EU farm payment scheme for farmers delayed
Brussels "dithering" has led to a reformed farming subsidies regime being delayed by a year, it has emerged.
Farmers in the Westcountry, heavily dependent on EU handouts to turn a profit, face uncertainty after the European Commission confirmed the new system of direct payments will start in January 2015. The new-look Commons Agricultural Policy (CAP) was due at the beginning of 2014.
Disagreements in the European Parliament over dishing out the subsidy to member countries have been compounded by a failure by heads of state to agree a deal on the overall size of the EU budget.
The delay, though, could avoid a repeat of the late payments "fiasco" that pushed producers close to hardship after the last shake-up of the system.
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Julie Girling, MEP for the South West and Conservative agriculture spokesman in the EU Parliament, said the current reform proposals were a "mess".
She added: "Farmers in the South West have had a dreadful year, thanks to the flooding. The last thing they need is uncertainty over payments."
So alarmed have MEPs been over the European Commission's complex proposals that they have tabled more than 7,000 amendments.
Currently close to £50 billion of EU money is poured into European agriculture annually – 70% of which is spent on direct payments to farmers.
But CAP funding makes up a huge 43% of the entire EU budget, so cuts to the total will have a big impact on what farmers get.
Britain, Germany and others are pushing for deeper cuts than the European Commission has so far proposed. Mr Girling said farming subsidies could be scaled-back by as much as 25%.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has lobbied the Commission to push the date back to give farmers and paying agencies sufficient time to implement the new regulation.
Late and inaccurate payment of subsidies from 2006 plunged many farmers in the Westcountry into hardship, with some forced on to anti-depressants. The Rural Payments Agency is now back on track after years of technology-related problems, and the industry is keen to avoid the same issues returning.
Former farmer and ex-MEP Neil Parish, now MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said: "The nature of getting 27 – soon to be 28 – countries to agree, is always difficult.
"The only silver lining for the farmers is that the payments will stay the same for an extra year if no agreement is reached.
"The downside is that farmers need to be able to plan their businesses ahead and they can't while Europe dithers."
Gail Soutar, the NFU's senior CAP advisor, said: "It is good to see the Commission finally seeing common sense and pushing the start date back to 2015 for this part of the CAP."
A spokesman for Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "We feel that January 2015 is a more realistic start date and we will continue to work proactively with the Commission to make sure the necessary transition arrangements are in place."
The delay was confirmed by Gwilym Jones, from Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo's cabinet, at a conference in London.
He added, though, there was still enough time to agree and implement new payments for environmental measures, rather than food production, from January 2014. This has been questioned by the NFU.