Rebecca Evans AM, Deputy Minister for Farming and Food
I attended the European Union (EU) Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels on Monday 14 March as part of the UK Ministerial Delegation. I took part in the usual pre-Council briefing meetings where I set out the issues important to Wales. The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was the other UK Minister present.
The main discussion at Council reflected the current difficulties faced in several agricultural sectors. The debate assessed the adequacy and effectiveness of the market support measures currently in place, and whether additional actions were necessary and proportionate.
I joined the UK Government in encouraging the European Commission to consider appropriate instruments and support to enable farmers to be resilient in the face of volatility whilst providing immediate assistance to them, where particularly needed. I took the opportunity to reinforce the importance of addressing market challenges for the red meat sectors, as well as those listed in the Commission documentation. At the Royal Welsh Show, Commissioner Hogan announced the creation of a Sheepmeat Reflection Group. I directly lobbied the Commissioner for Welsh membership of that group, and Hybu Cig Cymru were given membership. I highlighted the need for that group to make rapid progress. I also updated the other UK administrations on 'Towards Sustainable Growth', our Wales Food and Drink Action Plan, which is on track to help deliver a 30% increase in sales of Welsh food and drink by the end of 2020.
Given the difficult current state of world commodity markets, I welcome the additional package of exceptional measures subsequently announced by the European Commission, that will use all the tools made available in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to support EU farmers while safeguarding the EU internal market.
This largely budget-neutral package of support includes temporary increases to intervention volumes, increased use of private storage aid for some sectors, and deployment of marketing and promotional funds, along with a range of other trade development measures. The Commission’s commitment to look at strengthening the role of the producer in the dairy supply chain is positive. Its Agricultural Markets Taskforce, launched as part of the €500 million support package from September 2015, will deliver later this year conclusions and legislative recommendations to help improve balance in the chain. The agreed establishment of a Meat Market Observatory should, over time, help to increase transparency and build supply chain trust in that sector too. The Commission will also activate, for a limited period, the possibility of producer and other 'interbranch' organisations and cooperatives in the dairy sector establishing voluntary agreements on their production and supply. In addition, Commissioner Hogan agreed to a UK request for consideration to be given to suspending import tariffs for fertiliser.
The Commission also committed to prioritising its engagement with the European Investment Bank (EIB), with a view to developing appropriate financial instruments to assist farmers and processors to invest in their enterprises to improve the competitiveness of those enterprises or to invest in making any necessary structural adjustments. I am pleased that the Welsh Government is already directly engaged with the Bank on the development of financial instruments and we are already taking steps to be able to introduce these as part of our Wales Rural Development Programme.
Elsewhere, the Council took note of a contribution from the UK aimed at simplifying the current audit system and methodology of expenditure related to CAP. I had already proposed to Ministerial colleagues that a more constructive audit process would see errors being subject to correction action requirements (either retroactively for the years concerned or ongoing), and financial penalties only applicable should such corrective action fail to be implemented by agreed dates. We have seen the Commission move towards 'corrective action' in other areas, and I am keen for this direction of travel to continue.
In other agenda items, the EU continued its support to timber-producing countries by adopting the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) action plan. It will further improve voluntary partnership agreements between the EU and timber producing countries to effectively regulate, manage and operate in forests - very much in line with our own policy objectives.
At the meeting, the UK also defended its voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme which is a key element of our response to tackle obesity and poor diet in Wales. The UK scheme is voluntary and goods produced in other Member States do not need to use it. All UK Health Ministers support the scheme.
I also had the opportunity to meet with Stephen James, President, NFU Cymru. NFU leaders were in Brussels to meet with UK Farming Ministers to discuss new ways to boost trade and improve the market, to access finance, and increase fairness in supply chains, amongst other things.
While we need to review the fine detail, Monday’s overall package of measures looks helpful, building on the Commission’s previous aid for farmers as well as the action the Welsh Government is taking to support producers at this difficult time, while maintaining the overall, long term direction of CAP reform away from market interventions.
This responsive action, in partnership with 27 other countries, once again highlights how EU membership delivers numerous benefits in the day-to-day life of the people of Wales, and is vital to our national prosperity.