The agreement on the CAP that was reached last night is a major stepping stone in the negotiations on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which have been ongoing for over four years. Ministers from the 27 member states of the EU accepted a package of proposals tabled by the Irish Presidency and successfully concluded what is known as a general approach on the CAP reform package.
The agreement between the 27 member states is not the end of the road for these negotiations, but it allows the negotiation process on CAP reform to move to the final, so-called "trilogue" stage, in which the Irish Presidency will represent the Council in discussions with the European Parliament and with the Commission. The successful completion of the Council's deliberations means that the Irish Presidency's objective of an inter-institutional political agreement by the end of June remains on target. Moreover, the strength of the qualified majority given by the Council puts the Presidency in a strong position in the negotiations with the Parliament and the Commission.
Last night's outcome was good for the Irish Presidency, but, more importantly, it was good for Ireland. The Council endorsed the principle of flexibility in the way in which direct payments are to be distributed within member states. The compromise on which we secured agreement in principle on internal convergence and the flexibilities surrounding that three weeks ago was agreed and endorsed in full last night. There were no amendments to it in terms of a mandatory minimum payment or the like. However, there are many voluntary options available to countries in terms of how they wish to reshape and redistribute payments, and this country will have to make political decisions once we know what the full tool box is, hopefully at the end of June.
The Deputy has my script so I will answer his questions. The reference year issue is causing many problems on the land rental markets in Ireland, so I was anxious to have an amendment accepted which would give countries an option not just to apply 2014 or 2015 as a reference year, but to apply a past year, such as 2012 or 2013, as a reference year. We now have that flexibility. All I am willing to say at present is that we will give significant consideration to using 2012 as a reference year, but we will not sign off on that now. However, I have been telling farmers repeatedly for the last two years that they should not make significant investment decisions or over-spend on renting land on the assumption that 2014 will be the reference year. I have consistently said that, and now we have the option to use 2012 as the reference year should that be accepted in the negotiations with the Parliament and the Commission. Farmers should reflect on that. Hopefully, it will cool off the rental market. It badly needs cooling because people are involved in a land grab, essentially, for rented land on the assumption that 2014 will be the reference year. I have always cautioned against that and last night is proof of why I did so.
With regard to sugar, if the Deputy knew the lengths we went to last night to get an agreement on sugar, he would realise how farcical his comments are. This was the most difficult issue on which to get agreement. Every member state that has a sugar industry at present, with the exception of the UK, wants to extend sugar quotas until 2020. The European Parliament has already agreed that its position should be to extend sugar quotas until 2020. Essentially, that means they do not end in 2020 but just go on into the next round of CAP. In other words, it would be an indefinite extension of sugar quotas. I took a strong stand against that because countries such as Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia and others would be locked out of sugar production as a result. Instead of getting a compromise that would allow Ireland to apply for some type of small, limited redistributed quota, which would be uncertain, the way to allow Ireland the option of reinstating the sugar industry is to get rid of sugar quotas as soon as politically possible. The soonest date that is politically possible is 2017. It was one of the last things we agreed last night. It was totally unachievable to get an earlier date. If the Deputy was following the discussions, he would have realised that.
On the issue of capping, there are more options on capping than the Commission had proposed, but it is only options for payments above €150,000. As regards the redistributive payment, we are not making any decisions at this stage on whether we will use that option, but it is important to have it. Therefore, when we conclude our negotiations in the co-decision process there is the option of a top-up payment for either the average farm size or up to the first 30 hectares on a farm. We have agreement on that. That is the option for countries. There is no mandatory minimum payment.
We secured practically everything we had sought in the compromise on greening. I believe that was welcomed by the Deputy. It has certainly been welcomed by farmers. We have taken a very pragmatic approach to greening to ensure it is easy to understand and, most importantly, straightforward to implement for farmers.