Will MEPs scupper greening of EU agriculture?

Stacking bales of hay in Cassel, northern France
Image caption The method for calculating farmers' subsidies is under review in the EU

Plans to force farmers to earn their subsidies by protecting the environment may be blocked by MEPs this week.

The European Commission wants farmers to repay society for their subsidies - worth about 50bn euros (£43bn; $65bn) annually - by supporting wildlife.

But farmers are unhappy and have persuaded the European Parliament's agriculture committee to reject key elements of the reform.

Now environmentalists warn that the “greening” of farming is at risk.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) swallows the biggest share of the EU budget.

Initially the subsidies were based on tonnes of crops, or numbers of livestock, but now many farmers are paid around 200 euros per hectare annually for little more than owning fields.

The Commission, which drafts EU laws, says farmers should have to work for part of their subsidies by helping wildlife - diversifying crops, leaving grassland unploughed and creating special ecological areas.

It is known as the “greening” of the CAP. Environmentalists say the plan is not nearly green enough – but it was too green for the MEPs’ agriculture committee.

It demanded “flexibility” over the greening rules, leading environmentalists to warn that that some nations would continue to hand out money as usual.

Generous subsidies

The committee further infuriated critics by voting to pay farmers twice over for their greening activities, from two different budgets.

BirdLife Europe said the double funding proposal was “blatantly unaffordable and shows just how little regard the committee has for the concept of value for money”.

The Commission says the plan is actually against the law.

But the committee went further by rejecting a proposal that farmers should lose subsidies if they break laws governing water, pesticides and hormones. Farmers argued that if they had been fined they should not be punished twice by losing subsidy too.

David Baldock from the Institute of European Environment Policy said: “This seems a most curious argument. Why should the taxpayer continue to give you subsidy if you are breaking laws?”

But he admitted: “Environmentalists have a struggle to keep the greening of the CAP as it was intended. There are a lot of people in Europe who are perfectly happy with things the way they are.”

Stuart Agnew from the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) told BBC News: “The CAP is a shambles - it needs to be scrapped and started again from scratch.”

No-one was available to comment from the European farmers’ organisation Copa-Cogeca.

A senior member of the Commission told me: “It is ridiculous and awful that in this day and age we are paying farmers to own land. It makes no economic sense. We should only be paying farmers to produce social goods. Hopefully we will get to that situation one day.”

The European Parliament will debate the reforms on Tuesday and vote on Wednesday.

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