I represented the UK on agricultural matters and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment and Fisheries, Richard Benyon, represented the United Kingdom on fisheries items. Richard Lochhead MSP, Michelle O'Neil MLA and Alun Davies AM were also part of the United Kingdom delegation.
My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment and Fisheries, Richard Benyon, gave an oral statement on the elements of the fisheries negotiations at the December council which directly affected UK interests on
Black Sea fishing opportunities for 2013 were also agreed at the council. Bulgaria and Romania supported a rollover of the TAC for sprat and resisted a Commission proposal to reduce the TAC for turbot. They successfully argued that, given the fishing interests of non-EU countries in the Black Sea, the only long-term solution was better regional management.
The council welcomed the presidency's CAP reform progress report and was generally able to accept it as a balanced assessment of the debate on the four main CAP reform proposals. Member states raised common issues they felt are still debatable or important to them. The most common was greening; with most member states happy with the direction of discussion and, with a bit more flexibility, an agreement could be reached. The feeling on internal convergence of direct payments is that it could be phased in over a longer period. On market management issues, some member states called for a more effective safety net and for production restrictions to be maintained for wine, sugar and (to a lesser extent) milk. For the UK, in particular I highlighted that there needed to be further work to simplify the proposals for farmers and national administrations, and cautioned against moves to diverge from a more market-oriented approach to CAP reform.
Any other business
The Commission presented two reports. One concerned the implementation of the 2008 wine reform, noting that the many objectives set out had been met and the sector was on a better competitive footing as a result, but also suggested some minor adaptations and improvements to the regime and its operation. The second outlined conclusions of the high level group on vine planting rights, with suggestions pointing to a way forward that might see the development of a planting authorisations framework which was controlled by producers rather than member states. I argued that it was important to stick to agreements in previous rounds of CAP reform, including phasing out vine planting rights by 2018. This would provide certainty to businesses and generate the confidence to invest.
Several central and eastern European countries presented a joint paper calling for the option of providing more coupled support in new member states than provided for in the Commission's cap reform proposal. The Commission noted that this would be dealt with during negotiations.
Sugar levy repayment
Germany requested the Commission expedite legislation to establish a legal basis for recalculation of historic sugar levies paid by producers in order to repay them, including interest (following a recent ECJ case ruling the existing provisions illegal). The UK and other member states supported Germany. Belgium and France called for the interest to be paid from Community funds. The Commission responded with a two-stage approach. It would soon publish an information note, and follow this up with draft legislation which would contain a retrospective revaluation of levies from 2001-2006.
The Commission presented its second report on the dairy market situation, which concludes that the conditions are in place for a smooth phasing out of the milk quota system in 2015. The report found that the market was functioning well with overall EU production below quota. I welcomed the Commission's conclusions. Six member states had exceeded their quota and were thus subject to a super-levy in 2012. They disagreed with the Commission's report and called for measures to help their farmers. Some member states also called for a re-examination of the decision to end milk quota.
Trade in exotic animals
The presidency reported on the recent international conference on the movement of exotic animals. In response the Commission noted its intention to bring forward a legislative proposal in this area.
Incoming Irish presidency priorities
The Irish Agriculture Minister (Simon Coveney) set out his determination to reach a CAP reform deal in June if possible. He urged Ministers to start proper negotiations and move away from repetitive restatements of national positions. The MFF notwithstanding, he hoped the council could reach an agreed position in March to allow negotiations with the European Parliament to begin.