European Commission offers ways to ease farmers’ burden

Janusz Wojciechowski @jwojc

The European Commission (EC) is taking steps to cut through the mountain of administrative red tape farmers in the bloc have been persistently complaining of for years. Monday’s meeting of the EU’s Agricultural Council is scheduled to discuss EC proposals that outline short and medium-term ways of simplifying procedures to reduce the amount of paperwork EU farmers face as they go about their business. The recommendations respond to concerns and suggestions from national administrations, major EU farming organisations and the European Parliament’s agricultural committee.

“The message from farmers is clear: they want to be working in their fields, not stuck behind files. In response, the Commission has identified a range of EU-level actions that could help to ease the administrative burden on farmers over the coming months and years. I welcome this renewed acceleration towards simplification and I commit to working with Member States and stakeholders on these actions and every initiative that will enable farmers to spend their working hours on what matters – supporting their families and producing our essential goods,” Janusz Wojciechowski, the EU Commissioner for Agriculture, declared.

The current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is based on the CAP Strategic Plan, which is determined at member state level, already offers a simpler approach to lighten the administrative burden for farmers complying with complex EU legislative demands. Further moves to simplify the requisite procedures must involve cooperation with the national administrations and farmers themselves.

The Commission is to launch an online survey in March. Farmers will be asked to identify their main sources of concern in a move to redress cumbersome administrative procedures associated with CAP and other EU rules for food and agriculture and their application at national level. The aim is to have a much clearer picture of what the farmers view as the main administrative obstacles they face by the summer. A more detailed analysis will follow in the autumn.

In addition to survey and analysis, the Commission proposes some more immediate measures that could bring some relief to the farmers and to the national administrations that are their point of contact for managing and paying EU funds. It is the GAECs (good agricultural and environmental conditions) that farmers are required to comply with in order to receive CAP support that have proven to be challenging and difficult to implement.

This year, the Commission has granted a partial exemption about the rules related to land lying fallow (GAEC 8). It now proposes changing the rules on the first standard (GAEC 1), which since 2018 have  required maintaining permanent grassland areas in the EU stable. As a result, former livestock farmers with large grassland who had to shift to arable crops production because of market disturbances in the meat and dairy sector were at risk of being asked to reconvert their arable land into permanent grassland. Doing so could lead to loss of income. Now, the proposal is to amend these rules by

mid-March so that structural changes caused by market reorientation and reduction in livestock can be taken into account, thereby ensuring that farmers are not penalised in their work.

The Commission is also encouraging all stakeholders to share their view on the administrative burden that may be linked to the Nitrates Directive. This can be done via the online public consultation open until 8 March 2024.

The Commission also seeks to cut back the number of permissible on-farm visits by national administrations by up to 50%, in response to member state requests.Linked to this is a move to review a system based on automated analysis of satellite imagery from Copernicus, which is meant to reduce farm inspections. With fewer inspection visits to deal with, farmers will have more time to dedicate to their core work.

The Commission proposes clarifying use of the concept of force majeure and exceptional circumstances so that farmers who cannot fulfil all their CAP requirements due to exceptional and unforeseeable events outside their control (e.g. severe droughts or floods) do not have penalties imposed on them.

In its paper, the Commission also mentions additional mid-term measures that may ease burdens for farmers, especially smaller farmers.One suggested proposal is to exempt small farms of under 10 hectares from controls related to compliance with conditionality requirements (GAECs). This would significantly simplify the daily work of small farmers who represent 65% of CAP beneficiaries, while maintaining the CAP’s environmental ambitions since small farms cover only 9.6% of the areas receiving CAP support.

In parallel, the Commission will facilitate the exchange of best simplification practices by member states across the different relevant bodies of cooperation (i.e., expert groups, committees and others).

To further respond to the current crisis situation in the agricultural sector, the Commission hopes to improve the position of farmers in the food chain and protect them against unfair trading practices.

“The Commission remains fully committed to delivering solutions to ease the pressure currently felt by our hard-working farming women and men. We are easing the administrative burden on our farmers to help them guarantee food security for European citizens. Simplification of our agriculture policies is a constant priority, at both EU and national level. With this range of actions, we are delivering on the pledge we made to our farmers to accelerate this discussion. I look forward to hearing the views of our Member States,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

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