The divide over the common agricultural policy (CAP) budget escalated yesterday, with NFU Scotland confirming it had written to the European Commission seeking clarity on the plan for the levelling up – or convergence – of support payments.
The letter follows a move announced last week by the UK government revealing that Scotland, which still pays out subsidies on a historic basis, would not receive as much as had been hoped for in delivering convergence.
Specifically, the union in its letter has asked how the commission plans to ensure transferred budgets are used to deliver true convergence within the recipient member state.
The union also revealed it was seeking a legal opinion on whether the UK government decision on budget allocations could be challenged.
In yet another move, the union said it was making contact with other industry lobby organisations to consider if joint activity was appropriate to highlight the issue.
Yesterday afternoon, Scottish Government rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead used a statement in the Scottish Parliament to launch an attack on the policies of his UK counterpart, Owen Paterson, that will, he claimed, result in Scottish farmers being given less support per hectare than in any state in the EU.
In its letter to the commission, union president, Nigel Miller expressed the view that Scotland’s farmers felt they had a justifiable claim to receive a larger share of the UK budget allocation, based on the fact they had been receiving the lowest payment rates in Europe.
He said that Scotland was still operating on a historic basis for support payments and would not begin a move to area-based support until January 2015 but said that was not a reason to exclude the country from uplift in support under the new scheme.
Miller described the fact Scotland did not get anything other than a promise to review the UK convergence situation in 2017 – unlike English Welsh and Northern Irish farmers who all already receive above the EU average level of support per hectare – as “deeply disappointing”.
He added: “Clearly for the UK, the convergence process has yet to start, but the agreed target of a minimum €196 [£164] per hectare in all member states by 2020 is a solid statement of intent from Europe.
“Convergence of 8 state [support] budgets and the internal convergence of area payments within regions is intended to move European agriculture away from support distorted by historical policy and timelines, towards a more level operating environment. Convergence is a big step towards a truly common agricultural policy.”
Lochhead rubbished the promised review as “nothing more than a red herring”, pointing out that the results of the review would only be converted into reality in the next CAP which starts in 2021.”It is only damage limitation,” he claimed.
However, George Lyon MEP said that Scottish ministers need to reveal their timetable for moving to area-based support.
“Scottish Government ministers have to tell us when this will happen and UK ministers must work to ensure that changes to the current distribution model are introduced sooner rather than later and certainly well before the 2020 date that had been suggested.”
The union revealed it had written to Paterson to press the case for the review process to be robust and for an independent review group to determine budget allocations and there to be a fixed end date for when the transition will be completed.
Late yesterday a Westminster department for the environment, food and rural affairs spokesperson said: “Scottish farmers will continue to receive the highest payments per farm in the UK, and the one of the highest overall in the EU. The 1.6 per cent decrease to the UK’s CAP budget will be shared equally across Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales.”
The spokesperson added that Paterson had sought and considered the views of Lochhead and the other agriculture ministers of the devolved administrations before reaching the decision on intra-UK allocations.
“During EU CAP reform negotiations, the UK government secured significant gains for Scotland and ensured that the Scottish Government can implement the CAP according to Scottish priorities.”