Reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is unlikely to happen for at least another two years because MEPs and the European Commission (EC) are struggling to agree on the budget, it has emerged.
The EC wants to move away from production-related subsidies to farmer subsidies based more on environmental stewardship. However, resistance is coming from elected members in a number of Member States (MS) who fear reform proposals on 'greening' are going too far. They say farming must be protected amid the economic crisis and concerns about food security.
The delays to CAP reform emerged at a Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum conference in London last month. Several speakers were worried that cuts to the EU's budget would inevitably impact on CAP expenditure. CAP spending is around 55bn, which is about 41% of the total EU budget.
Gwilym Jones, who works for EC agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolo, expressed concern for the EU's ability to deliver its ambitions on the environment if budget cuts at the suggested levels were driven through. His views were echoed by deputy minister for agriculture in Wales, Alun Davies. Environmental pressure groups also fear measures to make EU farming greener will suffer if big cuts are made.
Tim Farron MP, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hill Farming and chair of the event, said: "If we are too harsh, we put our farming industry in a position where there is nobody to deliver the environmental goods."
Prime Minister David Cameron has been arguing for cuts to the EU budget, but MS such as France, Germany, Greece, Latvia and Lithuania, which benefit favourably from CAP payments to their farmers are resisting. Even in Britain, the National Farmers Union fears its members could lose out if farmers' transitional payments are hit.
Julie Girling MEP, Conservative spokeswoman on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, rebutted EC accusations that the European Parliament (EP), in which the reform proposals are being debated, was dragging its feet. Girling stressed that any changes required "co-decision" by the EC and EP. She said MEPs were not prepared to rubber stamp reforms that would damage their farmers.
While the EC had hoped to have the reforms in place by January 2014, this was unlikely because of the failure to agree budget cuts.
Martin Nesbit, director for EU and international affairs at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, even doubted that agreement would be reached by 2015.
"The blunt instrument proposals on greening are the problem," said Girling. "I am not anti-environment, but you need flexibility to adapt to the needs of different areas." NFU president Peter Kendall added: "So much of the debate [about CAP reform] has been overshadowed by the greening." Kendall called for efficient farming production to be rewarded through CAP.