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23rd Feb 2020

Farm debate sees budget reform plan 'thrown in the bin'

  • This year has seen repeated protests in the EU capital over low milk prices (Photo: Teemu Mantynen)

The EU's top agricultural chief, Mariann Fischer Boel, has distanced herself from controversial plans to overhaul the bloc's budget.

The commissioner was speaking at a debate in the European Parliament on the future of the bloc's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on Tuesday (10 November), with MEPs voicing strong criticism of budget proposals circulated in the media last month.

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The proposals on budget reform suggested money should be moved away from regional aid and common agricultural policy to jobs, climate change and foreign policy.

In a snub to the EU officials who drew up the informal, so-called "non-paper", Ms Fischer Boel said the document was not representative of the views held by the current EU commission.

"I really think it was a bunch of officials preparing their own view on the budget," she said.

In a statement pregnant with implications for philosophy students, the Danish politician added that the budget non-paper, "which does not exist," is "now in the bin."

But while her remarks drew resounding applause from deputies inside the parliament's agricultural committee, they would appear to clash with the fact that the EU executive's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, penned and signed the non-paper's preface.

The controversial document – which has not formally been made public – has drawn fierce criticism from the union's regions, who also stand to lose under the proposed redirection of EU spending towards jobs, climate change and foreign policy instead of farming.

As things currently stand, agricultural and regional policy account for some 78 percent of the EU's total expenditure, drawing criticism from those who fail to see why European farmers should receive direct payments from the European taxpayer.

Which way for the CAP?

Around 35 percent of European farmers rely on their annual single farm payment just to survive, said Allan Buckwell of the Country Land and Business Association, with farmers' uncertain whether the payment will continue after the EU's current spending period expires in 2013.

Professor Buckwell said rather than simply slashing the CAP budget, causing major social problems in rural areas, European policy makers should work out what its central purpose should be in the years to come and how best to sell this message to EU citizens.

Strong backing from the French saw the birth of the CAP in 1962, with its system of heavy agricultural subsidies designed to lift food production in a post-war Europe.

But since the so-called "MacSharry reforms" of 1992, the CAP has gradually shifted away from the subsidisation of food production – known for excesses such as EU "butter mountains" – and has increasingly concentrated on issues such as land management.

Despite the realignment, Ms Fischer Boel, who only has a few weeks left as farm commissioner, said the future CAP must also take care of European food security, as over-reliance on imports would be dangerous.

"We see how vulnerable we are when it comes to importing gas and when some people just close the pipeline," she said, referring to the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis that caused European shortages last winter.

Italian socialist MEP Paolo de Castro, the chairman of the parliament's agriculture committee, said it was "paradoxical" that the CAP should have its budget cut just as the issue of global food security is becoming more pressing.

Land management and climate change

As well as food security, commissioner Fischer Boel said EU citizens placed major importance on the natural landscape and the maintenance of biodiversity, with the high cost of enviornmental custodianship rarely reflected in food prices.

All in the room agreed that any future policy must take greater account of climate change, with roughly nine percent of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture in the form of methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertilisers.

Agriculture has also received criticism over its frequently heavy water usage, with water security a growing problem around the world.

Having started under the French EU presidency last year, the debate on the future shape of the CAP is set to heat up next year when the commission is due to publish an ideas paper on farm policy reform, followed by legislative proposals in 2011.

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