Pressure is building on the EU’s Farming Commissioner, Phil Hogan, to cut direct payments for European farmers.
During a panel discussion at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Brussels, Professor Allan Buckwell, who co-wrote a new report on the upcoming Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, challenged Mr Hogan to ‘be as bold as he can’ with the new changes.
He said: “We really have to change policy to adapt to environmental challenges, and the target for this action, I am afraid, has to be where 70 per cent of the current budget of the CAP is devoted – which is direct payments.
“I am very happy to make the case that European taxpayers contribute 0.35 per cent of European Gross National Product to steward their natural resources and to provide wholesome, nutritious food.
“It is not obscene that Europe would spend the kind of budget it does on agriculture, however it must be much better directed.”
Professor Buckwell’s RISE Foundation report, co-authored by Professor Alan Mathews, said the funding used for direct payments should be re-directed towards more targeted assistance to help farmers improve productivity, resource efficiency and risk management, as well as paying them on a contract basis for environmental goods.
Commissioner Hogan told Professor Buckwell he wanted farmers to continue to have a ‘basic income’ to allow them to keep looking after rural areas, but he did say he wanted to put a limit on the amount of money farmers can get, particularly those with bigger farms.
He also admitted the last round of reform in 2013 had made the control and sanctions regime too complex for farmers.
“We are going to look at these controls”, he added.
“We do not need all the controls we have now, but we need to have the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament to agree with the Commission in making changes here.”
Visiting Brussels to sit in on the Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA), it was hard not to notice the dogged determination of European politicians to ignore Brexit.
Business as usual was the order of the day, as an hour-long discussion on the future of the CAP consistently avoided the question of how the policy would be funded when the UK withdraws its £2.5 billion annual contribution to the budget.
Though Commissioner Hogan admitted EU farm payments would have to be slashed when the UK leaves the EU earlier this year, he was reluctant to offer up the same honesty at the FFA.
When asked by Farmers Guardian whether other member states would have to cough up more cash to cope with the loss of UK contributions, Mr Hogan joked about how the strongly disputed €60 billion ‘divorce bill’ could plug the gap.
He then went on to say there were decisions to be made on funding which were ‘above his pay grade’, but he was ‘not contemplating’ a £2.5 billion reduction of the CAP budget.
This response is not good enough.
Bar Germany, Britain’s payments to the EU are worth more than the total net contributions of all the other 26 member states put together.
European farmers group Copa Cogeca has already said new ways need to be found to maintain the CAP budget. German farming union the DBV has put its concerns on the record. And MEPs on the EU’s agriculture committee have warned of the significant gap in funding after Brexit.
If Commissioner Hogan is no longer contemplating a hefty reduction in the CAP bill, he owes it to European farmers to explain why.
We spend a lot of time talking about the impact of Brexit on the UK, but sooner or later the Commission is going to have to face up to the financial problems our exit creates for the EU.
Pretending Britain’s departure is inconsequential just won’t cut it as we move through the next two years.