It’s quite difficult to get past the headlines to understand the details of the EU budget agreement. Yes the budget has been capped thanks to some good negotiation by plucky David Cameron but what does that mean – particularly for the environment?
I bought the FT, Independent and Guardian on Saturday and found them no help at all in telling me what were the consequences of the budget agreement for how money will actually be spent and what the consequences of that spend will be. There was mention of CAP reform – but no meat on the bones. In fact the papers were far more interested in talking about the horse meat off the bones and in some lasagne.
It’s worth visiting the EU website to try to gain a bit more understanding of what happened (the bit about CAP starts in para 61).
Of course it’s quite witty that the section is entitled ‘Sustainable Growth: Natural Resources’ rather than ‘Knackering the countryside through unsustainable policies’ but it’s always good when policy makers demonstrate a sense of humour.
Para 64 seems to say that Pillar 1 payments will be reduced overall but increased in those members states with low payments – an equalisation process. Is that what it says – I always did need some help understanding these things but I used to have a bunch of clever staff to help me? However, anything along those lines seems like the right sort of thing in an age of austerity. I’d be worried though about the increases of payments in some countries, presumably often eastern European countries – and their effects on wildlife.
Para 65 says that capping of Pillar 1 payments will be voluntary – so it won’t happen much and won’t happen in the UK. Can you imagine Richard Benyon wanting to cap his own CAP payments, or the NT, or the RSPB? Personally, I can see no reason why income support should go to people and organisations who don’t need it so I regard this as wimping out. A chance for further savings and a more progressive system has been lost. And a chance to increase the influence of Pillar 2 compared with Pillar 1 has been missed too.
Para 67 leads to greening of Pillar 1 – conditions being attached to Pillar 1 payments. This can’t really be bad – but we’ll have to see if it is any good.
Paras 68 and 69 say that Member States can switch money between Pillars 1 and 2: in my view this should be a one way street with money being transferred from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 but para 69 allows the opposite to occur. Let’s hope that it doesn’t.
Para 72 looks interesting. It says a few states will get extra money and then lists a large number of Member States which doesn’t include the UK. I’m not sure what this is all about.
My reading of this is that implementation is everything and this is neither great news nor a disaster. But I may be wrong. What did others say about it – that always gives us a few clues?
CLA President Harry Cotterell said: “Obviously, we need to have the details of the deal confirmed, but it does appear to pave the way for a fair deal for farmers. However, we would work with Defra to discourage the use of the flexibility allowed under this agreement to shift money away from supporting farmers or towards imposing stricter regulations.”
“The provisional deal, which could still be vetoed by the European Parliament, has taken on board a number of key issues on which the Association has been lobbying. We are pleased the European Council appears to have recognised the impact needless regulation can have on farm businesses.
“The CLA particularly welcomes the statements that participation in agri-environment schemes should be treated as at least equivalent in doing good for the environment as the Commission’s own specific greening proposals and that the implementation of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) would not require land to be taken out of production.”
“It is also good that capping of payments has been made voluntary, particularly since the UK Government’s position is not to cap.”
“In our view, this was not really about the total amount of money spent on the CAP. The CLA has always accepted that in the present climate agriculture has to take its share of cuts like every other sector.
“The key issue was to safeguard the competitiveness of UK farming. We cannot have a situation in which mainland European farmers have the benefit of significantly greater levels of support than their equivalents in the UK, or are subject to less onerous environmental standards.”
That’s quite sensible comment.
The NFU don’t appear to have a view on the outcome – they are too busy commenting on the culinary delights of dobbin.
Defra also don’t seem to have noticed that the CAP has changed at all. How pathetically incompetent of Defra that they don’t have any account of major changes in international policy affecting 70% of the UK (and English) countryside on their website;s home page. What a hopeless shower they are!
The RSPB’s Martin Harper described the deal as regressive. Commenting on the budget outcome, he said: “Wildlife across Europe will pay a heavy price for this terribly regressive deal, and we’re bound to see further declines in some species whose numbers have crashed. Since the 1980s Europe has lost 300 million farmland birds, how many more will we lose over the next seven years?”
The RSPB said that the deal struck on Friday cuts the amount of money available for conservation by just over 11 billion Euros. Worse still it allows all member states to raid what little is left in conservation coffers and siphon it off into untargeted subsidies.
Martin Harper added: “This is a bad deal for Europe’s wildlife, providing flexibility for a race to the bottom. But there is hope for the UK, a country which has led the way in investing in wildlife-friendly farming.
“The Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, and his counterparts in the devolved administrations, now need to take the necessary decisions to make good on their environmental promises. This is nothing less than those 30,000 RSPB supporters who contacted David Cameron this week would expect.
“This means using the flexibility to shift as much funding as possible from direct payments into Rural Development, the bit of the CAP that can really drive more sustainable farming.”
The Wildlife Trusts commented in similar vein:
The nature of the countryside could start to change significantly for the worse, following budget cuts agreed by EU leaders in Brussels today.
The future of many of the treasured elements of our agricultural landscapes are now at risk because European funding for conserving our countryside has been cut by more than 11% over the next seven years.
From 2014, this could mean significant cuts to the £400 million spent annually in England on maintaining hedgerows, wildflower meadows, wetlands and other important natural habitats.
Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscapes, The Wildlife Trusts, explains:
“This funding is critical to the management of some of our most precious and valuable wildlife-rich places as well as for nature-friendly farming in the wider countryside. At a time when communities, governments and businesses are increasingly recognising the value of nature, this decision threatens to undo 25 years of investment in our natural heritage and so undermine nature’s recovery.
“Despite the EU budget cuts announced today, we are calling on the Government to maintain or increase the funding available to support nature-friendly farming. They must not allow money to be shifted into direct payments that create little or no public benefit.”
The Wildlife Trusts will continue to press Government to stick to its task – as set out in the Natural Environment White Paper – to leave the natural environment in a better state than it was when the Government inherited it. Without sufficient resources it will fail. The public will be justified in demanding to know why the Government has traded away their natural environment on this day in Brussels.
The EU budget for Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which supports nature-friendly farming, will be €84.96 billion for the period 2014-2020, a reduction of around €11 billion from the EU budget period 2007-13.
I can’t really find much other comment at all. It’s a bit odd that a policy area that spends around a third of the EU budget, and whose spending affect 70% of our country’s land surface, doesn’t get any proper analysis by the media. Instead we are regaled by tales of horse meat.
In some ways this is right – after all, there is more than enough money to make a huge difference to the EU, UK and English countryside already: if only it were properly spent. If Defra would fix ELS so that it delivers good value for money we could see a regeneration in countryside wildlife and still have change left from agri-environment schemes. Clearly spending more money on a policy mechanism that is not delivering in its current form would only be supported by policy geeks of the highest order.
There is a danger that the NGOs have become dazzled by the huge attractiveness of the politics and have neglected to put in sufficient grunt work to make the existing system deliver to the maximum. Let us hope that this is not so and that efforts will be redoubled to get good value from the existing sums of money available to regenerate the ecological value of the countryside.