, the Council has not been idle during this time. The results of its deliberations over the past year were summarised in the Cyprus Presidency’s progress report presented in mid-December. This lists both the areas of agreement and remaining disagreement. The Council will continue its discussions under the Irish Presidency in the New Year and the Irish will hope to have achieved a general approach of the Council by the March Agricultural Council meeting (a general approach is an informal agreement, reached if necessary by qualified majority, within the Council before Parliament has given its position on first reading). This will be necessary to give the Presidency a mandate to negotiate with the Parliament after the latter has reached its first reading position.

First option: a first reading agreement?

The Treaty of Amsterdam introduced the possibility of bringing co-decision dossiers to a conclusion at the end of the first reading (‘early agreement’). This now occurs for most co-decision dossiers, but does not now seem possible for the CAP reform dossier.

An early agreement requires intensive contacts between the two institutions prior to the Parliament’s first reading so that what the Parliament approves at first reading is also acceptable to the Council. Representatives from each institution meeting in the informal trilogue process broker a compromise at a moment at which neither the EP nor the Council has adopted a formal position. Deals reached are subsequently presented to the full legislative bodies of the Council and the EP but in such a way that it is practically impossible to amend them.

Both COMAGRI and the Council are modifying the Commission’s proposal in a less ambitious direction, and there have been extensive informal trilogue discussions between the two institutions. But from what we know of the substance of the likely amendments in both bodies there remain differences between the two positions. There is no evidence that the compromise amendments are ‘agreed’ amendments even if many early differences between the two bodies have been removed.

The one outside chance for a first reading agreement could occur if the Presidency and the COMAGRI rapporteurs were to broker a full agreement by the beginning of March. If this happened, it would be possible for amendments to be introduced to the compromise amendments as adopted by COMAGRI later this month to the resolution to be adopted by Parliament in plenary in March. This would presumably be done by the rapporteurs and the political groups willing to support the compromise position with the Council. Such amendments would need to be ready by the Thursday 7 March at the latest.

But given that the Council itself is unlikely to have reached a general approach by then, this option is only a theoretical possibility. Instead, the Irish Presidency timetable suggests that it is working towards the second option of a negotiated common position.

Update 14 January 2013: There may be more flexibility to reach a first reading agreement than I indicated in the above passage which assumed that Parliament would vote in plenary in March on its first reading position . The Parliament amended its rules of procedure on inter-institutional negotiations in November 2012. When COMAGRI votes on the compromise amendments end January, it could also establish a negotiating team to undertake trilogue negotiations with the Council based on this mandate. This mandate (the committee report) is then tabled for later consideration by the Parliament which could ratify the mandate in a vote in February.

If an agreement between COMAGRI and the Council were reached in the trilogue negotiations, then COMAGRI would revise its position which could then be approved by the plenary thus closing the first reading phase. This would require the Parliament to postpone its first reading vote until the trilogue negotiations were successfully completed, presumably by June if the Irish Presidency timetable is to be kept. If the Parliament wanted to show its displeasure at the CAP budget allocation if there is an agreement on the MFF in February, then of course this timetable could be disrupted… end of update

Second option: A negotiated common position?

If the Parliament decides not to hold open the possibility of a first reading agreement and goes ahead and agrees its first reading position, it is now the Council’s turn to establish its first reading position (‘common position’) on the Commission’s proposal as amended by the EP. There is a strong incentive to agree a common position that would also be acceptable to the EP (‘negotiated common position’). However, the Council’s room for manoeuvre is constrained by the position taken by the Commission on the EP’s amendments.

Having received the Parliament’s first reading, the Commission will submit a modified proposal to the Council which will incorporate those of the Parliament’s amendments with which it agrees and/or are likely to facilitate an agreement, while rejecting others. It may also make other modifications to its original proposal if it feels that it will make it easier for the Council to reach agreement.

The importance of this step is that it determines the type of majority needed in the Council to determine its common position: (1) If the Council’s position is in line with the Commission’s amended proposal, it can adopt its common position by qualified majority; (2) If the Council position is not in line with the Commission’s amended proposal, then unanimity is required to adopt its common position.

For example, the Commission has proposed a figure of 7% for ecological focus areas (EFAs). Suppose the EP position is that this should be reduced to 5% and most member states also agree with this position. If the Commission incorporates this into its amended proposal, then the Council can approve this by a qualified majority. If it sticks to its original 7% proposal and rejects the EP’s amendment, then the Council can only adopt the 5% figure by unanimity in its common position. However, the Commission is required to exercise its right of initiative in a constructive manner with a view to reconciling the positions of the two institutions. Ultimately, it cannot force through its point of view against the wishes of the two institutons.

