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Tuesday 18 September 2018

More EU countries join rising tide against cuts to farm budgets

EU chief praises commissioner Phil Hogan for steering CAP talks 'elegantly and brutally'

European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan attends a news conference with Spain's Agriculture Minister Luis Planas in Madrid, Spain on June 25. Photo: Susana Vera
European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan attends a news conference with Spain's Agriculture Minister Luis Planas in Madrid, Spain on June 25. Photo: Susana Vera

The momentum against cuts to the EU's farm budget is growing, with advocacy groups, MEPs and a majority of national governments now actively campaigning against the Commission.

There are now 20 (out of 28) member states opposing the Commission's proposed 5pc overall cut to the Common Agricultural Policy, following an initial six countries, including Ireland, who signed up to a written declaration before the budget proposal was even published.

France led the charge at last week's farming ministers' meeting in Luxembourg, calling for an increase of the CAP budget. The current Commission proposal would leave Irish farmers down 3.9pc in direct payments and 15pc in rural development spending.

Agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan told the ministers that he "would be very happy to see an increase in the CAP budget" but that he is "not the one who needs to be persuaded".

"The only way in which the CAP budget can be increased is at the expense of some other policy area," Mr Hogan told the ministers. "That is not a decision for the European Commission," he said, adding that the Commission's initial proposal - which has to be agreed by MEPs and EU governments together - is "fair and reasonable".

He also warned that the CAP "must increasingly be seen as a market-orientated policy" and that "farmers and food producers must heed market signals" - especially in the dairy, pigmeat and sugar sectors, where there has been a marked increase in production.

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said it amounted to only "moderate" cuts for Irish farmers, and that Mr Hogan was steering the discussions "elegantly and brutally", calling him "one of the best" commissioners on his team.

But Pekka Pesonen, the head of EU farmers' federation Copa and Cogeca, told an event last week that the budget was still a "major concern", and needed more safeguards for farmers' income.

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"Once again, we are supposed to deliver more for less," he told the gathering in Brussels, organised by the Bulgarian EU presidency. "I am utterly disappointed that the funding was cut and the blame will be put in the member states' court."

And Copa president Joachim Rukwied told the Bulgarian agricultural minister last week that direct payments are "the best way to stabilise farmers' incomes".

Farmers' incomes are only 40pc of average earnings across the EU and are continuing to decline, causing an exodus from rural areas, especially by the young, Mr Rukwied said.

Farmers' groups are also critical of the Commission's figures, arguing that the predicted 5pc CAP cut could be larger if prices, wages and farmers' input costs rise. But the Commission insists it has never counted inflation in its CAP figures, and will not do so.

Farmers are now counting on MEPs in the Parliament's agriculture committee for support in adjusting the Commission proposal.

But a row over which committee should be ultimately responsible for steering the Parliament's position on the CAP - agriculture or environment MEPs - has stirred up some fear.

ICSA president Patrick Kent said last week it was "essential that decisions are made by those who best understand the farming perspective".

Meanwhile, left-leaning MEPs will this week launch a manifesto for a "fair and democratic" CAP, based on promoting local produce, fair prices for farmers and revitalising rural areas.

They are calling for a reversal of some of the CAP's most recent reforms, including the end of quotas on specific products such as milk, which they say has led to massive overproduction.

They also want CAP subsidies redirected to small farms, the phase-out of glyphosate and genetically modified food, and a publicly-owned seed and genome bank.

The manifesto estimates that a quarter of European farms have disappeared in the last decade, the equivalent of one farm every three minutes, and say the Commission's CAP proposals "continue the same old policies that have benefited mostly large agribusinesses like Monsanto, with dire costs to the environment, animals and public health".

And the Paris-based economic think-tank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, will say in a report this week that the EU could do more to eliminate production-based payments. The report says that payments for specific commodities actually went up in 2016 for the second year in a row - largely because of crises in the dairy, fruit and vegetable and pigment sectors.

It will also say that tariff rate quotas in international trade deals have the effect of pushing support for EU products up when world prices decline.

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