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Talks on EU agriculture policy reforms in make-or-break stage

June 24, 2013 at 12:03 AM   |   Comments

LUXEMBOURG, June 24 (UPI) -- Chances for reform of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy hinge on talks this week in Luxembourg, Irish Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney says.

Coveney, who holds the chairmanship of the EU Council of agricultural ministers, said Friday this week's down-to-the-wire three-way "trilogues" between the Council, European Parliament and the European Commission will determine whether long-sought CAP reforms will happen this year.

Ireland's rotating presidency of the EU Council ends this week, and Coveney said he is cautiously optimistic an elusive agreement can be forged despite still-wide disagreements between European Parliament members and member states on several key issues.

With Lithuania set take over the EU Council presidency July 1, farming groups fear CAP reform efforts will have to start from scratch if no agreement is reached within the next few days, and perhaps not ultimately be decided until the 2014 EU Parliament elections.

"Decision time has arrived," Coveney said. "Following the formal adoption of our respective positions in March, and after an intense series of trilogue discussions and parallel political contacts, I believe an overall agreement is now within our grasp."

The process is complicated by the presence of the Parliament in the negotiations -- this is the first time EP members have involved in setting the CAP budget under the changes forged by the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon.

They are butting heads with EU agriculture ministers in two main areas, The European Voice reported.

One of them is the "greening measures" sought by the European Commission. Members of the European Parliament have endorsed its effort to tie 30 percent of farmers' direct subsidies to "greening" techniques, rejecting warnings from the European farming trade group Copa-Cogeca the requirements would add costly burdens and threaten the competitiveness and economic viability of EU farmers.

These include crop diversification, maintaining permanent pasture and grassland and creating "ecologically focused areas" to help the survival of wildlife. The latter provision has proven particularly controversial, the Brussels newspaper said.

The other main area of disagreement is the EU's "internal convergence" policy -- the move toward uniform area-based payments within member states and regions.

"Internal convergence" is what EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos calls the "level of the rebalancing" of the direct agriculture subsidies to farmers within member states.

He says he strongly supports the idea of setting an absolute minimum for internal convergence to bump up the level of payments for the farmers "who were the least supported" during previous years, calling it "a key element for fairer and better targeted direct payments among farmers that support food security and the provision of public goods."

But member states are balking at that concept, the British agriculture trade journal Farmers Guardian reported. They are insisting on national level flexibility in terms of the time scale and the extent of such redistributions, it said.

The success of the negotiations seemed to be hanging in the balance Thursday when Paolo de Castro, chairman of the European Parliament's Agriculture Committee, warned Parliament members would boycott this week's trilogue in Luxembourg.

"If we were debating the election of a Pope, we'd have to say 'black smoke,' I'm afraid," he told reporters.

De Castro blamed agriculture ministers for rigidity in the talks, setting out non-negotiable positions such issues as capping the highest farm payments and transferring money between the two "pillars" of CAP without replacing the funds.

But Coveney said Friday the Parliament members will be in Luxembourg.

"I hope that the Council and Parliament will be able to finalize a deal on Tuesday and Wednesday," he said.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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