Before voting on the Council’s common position, the Presidency will engage in an intensive round of trilogue negotiations with the EP representatives on the basis of the mandate agreed in the Council’s general approach. The purpose would be to persuade the EP to accept some amendments to their first reading position to align the positions of both institutions.

If these negotiations are successful, then Paolo de Castro, as COMAGRI chair, would confirm, in a letter to the chair of Coreper, his recommendation to the EP plenary to accept the Council common position without amendment, subject to confirmation of the common position by the Council and to legal-linguistic verification.

The Council would then proceed to vote on this negotiated common position, probably at its June meeting according to the Irish Presidency timetable. This common position would then be forwarded to the Parliament and, if approved at its July plenary, would then become law.

Under this scenario, the Irish Presidency would (1) have to get Council agreement on a general approach by end-March and (2) broker a compromise between this general approach and the EP’s first reading position in the ten weeks between the beginning of April and mid-June. It’s a big ask, even if the Irish must convince themselves that it is do-able.

Third option: second reading agreement?

If the Presidency fails to reach a negotiated common position, then it would fall to the incoming Presidency (Lithuania) to reach the required agreement with the Parliament.

The Council’s common position would be forwarded to the EP together with a “statement of reasons” usually at the plenary session following its formal adoption. Assuming adoption of the common position in June, this would be the July plenary of the EP. In tandem, the Commission would forward a communication on the Council common position, in which it explains why it has decided to support or oppose the common position. The Commission also comments on the Council’s reaction to the EP amendments which it had supported in plenary at the first reading.

At this point, the rules of procedure become important in determining the decision-making process. Importantly, the clock starts ticking and the Parliament has a maximum of four months to deliver its second reading position. During this period, the Lithuanian Presidency will be using the trilogue process to secure agreement on the minimum acceptable changes to the Council’s common position so that the EP’s second reading resolution is one that the Council will also be able to approve. Under this scenario, if this strategy succeeded, then the EP could pass its second reading resolution in October/November and once the Council had approved this the following month, the regulations would become law before the end of the year.

If there is still disagreement, then the process moves into the third reading phase of conciliation and CAP reform is pushed into 2014. But probably no one wants to think about this possibility just yet…

The MFF

The optimistic outcome of a political agreement on a negotiated common position in June assumes that the negotiations on the MFF dossier are successfully concluded. Even if the European Council were to reach agreement in February, approval of the MFF also requires the consent of the Parliament.

Thus, under the optimistic scenario, the March EP plenary session will address both the MFF as well as CAP reform. The EP could easily take the view that there are wider issues at stake in the MFF negotiations with which it cannot agree which could delay the CAP reform process.

If the European Council needs a third attempt to agree the MFF, it meets again on 14-15 March. But an agreement then would be too late to allow the EP to give its consent at its March plenary.

The EP has stressed that “any political agreement reached at European Council level constitutes no more than a negotiating mandate for the Council. After the European Council has reached a political agreement, fully-fledged negotiations between Parliament and the Council need to take place before the Council formally submits for Parliament’s consent its proposals on the MFF Regulation.”

The EP has a long shopping list of budget demands including some red lines; it seems almost inevitable that negotiating the passage of the MFF through the Parliament will be a difficult process, with potential knock-on effects on the CAP reform negotiations.

If the EP refuses to give its consent to the MFF in March, or if the European Council has still not agreed the MFF at that point, will it then be prepared to vote on the CAP reform regulations? So far it has strongly argued that an MFF agreement is a prerequisite to voting on CAP reform.

Prediction

The Irish Presidency faces a mammoth task in securing agreement on these two dossiers in tandem over the next six months. Some of the players have indicated that the substantive differences between the two institutions on their desired CAP reform outcomes have narrowed considerably (see, for example, David Barnes’ blog post for a Scottish point of view). This suggests optimism that the Irish can achieve their objectives during their six-month Presidency.

But the dossier is incredibly complex and there is much in the details which could still create problems, even leaving aside potential MFF roadblocks.

Hence my New Year prediction, dear readers. CAP reform will not be concluded under the Irish Presidency.

Photo credit: Irish Examiner News

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