The EU executive assists French President Emmanuel Macron proposing a partial derogation to the green architecture for farming subsidies – a key demand of farmers causing unrest in France.
The European Commission today (31 January) proposed loosening green farming requirements under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) while maintaining the full level of payments for farmers, answering French farmers’ concerns that the rules lead to income losses.
“By taking this stabilising action, we can help alleviate the pressure that we know our farmers are feeling to ensure that they can stay economically viable during these times of high uncertainty,” said Commission Executive Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič presenting the initiative.
Since 2023, EU farmers have been required to devote 4% of their land to biodiversity and landscape protection such as hedgerows and fallow meadows if they want to access EU farming subsidies.
The commission already fully suspended the implementation of the fallow land requirement in 2023 in the wake of market disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This new exemption will be limited to this year and partial, since it would allow farmers to grow nitrogen-fixing crops such as lentils and peas in areas that should remain fallow while remaining eligible for direct payments.
Farmers could also decide to plant other fast-growing crops between successive plantings – which are known as catch crops – so long as these are grown without the use of pesticides in a bid to maintain the environmental ambition of the CAP.
“We remain committed to improving biodiversity and investing in soil health because nature is a buffer against natural disasters and because nature matters to health, jobs and the entire economy,” said Šefčovič.
The proposed derogation needs now to be discussed by member states and, once approved, could be applied retroactively as of January 2024.
Since August, the bloc’s agriculture ministers have discussed the possibility of extending last year’s exemption to 2024, but the EU executive has resisted these efforts, arguing that further derogation would be legally impracticable.
The sudden change of mind at the commission followed farmers’ protests across Europe. “We, in this building have the highest respect for everybody who puts forward an argument on policy,” said Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, noting that the lion’s share of the EU budget goes to agriculture.
“Farmers have no better ally in safeguarding their income than the European Commission,” he added.
A key trigger for the development was recent data showing average values for cereal production and farmers’ income decreasing in 2023 compared to 2022, according to an EU official.
No stakeholders were consulted before the commission presented the proposal, the official said, adding that “this is something that has been strongly supported”.
The commission expected the exemption to relieve pressure on the farmers’ income rather than increase agricultural output, the EU official continued.
The proposed exemption swiftly garnered positive feedback including from Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo who dubbed the postponement of the fallow land requirement “a first important step for our farmers”, calling on fewer administrative burdens imposed by Europe.
For the EU farmers lobby Copa-Cogeca, the decision came late in the agricultural calendar and remains limited. “We hope that Member States will further strengthen this proposal to have a more global approach, especially in countries that have been particularly impacted by extreme climate events, during the European Council meeting tomorrow (1 February),” a Copa-Cogeca spokesperson said in a statement.
Ariel Brunner from the NGO Birdlife Europe labelled the decision “shameful”, and said it served the interests of the chemical industry and anti-environment ideology.
“Allowing ecological destruction to try and squeeze a bit of extra production from dying land is ecologically irresponsible,” he told Euronews.
According to Brunner, last year’s measure failed to have any positive impact, as farmers’ production is heavily impacted by climate disruption and land dedicated to biodiversity remains marginal.