The submission of single application forms brought its annual catalogue of woes.
These included problems with on-line submission, the inevitable confusion with maps and a DARD helpline that was not much help outside office hours for civil servants. As ever farmers got through, and December will confirm whether or not the decision here not to extend the submission date was a good one – although there is already speculation that it may be impossible to hit payment targets because of additional checks. For those with a greening commitment the problems of a normal year were all the worse, but there cannot be a farmer who in response to the phrase ‘CAP simplification’ would not simply respond ‘yes please’.
The need to simplify the unwieldy beast the CAP has become is something with which no-one could disagree. The challenge is to do so in a way that helps farmers and national authorities that administer the CAP without losing the control over the spending of £30 billion plus of taxpayers’ money.
The farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, is committed to delivering on simplification. Pressure is also coming from the very top, in the shape of the European Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker. He sees simplification as a way to drive the economic growth the eurozone so badly needs. This should mean Hogan can deliver on his commitment to a simpler CAP, based around the elimination of unnecessary rules and reporting, and the devolution of some decision making to member states.
Given that greening is the most pressing issue, he has begun with some minor easing of the initial rules. This is about making a bad policy marginally better, rather than curing the problem. However Hogan is at least recognising that there is a problem, even if what he is doing is more about detail than substance.
Privately he admits he is less than happy with the CAP reform he inherited from his predecessor, Dacian Ciolos. He believes it is over-technical, but there is not a lot he can do about this. He can alter the implementing details, known in Brussels speak as the delegated acts. This is the legislation put in place by the Commission to turn a political agreement into legislation. What he cannot do is reopen the whole issue of CAP reform, and the deal reached between the Commission, farm ministers and the European parliament. Over greening this has allowed him to relax some of the detail, but he cannot alter the principles of ecological focus areas (EFAs), how they are defined or what farmers have to deliver. He would probably like to, but doing so is not within his gift.
While some moves have been made now over greening, the thrust of any changes will come in the autumn, when Hogan is due to produce a plan for longer term simplification. His aim is to break progress into key areas, beginning with greening and then moving on to direct payments, and questioning some of the information the Commission collects from member states and farmers. Direct payments will include the detail of active farmers and the young farmers’ premium scheme, and he will also look at whether some 200 market linked measures could be reduced or eliminated.
Hogan’s agenda is bold, and farm ministers have agreed their priorities for simplification. These are in line with Hogan’s thinking, although they probably have a bigger focus on allowing member states more leeway in decision making. Where there is disagreement between member states is over the pace and degree of simplification, with some including the UK wanting a root and branch review of CAP red tape that others would not accept and Hogan could not deliver. Aware that the buck stops with them farm ministers are pressing for more tolerance for problems in the first year of CAP reform, stressing that much of the delay in turning the Ciolos deal into legislation was down to Brussels. This squeezed member states’ time to get regulations up and running. Like Hogan they are keen to see the reporting of market prices to Brussels reduced or eliminated. The one surprise is that quietly dropped from the final agreement between farm ministers was a suggestion that the 2017 mid-term review of the Ciolos reforms should re-open some areas of the political agreement. That dropping of a good idea is a disappointment for those who believe there were major flaws in the original deal, not least over greening.