Commissioner’s changes will be more about detail than real substance

Ask any of us how to simplify the CAP, and we could come up with plenty of ideas. Top of the list would be fewer inspections and a more common sense approach, but while he has asked the question it is unlikely the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, will be ready to think as radically as these suggestions. Indeed, as the process begins he has already warned that simplification must respect the regulations in place – and that is not the road to radical change.

The commissioner is meeting the agriculture committee of the European parliament to hear MEPs’ thinking on how to simplify CAP regulations. Then, during April and May, farm ministers will agree a position on the changes they would like to see. These and other ideas will then be considered by Mr Hogan, and by the autumn he is due to publish his plans. This was a commitment given in his early days in the job, and he is determined to deliver, but his room for manoeuvre is limited, because he can’t overturn regulations.

He could not, for example, dilute the greening or active farmer rules, without taking the issue back through the farm council and European parliament. That means his changes will be more about detail than real substance, but he will nonetheless be the first farm commissioner committed to tackling red tape.

Mr Hogan may well try to return some implementation powers to Member States, but people need to be prepared for the disappointment of relatively modest changes. Beyond that the big hope is that he will be more radical when it comes to the 2017 review of the CAP reforms put in place by Dacian Ciolos. There is certainly a case for fresh thinking on the over-technical approach Mr Ciolos took to one that takes more account of practical farming realities.

Of more immediate concern is the decision by the commissioner to give concessions to Member States that exceed quota in the final year of the regime. This came as no surprise, since the Republic of Ireland is facing a superlevy bill of close to €90 million, and Mr Hogan has been under enormous pressure to act from the government that sent him to Brussels. The deal is that Member States will pay the fines when they are due, which will take pressure off the CAP budget, but they will be allowed to collect the amount owed from individual farmers over three years, interest-free.

On the face of it that seems a fair deal, but it’s coming from a commissioner who refused to even consider increasing the intervention price for dairy products. The fact that the bottom of the global market seems to have been reached does not weaken the case for a review of intervention arrangements. But Mr Hogan is sticking to the line that he was right in saying there was no crisis in the dairy sector.

Farmers remain unconvinced by that claim, and his gesture on superlevy bills for eight Member States is certainly not even-handed. It was over production that made the bad situation of weak global and closed Russian markets all the worse in Europe. Surplus milk came from countries that believed they could gamble in the final year of milk quotas, because the Commission would give in. It now has, meaning those who helped create the problem of over production in 2014-15 have been rewarded. Those who were victims were penalised, because intervention was never altered to become a meaningful support measure. That seems unfair, but given the pressure exerted on Mr Hogan it was always going to happen.

He should not be allowed to forget, however, that he has favoured a minority over the majority for largely political reasons, and he must ensure that the three-year payment schedule is fully met and not quietly forgotten.

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