Cap reform proposals about much more than divvying out the money
Around the European Commission table, there was, and probably still is, a strong appetite for reducing payments to farmers and redirecting the money elsewhere. That threat has been reduced by the promise that agriculture will deliver not just food but also more for the environment.
The reform proposals are about re-directing support payments to land management in a way that addresses concerns about climate change and biodiversity.
Protection of permanent pasture, crop diversification and provision of ecological focus areas (habitats for wildlife) are part of the new demands on farmers.
They are designed to ensure that agriculture provides more habitats for wildlife, birds, bees and micro-organisms and to protect and improve soils by insisting on crop rotation of sorts and limiting carbon emissions by protecting high carbon soils from ploughing.
Yet these central planks of the policy – hotly debated in other member states – rarely feature in discussions about the reforms in Ireland, perhaps because Ireland is already “green”.
The measures do signify the first step in reorienting the Cap away from past payments and towards paying farmers for the kind of things for which the marketplace does not pay them but which the public wants and agriculture needs for long-term sustainability.
Some argue for maintenance of the status quo but there is no political support in Europe for the current historic-based payment regime, so change is on the way.
Farmers with high value entitlements will inevitably see reductions in their payments, while those on little or no support payments will get more money.
This redistribution, called “convergence” in EU speak, is coming. What is at issue is the timeframe and the equation used to bring it about.
Later this month – on January 23rd and 24th – the European Parliament’s committee on agriculture and rural development will vote on a series of compromise amendments to the European Commission’s proposal.
These include allowing individual countries to decide the pace of convergence, and retaining some differences in the level of payments between farmers.
But first there is the small detail of how much money will actually be allocated to the Cap. Currently it takes 40 per cent of the overall EU budget. The Cypriot presidency, just ended, spoke of the inevitability of cuts to the budget.
At the November meeting of the European Council of heads of state and governments, cuts to the Cap budget were on the table and they remain there, despite intense efforts to make the case for holding the budget.