Ministers seek to fit disparate national policies into CAP suit

NOORDWIJK, Netherlands (Reuters) – EU farm ministers opened a debate yesterday on how European agricultural policy might become more flexible and better tailored to reflect the vast differences between the bloc’s 25 member states. Last year’s reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) already includes several options for the way in which governments choose to apply changes in the system of paying subsidies to their farmers. But according to a working paper being discussed by the ministers in the western Dutch town of Noordwijk, there is still room for CAP policy to give greater «national» leeway for EU countries to boost the efficiency of their farm policies. «In an enlarging European Union… the variety of climates and cultural and regional differences continues to grow,» said the paper, authored by current EU president, the Netherlands. «It is far more difficult than ever before to find ‘one fits all’ solutions,» it said. As an example of this, it cited the EU’s obligations on land qualifying as permanent pasture that was hammered out in the June 2003 farm reform package. The reform includes rules to protect land that is designated as permanent pasture from changing into arable land, with possible negative consequences for the richness of biodiversity. For a parcel of land to qualify as permanent pasture, it must be seen to be grassland for at least five years. This status may not be changed without prior consent from Brussels. «This approach seems to ignore that there are member states where a massive conversion of permanent grassland into arable land will never occur,» the working paper said. «It would have been preferable (in the reform) to give those member states some flexibility in choosing the most efficient and effective way of monitoring this obligation.» Whether or not a parcel of land is designated as permanent pasture can affect the amount of EU subsidy a farmer receives. Under the reform deal, EU countries have several choices in how they apply a revamped subsidy system that breaks the link between how much a farmer produces and the cash he receives. One of these is for governments to make separate flat-rate payments in each region for permanent pasture and for cropland. In the payments model chosen by Sweden, for example, farmers will receive 125 euros/hectare for their permanent pastureland throughout the country. But the rate varies for non-pastureland, from 125 euros in the north to 255 euros in the south. The Netherlands holds the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of this year, and the three-day informal meeting will be chaired by Dutch Farm Minister Cees Veerman.

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