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FoodEurope’s farm fail

Europe’s farm fail

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EU governments showed their true colors on reforming the bloc’s mammoth farm policy this week — and that color’s not green.

Four days of negotiations billed as the prime moment to finalize a new Common Agricultural Policy blew up on Friday in a skull-crunching head-to-head clash between governments and members of the European Parliament over how much of the €270 billion budget should be set aside for greener kinds of farming.

The CAP is the single biggest tranche of the regular EU budget and campaigners have pressed the European Commission’s green supremo Frans Timmermans to ensure that those payments secure a paradigm shift from business-as-usual industrial farming to more environmentally friendly methods.

That switch to greener farming looked a remote prospect after Friday’s breakdown, with talks now shunted into June. The failed negotiations revealed a chasm of divergent views between governments, EU officials and MEPs on how to make agriculture more climate-friendly, and left the bloc’s 10 million farmers in the dark about what’s in store in the next five-year CAP, which has already been delayed by two years.

“Some member states have zero willing, but really zero, to change anything. They wanted a reform that does not change anything at all,” said European People’s Party lawmaker Herbert Dorfmann.

As talks reached their climax on Thursday afternoon, MEPs were seething at a proposal from EU countries that walked back the environmental ambition even further than what countries had offered the previous day, and was light-years away from what the European Parliament wanted.

The proposal would have given countries a loophole to spend just 18 percent of their main subsidies pot on the new “eco-scheme” programs, a flagship element of the CAP meant to encourage more sustainable farming from agro-forestry to organic agriculture. Countries argued the loophole was needed in case farmers don’t take up the green schemes, but Parliament rejects that and has pushed for a higher 30 percent ring-fence.

MEPs flatly rejected the offer from countries, as represented by the Council of the EU. They regarded the offer as an attempt to bulldoze the Parliament, an institution which is often considered the junior partner in EU negotiations.

Agriculture ministers reacted furiously at a 2 a.m. roundtable. Greece’s Spilios Livanos accused MEPs of blackmailing democratically elected governments by daring to turn down their proposal. “I sincerely don’t understand how the European Parliament reacts to this dialogue and I find it totally disrespectful to all of us,” he told ministers and diplomats, to a round of applause.

Into the dark

Shortly afterward, the Council turned off the cameras despite the session having been advertised to journalists as a public session and ministers continued their talks in what was described by an EU diplomat as “a very bad atmosphere.” Countries ultimately did not give Portugal, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council, a fresh mandate to keep negotiating with Parliament, torpedoing the talks early on Friday.

The reluctant decision to postpone talks for another month represents a blow for Portugal, whose Agriculture Minister Maria do Céu Antunes had stressed that the end of May was the latest possible moment for tying up the CAP.

At a press conference, she put a positive spin on the talks, saying: “We did say that we would have liked to conclude this process in May but that doesn’t mean we are giving up.” She said that Portugal still aims to wrap up the CAP reform before the end of its presidency and insisted that “there are a whole host of points on which we do agree.”

But the reality was that negotiating sides drifted further apart, rather than converging, across the week.

Negotiations broke off with Parliament still pushing the Council to be greener on a host of other issues. These included linking the CAP strongly to the EU’s broader Green Deal plans, the basic land management conditions farmers will have to meet to receive any EU subsidies, how much money to set aside for longer-term green investments, and also which payments should be classed as climate-friendly.

Diplomats from two EU countries said they felt Portuguese diplomats had made a grave error by presenting the provocative proposal to the Parliament, as there was no way it could have formed the basis for a reasonable compromise.

“In Council last night it became really clear that it was impossible to get a new proposal that would allow for a deal today. It was a clusterfuck,” one of the EU diplomats commented. They described the week of talks as “so unprofessional from every side.”

But on Friday France was keen to project an image of unity among countries, stressing that Portugal still had the full backing of the Council. Turning its guns on MEPs, the French agriculture ministry signaled to journalists that all ministers were united in opposing the Parliament’s proposals, deeming them unworkable, and arguing that the Parliament showed little willingness to listen.

MEPs from across the political spectrum were united in criticizing the Council’s attitude toward them. The EPP’s Norbert Lins told journalists: “I expect the Council to respect us as co-legislators.” This was echoed by Green lawmaker Benoît Biteau, who said: “The Council has not understood that the Parliament is a co-legislator, that it is not for the Council to impose their vision of things, of the CAP, of European agriculture.”

The bitter post-mortem of the breakdown of talks was not limited to a spat between MEPs and governments.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski defended the role he and his superior Timmermans played in the talks, having taken flak from powerful agricultural ministers of Germany and Spain for so strongly supporting the Parliament’s greener push. “The role of the Commission is as a kind of facilitator and mediator, but I don’t think it can be a completely neutral role.”

Styling himself as the champion of real farmers, he took a dig at pesky national administrations, whom he blamed for whipping up fears that eco-schemes money would go to waste.

The skirmish leaves MEPs emboldened to push home their demands for a greener CAP during the next set-piece negotiations in Luxembourg on June 28 and 29.

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