In very broad terms, the challenge for the current round of CAP reform is to deliver, in good time, a Common Agricultural Policy that is fit for purpose, that is coherent with the Europe 2020 strategy for recovery and growth, and that supports the twin goals of competitiveness and sustainability. These requirements in turn create further challenges in the form of crucial questions about how much money will be made available for the CAP in the period up to 2020, how these funds will be allocated both between and within Member States, and how the policy content will help to shape and serve the development of European agriculture.
It is important to note that, in addition to the European Parliament having an enhanced role in the process, key CAP issues are, in fact, being discussed in two parallel tracks, namely:
in the CAP reform negotiations in the Council of Agriculture Ministers, and at official level in the Special Committee on Agriculture and four separate working groups, and
in the negotiations on a new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) setting the EU budget for the period 2014 to 2020, which take place in the General Affairs Council and, ultimately, in the European Council.
Ireland is, of course, committed to playing an active and constructive role in securing agreement on the reform of the CAP. However, to do this, three things need to be happen:
there must be progress and, ultimately, agreement on the MFF,
there must be substantial progress during the Danish and Cypriot presidencies, at least on technical issues, and
all three institutions — the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission — need to engage actively in the negotiating process, with a commitment to seeking workable compromise.
Ireland's priorities, which are informed by the need to achieve the targets outlined in the Food Harvest 2020 strategy, are the sustainable intensification of production, environmental stewardship and the maintenance of a vibrant rural economy. Our key concerns as regards the reform proposals arise in four areas. These are the overall CAP funding, the method for distributing CAP funds between Member States, the method for distributing direct payment funds within Member States and the overarching need for simplification in the reformed CAP.
It is my view that a strong Common Agricultural Policy will make an important contribution to European economic recovery in the years ahead. In order to guarantee a strong CAP, commensurate resources need to be devoted to it. From an Irish perspective, the Commission's Budget proposals represent a reasonable starting point, given the pressure from some Member States to cut CAP expenditure. However, the pressure for further cuts to the CAP is still very real, and must continue to be resisted.
The key priority for Ireland is to retain our levels of funding for both direct payments and for rural development. Current proposals for redistributing direct payments between Member States on a pragmatic basis (convergence towards, but not all the way to, a uniform rate) are broadly satisfactory but I still have concerns about the method proposed for the allocation of rural development funds. I am therefore pressing for direct payments and rural development funds to be considered together, and for the pragmatic approach being employed for direct payments to be used for rural development also. The bottom line is that Ireland receives lower than average payments per hectare for direct payment and rural development funds combined, and I see no justification for any reduction.
My priority is to obtain as much flexibility as possible for Member States with regard to payment models and transitional arrangements. I recognise that we cannot continue to base our payments on outdated historic production references, but I have major difficulties with the pace and extent of convergence in the Commission's proposal. Analysis carried out by my Department indicates that the move to flat national or regional rates will cause large transfers from the more productive farms to more marginal and less productive land, and that much of this movement is proposed to be front-loaded.
I believe that Member States should therefore be allowed to implement the payment model best suited to their conditions and to the development of their farming systems, over a lengthy transitional period. The ‘approximation' approach, by which all payments could gradually move towards, but not fully to, the average, is one alternative that I believe should be considered in this regard.
I believe that the entire reform process should be informed by the need to keep the CAP as simple and as effective as possible. That means the lowest possible cost and administrative burden for both farmers and for Member State administrative systems.
I have assured Commissioner Ciolos and my Member State colleagues that Ireland will play a full and constructive role, both before and during our presidency, in seeking agreement on this vital dossier, both for the EU and for Ireland.