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Budget in the balance

EU LEADERS are meeting in Brussels today to thrash out a long-awaited budget deal which will set the scene for the future of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Ahead of the meeting, there was much speculation as to whether an agreement would actually be reached at all. Earlier talks on the EU budget failed in November last year, and today's meeting will begin with no guarantee that the same thing wouldn't happen again.

Scottish MEP Alyn Smith said that any attempt to predict the outcome of the meeting was foolish, but added that most EU states wanted to maintain direct payments to farmers and needed a decent agriculture budget to do so – in spite of the UK government's protestations.

Mr Smith said: "Lots of proposals are still to fight it out, and I put the chances of a deal at slim to none for this summit. Anyone claiming greater insight either has second sight or a high opinion of themselves, or perhaps both.

"What is clear, and welcome news is that the UK position is very much out on a limb, and the mainstream of EU member states are committed to maintaining direct payments and a decent agriculture budget. Our own UK government is simply not advocating that line, but is in a small minority."

Mr Smith's LibDem counterpart, George Lyon, warned that a failure to reach an agreement at the meeting could completely derail the fledgling CAP agreement.

According to Mr Lyon, German elections in September mean that if no agreement was reached at this meeting, there would be no further negotiations until November this year.

Mr Lyon said: "If that is the outcome, then it would completely derail the discussions on CAP reform, as Parliament has made it crystal clear that there can be no agreement until we know the size of the budget.

"That would create even more uncertainty for Scottish and UK farmers and leave them completely unable to plan for the future."

Earlier this week, ahead of the budget meeting, NFU Scotland joined forces with other farming delegations in Brussels to deliver a united message to Europe's heads of state.

NFUS vice president Allan Bowie and vice president elect Rob Livesey met with 400 leaders from other farming organisations and signed a joint statement demanding that a fully supported CAP emerge from the talks.

Currently on the table is the framework left over from the failed November meeting. That paper looked to decrease the EU budget over the next seven years by €80 billion, including a significant cut to Pillar One of the CAP and to Pillar Two funds.

It also included provisions to allow member states to transfer 15% of their single farm payment funds to rural development without any obligation to co-finance and an option to put a cap on larger farm payments. The controversial requirement for a mandatory 30% greening component within the SFP is also reiterated within that paper.

Speaking from Brussels, Mr Bowie said: "The message to heads of state is clear – this isn't simply about securing a budgetary deal at any cost. It is about securing a budget settlement that, through the CAP, protects and preserves Europe's ability to produce food for more than 500 million consumers, generates significant economic activity whilst continuing to protect and preserve the environment.

"For more than 50 years, CAP has delivered and it is inherent on those negotiating budgets that half a century of excellent work is not undone by unjustified budgetary cuts agreed in the next few days."

If agreement can be reached at the budget meeting, it will help clarify many aspects of the ongoing CAP reform – and give the current farmer-friendly Irish EU presidency time to conclude those reform negotiations before its presidency ends at the end of June.

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