Mixed news from Brussels on CAP reform plans

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Farmers who feared that they might have to take 7 per cent of their land out of production to meet environmental requirements in the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are set to see their anger assuaged after Scottish MEP George Lyon said yesterday that “take out” was unlikely to survive the final negotiations.

Speaking in Perth to the council of NFU Scotland, Lyon said that the likely final figure could be as low as 4 per cent, and these levels, he believed could be achieved without loss of production, with the EU allowing farm roads, hedges and ditches in the eligible area.

Recognising that some might be aggrieved that environmental focus areas would remain, Lyon said that it had to be remembered the promise of strong environmental policies in the forthcoming CAP had helped protect the farm budget from being cut rather than just being frozen at its present level. “This green shield helped defend the payments we get,” he said.

However he was not optimistic that even that holding budgetary position could survive, with several big players among the member states, such as France and Germany, calling for a reduction in farm spending.

Lyon was speaking after spending three weeks with other MEPS distilling down the 7,000 plus amendments to the Agricultural Commissioner’s original CAP proposals into compromise positions.

These, he said, will be likely to become the European Parliament’s position in the run up to the final decision, which Lyon believed would take place by the end of January 2013 under the Irish presidency.

There is a major meeting of agricultural ministers later this month and another has been pencilled in for December but Lyon believed the decision would not happen until the Irish took control. However, if it was not settled by the end of January, the EU faced a major problem with Germany heading into a national election.

The distillation down of the amendments will also, according to Lyon, result in support for minimum stocking levels as proof of active farming, thus removing support for those who currently get subsidies despite no longer farming.

For those farming in the less favoured areas, he was confident there was majority support for continuing to provide top-up payments but just how these will be paid remained to be seen.

“The new scheme will not come through in time,” he said. “Nine member states will not provide the commission with the necessary information to allow this to happen.

“They have the information but they see this issue as real political dynamite and will not divulge it, so change cannot take place.”

Lyon was not hopeful of heading off the present plan to top limit the amount of support cash any single recipient might receive – there was a “big head of steam” on this policy from many member states where their farming is dominated by small-scale farmers.

In fact, Lyon said the biggest single issue facing those intent on reforming the CAP was based on the scale of farming, with many policies favouring those at the smaller end of the scale and that was not good news for Scotland.

He felt so strongly on the dangers of this that he called for all political parties in the UK to fight together against this threat, which was, he claimed, far more dangerous than any differences currently existing between politicians.

“There is a real danger that farmers’ interests are sidelined and the priority becomes political point scoring by both sides in an effort to win the [independence] referendum,” he said.

“The real threat to Scottish and UK farmers is not from each other, but from the agenda of southern European countries that seek more money for small farms at the expense of our larger farms.”

Meanwhile, rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead indicated he had written to the UK government demanding that Scotland’s poor budget allocations were made a negotiating priority.

Lochhead said he was concerned that, without the UK spending negotiating capital on improving Scotland’s budget allocations, Scotland would be left with the lowest levels of payments in the EU.

“The vast majority of farming sectors in every other country have governments fighting their corner in Brussels yet Scotland relies on UK ministers that have so far refused to pick up the cudgels on behalf of Scots farmers and wider rural Scotland,” he said.