Rebecca Evans, Deputy Minister for Farming and Food
I attended the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels on Monday (16 March) as part of the UK Ministerial Delegation. I took part in the usual pre-Council briefing meetings with colleagues where I set out the issues important to Wales. On this occasion Defra Minister George Eustice MP and Richard Lochhead MSP, Scottish Government Minister for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, were present.
The agenda for discussion by Farming Ministers at Council included the implementation and simplification of the Common Agricultural Policy; discussion of the market situation, trends and EU measures in the milk sector; and the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on organic production and labelling of organic products.
As part of its engagement on the issue of CAP simplification, the Welsh Government has called for a more proportionate approach to implementation and control, aimed at reducing the burden on claimants and administration. We are also seeking flexibility on some mandatory provisions such as the Welsh Government being able to change minimum payment levels and capping levels, apply a maximum euro limit on an entitlement value, and amend greening to encourage more arable farming practices in Wales.
We are hopeful of greater clarity in the Regulations, many aspects of which can be interpreted in different ways. We are supportive of more freedom for Paying Agencies to detect a genuine administrative error and work with the claimant to correct the error as part of the application process.
My officials will continue to work closely with Defra and the other Devolved Administrations to ensure the formal overarching UK response to Commissioner Hogan fully reflects the needs and concerns of all agricultural stakeholders here in Wales.
Commissioner Hogan has also announced an option for Member States to provide an extension for farmers to submit their claims for payments to 15 June. Given that such an extension would have significant knock-on impacts on the timing of both Pillar I and Pillar II payments to our farmers, I am currently considering with the industry whether this option is worth implementing in Wales.
Separately, I am delighted that Commissioner Hogan has agreed to visit Wales during the Royal Welsh Show this year and will see at first hand the agricultural, food and environmental sectors in Wales. I took the opportunity at Council to have an informal discussion with Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development about the food and drink sector in Wales.
During my visit I was also able to meet with senior officials within the European Commission in charge of various aspects of CAP Reform. I am very pleased that Pierre Bascou, Director in charge of Pillar 1 payments, will be coming to present at our annual farming conference in June on behalf of the Commission.
With regards to the discussion on the milk sector, it is clear that in the current international climate more episodes of volatility can be expected. This reinforces the critical importance of building long term resilience into our dairy industry in Wales, which was one of the major planned outcomes of the independent review of the dairy sector led by Andy Richardson of the Dairy Taskforce for Wales. I published Andy’s report alongside the Welsh Government response on March 24th, and made an oral statement to the Assembly on this issue.
In addition, I feel the European Milk Market Observatory has a key role to play, providing data for planning and business decisions and highlighting difficulties on the horizon. It is vital that we look for ways to build on its initial success and explore its potential as the basis for a dairy futures market to make milk prices more predictable.
The Agriculture Council also discussed proposals to improve the new Council Regulation on organics. I was pleased that many of the issues that the Welsh Government had made about simplification and practicalities have been addressed. Priorities for the Welsh Government have included ensuring that farmers are able to leave Glastir Organic without penalty if they choose to do so as a result of the new Regulation, and allowing organic and non-organic farming to operate on a single farm holding – for example, running an organic dairy farm alongside a non-organic beef herd. I supported UK efforts to continue to ensure that the draft Regulation is honed so that it supports the development of the organic sector.
Elsewhere, I was disappointed that the issue of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was removed from the European Council agenda and discussed in private instead. I urge both the Council and the Commission to be more transparent in forthcoming discussions around TTIP.
I made the point to my Ministerial colleagues that TTIP and other trade negotiations present challenges and opportunities for Wales’ agriculture and food and drink sectors, and I am seeking assurances from the UK Government that any deal negotiated will not reduce the level of food, health, environmental or labour standards in Wales, and will in no way diminish the value of our Protected Geographical Indicator and Protected Food Name statuses.