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Imposing conditions on farm aid without penalizing farmers

Since 2003, the European Union has made the payment of farm aid subject to compliance with a range of conditions in areas such as farm management, the environment and animal health.

At a hearing held on Tuesday by the EP Agriculture Committee, experts and MEPs agreed unanimously that, while these conditions are justified, the system should be simplified and penalties eased. Environmental protection, keeping the soil in good condition, public health, plant and animal health, animal welfare, identification of stocks: under an EU regulation adopted in 2003, farmers are required to comply with a whole range of rules laid down in about 20 sets of regulations, otherwise the aid they receive under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be reduced.

And the list is due to lengthen in the next few years with the aim of making European agriculture more sustainable and bringing it into line with public expectations. However, the system which has been set up - known as „cross-compliance” - is very complicated for local authorities and farmers, especially the smallest farms, and is difficult to apply uniformly throughout the EU, according to experts.

Paperwork, lack of proportionality, unfair competition
„There are too many rules to observe and too many documents to fill in, a lack of proportion between compliance with rules and the sanctions when the rules are violated, and no „de minimis” rule for controls in the regulation”, said the President of the Danish Agriculture Council, Peter Gaemelke.

Peter Kendall, President of the UK National Farmers' Union, brandished a pile of „266 pages to be completed by all the producer groups in (his) region”: „It's a nightmare for farmers”, he said. Pekka Pesonen, Secretary-General of Copa-Cogeca, representing EU farming organizations, argued that farmers were having to work in a „climate of constant fear” and sometimes to use consultants to be sure that they had done nothing wrong.

Around 70% of the infringements recorded by the Commission in 2005 related to minor problems such as earmarks lost by animals, he pointed out. Several speakers also pointed to problems of unfair competition between farmers because of the differing application of the compliance rules in various Member States and sometimes even between different regions in the same country.

Suggestions for simplification
In a report presented on 29 March, the Commission proposed a package of measures to improve and simplify the cross-compliance system, such as better information for farmers, introduction of a degree of tolerance in cases of minor infringements, harmonization of the frequency of inspections and advance notification of certain on-the-spot checks.

Most speakers agreed that these ideas were a step in the right direction but called for bolder measures, starting with a shorter and clearer list of rules. Joachim Hauck, of the Ministry for Food and the Rural Environment of the German Land of Baden-Württemberg, put forward a number of suggestions, such as a transition period for the application of new rules, recognition of voluntary quality control systems, and advance warning of farmers before each inspection.

Wanda Chmielewska-gill, of the Polish Foundation of Assistance Programs for Agriculture, proposed that the cross-compliance system should only apply from 2013 to new Member States such as Poland, since these countries will only receive the level of direct farm aid equivalent to that of the old Member States as of that date. She also suggested fewer inspections when farmers receive less than €5000 in aid.

Advice rather than punishment
Peter Kendall asked for the Commission to set a timetable so that farmers would know better where they stood. And „if an infringement is spotted, would it not be more logical to encourage the perpetrator to rectify this rather than punishing him?” he asked. He also proposed a „de-briefing after inspections”. Peter Gaemelke even thought „inspectors could also become advisors”, and idea that Neil Parish (UK), chair of the Agriculture Committee, found very interesting.

Esther Herranz García (Spain) called for a „harmonization of inspections in the Member States, without going too far” and proposed that the criteria for respecting the environment should also apply to imported products. Luis Manuel Capoulas Santos (Portugal) believed there should be an appeals body for farmers. Neil Parish agreed, saying „Farmers are innocent until proved otherwise: if we manage to get that, we will have gained a great deal”. (EP Press)