Mairead McGuinness: 'Flexibility and "greening" are the buzzwords but it's still all to play for on the next CAP deal'

Mairead McGuinness. Photo: PA
Mairead McGuinness. Photo: PA

Mairead McGuinness

The finer details of the Common Agricultural Policy post 2020 are still to be agreed between the European Parliament and the Council. Flexibility and greening are the buzzwords - but just how flexible and how green the new CAP will be, has yet to be worked out.

Today the newly constituted agriculture committee of the Parliament meets in Brussels. The Mercosur trade deal will dominate the agenda with Commissioner Hogan to be questioned on the deal by MEPs. Attention will also focus on the unfinished business of CAP reform.

The current regime ends in 2020 and there is not much time to complete the process.

In April last the agriculture committee voted through changes to the proposals first tabled by Commissioner Hogan in June 2018 by 27 votes in favour and 17 against.

The proposals are designed to give greater flexibility to Member States in implementing a new CAP, which will have a stronger environmental and climate focus.

Each Member State will be obliged to draft a CAP Strategic Plan outlining how EU objectives will be met through national agricultural plans.

The Parliament and Council have already expressed their reservations about this new direction. MEPs are concerned that the 'common' aspects of the policy are threatened by too much flexibility, while farm Ministers are reluctant to take more ownership of how CAP is applied - as it would deny them the option of blaming the EU when things get difficult at home.

The majority of agriculture committee members are new to the Parliament with over 60pc of the Parliament comprising newly elected members - not all new to politics but many new to European politics.

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Today coordinators of political groups on the agriculture committee meet to decide how to proceed and we'll get a flavour of the political balance on the committee.

The best hope for a speedy conclusion to the reform process is for the committee to press ahead with work already done and get the support of the full Parliament in a plenary vote as soon as possible.

This would enable negotiations with the Commission and Council to begin in the New Year and to get the negotiations finished in time for implementation on January 1, 2021, as the Commission proposes.

However, the agriculture committee voted for a later implementation date of January 1, 2022 to give more time for the negotiations to conclude and for the Member States to draft the required detailed CAP Strategic Plans.

And then there is the question of who will drive the reforms at Commission level and whether the current Commissioner, Phil Hogan, will retain the agriculture portfolio.

That decision will be made by the incoming President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

The former agriculture Commissioner, Dacian Cioloş is one of the new MEPs on the agriculture committee.

He introduced the 'greening' concept into Pillar 1 payments under the 2013 reforms. His preference is to continue with the work undertaken by the previous Committee and get the four CAP reform reports through Parliament as soon as possible.

The Parliament's Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee is also involved in the process and has considerable power on the environmental aspects of the reforms.

This committee will have considerable influence on agriculture policy now and in the future.

When it comes to the Plenary vote it's very likely that amendments will be tabled deepening the environment, climate and biodiversity delivery measures. It will then come down to tough negotiations between the Parliament and the EU's farm ministers to conclude the deal.

Uncertainty about the level of the budget for the CAP continues and shows little sign of being resolved.

Despite repeated calls from the Parliament for a fully funded CAP the working assumption is there will be a cut to the budget, with rural development policy facing the deepest cuts.

We do not know when the leaders of Europe will agree on their contributions to the seven-year budget - a budget without a financial contribution from the UK, if Brexit happens on October 31.

In the background too are the political agreement on an EU-Mercosur trade deal, ongoing negotiations with New Zealand and Australia and a potential trade clash with the US.

Looming large is the crisis in the beef sector, with sluggish demand for beef and dramatic falls in producer prices, not only in Ireland.

Payments

Securing a strong budget for the CAP is important as many beef farmers are unprofitable without CAP support payments. Devising a plan for the beef sector is an imperative.

The timing and impact of the Mercosur deal for beef farmers couldn't be worse, yet despite concerns among farmers, it's not yet clear if the European Parliament will reject the deal.

That debate will also begin in earnest today when the Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström (pictured) appears before the trade committee.

In truth, it may be the strength of the environment lobby that determines the fate of the Mercosur deal - in any event, a vote on the deal is some time off, leaving plenty of time for analysis and debate. The new CAP will be in place before the Mercosur deal is put to the vote in any parliament, European and National.

Mairead McGuinness MEP is Vice-President of the European Parliament and a member of its Agriculture and Rural Development and Environment, Food Safety & Public health Committees

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