Reform to the farming subsidies regime has been delayed by a year after “dithering” on the part of Brussels.
Farmers in the West Country, 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 it out 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.
Julie Girling, MEP for the South West and Conservative agriculture spokesman in the EU Parliament, said the proposals were a “mess”, adding: “Farmers 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 commission’s complex proposals that they have tabled 7,000 amendments.
Close to £50 billion of EU money is poured into European agriculture annually – 70 per cent of which is spent on direct payments. But CAP funding makes up 43 per cent of the entire EU budget, so cuts will have a big impact.
Britain, Germany and others are pushing for deeper cuts than the European Commission has so far proposed. Mrs Girling said farming subsidies could be scaled back by as much as 25 per cent.
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 West Country into hardship, with some ending up on 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: “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 adviser, 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 arrangements are in place.”