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Wednesday, 5 May 2010 - Brussels
Agriculture in areas with natural handicaps: a special health check

European Parliament resolution of 5 May 2010 on agriculture in areas with natural handicaps: a special health check (2009/2156(INI))

The European Parliament,

–   having regard to Article 39 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,

–   having regard to the communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘Towards a better targeting of the aid to farmers in areas with natural handicaps’ (COM(2009)0161),

–   having regard to the opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission, delivered on 17 December 2009,

–   having regard to Rule 48 of its Rules of Procedure,

–   having regard to the report of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development and the opinion of the Committee on Regional Development (A7-0056/2010),

A.   whereas, at 54%, more than half of the utilised agricultural area in the EU is classed as less-favoured areas,

B.   whereas each Member State has designated less-favoured areas, although to a differing extent,

C.   whereas mountain areas (including arctic regions north of the 62nd parallel which are also regarded as mountain areas) account for around 16% of the utilised agricultural area, whilst over 35% of the utilised agricultural area is classed as ‘intermediate LFAs’,

D.   whereas these ‘intermediate LFAs’ are classified by the Member States on the basis of a large number of different criteria, which, in the view of the European Court of Auditors(1), can lead to disparities in treatment,

E.   whereas only a small proportion of farms in these areas receive compensatory payments and the level of these payments varies significantly between the Member States(2),

F.   whereas for mountain areas and areas with specific handicaps, which are defined in Article 50(2) and Article 50(3)(b) respectively of Council Regulation (EC) No 1698/2005 of 20 September 2005 on support for rural development by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), there are clear and uncontested criteria, so that the classification of these areas has neither been criticised by the European Court of Auditors nor is affected by the current Commission communication,

G.   whereas the particular situation in the outermost regions requires the implementation of specific procedures to deal with them,

H.   whereas support for less favoured areas is an essential component of the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy, namely rural development policy, and consequently neither regional policy objectives nor the issue of the redistribution of EAFRD funding should be at the heart of the debate,

I.   whereas, as a result of the reform of legislation on support for less-favoured areas and the adoption of Regulation (EC) No 1698/2005, the previous category of ‘intermediate LFAs’ has been abolished and eligible areas are defined as areas ‘affected by significant natural handicaps’,

J.   whereas the socio-economic criteria used prior to the 2005 reform by some Member States may no longer be used to delimit areas with ‘natural handicaps’, but may continue to be used to define areas with ‘specific handicaps’, which are supported pursuant to Article 50(3)(b) of Regulation (EC) No 1698/2005,

K.   whereas, in formulating their national and regional programmes for rural development, Member States have significant room for manoeuvre in order to present a balanced set of measures adapted to their specific regional situation, and whereas it falls to the Member States to present suitable measures for their less favoured areas within their programmes,

L.   whereas the proposed eight biophysical criteria might not prove to be sufficient and the proposed threshold value of 66% of the area might not be found suitable in all cases for determining the actual handicap in a manner respectful of the great diversity of EU rural areas; whereas the crop grown, the combination of soil types, soil moisture and climate are, among others, also factors relevant for the purpose of determining the actual handicap in a given area,

1.  Stresses the importance of an appropriate compensatory payment for less-favoured areas as an indispensable tool to secure the provision of high-value public goods such as maintaining the management of the land and the cultivated landscape in these regions; emphasises that less-favoured areas, in particular, are often of high value in terms of the cultivated landscape, biodiversity preservation and environmental benefits, as well as rural employment and the vitality of rural communities;

2.  Recognises that because of their unique position less-favoured areas have an important role to play in delivering environmental benefits and in maintaining the landscape and stresses that payments under this measure should seek to achieve these goals;

3.  Stresses that Article 158 of the TEC on the cohesion policy, as reformed in Lisbon, pays particular attention to regions with natural handicaps; urges the Commission to devise a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the disparities between Member States in dealing with these areas and promote an integrated strategy that takes account of specific national and regional characteristics;

4.  Emphasises that support for areas with natural handicaps is aimed in particular at ensuring that an efficient and multifunctional form of agriculture is widely and permanently preserved, thereby maintaining the countryside as a vital economic area and place to live in;

5.  Stresses the need to manage these less favoured areas not only with a view to producing nutritious foodstuffs, but also as a contribution to overall economic development, increased quality of life and demographic and social stability in these areas;

6.  In this sense, calls on the Commission to take into account also the social implications of the new classification for areas with natural handicaps;

7.  Points out that, in contrast to agri-environmental measures, compensatory payments for less-favoured areas must not be subject to additional specific conditions regarding the method of land management which would go beyond cross-compliance requirements; recalls that the LFA scheme must in principle offer compensation to farmers who are also land managers operating with significant natural handicaps which the market does not compensate for as such;

8.  Emphasises, however, that LFA payments must be linked to active farming of the land, i.e. the production of food or activities intimately related to the production of food;

9.  Takes the view that the eight biophysical criteria proposed by the Commission could, in principle, be suitable for delimiting areas with natural handicaps to a degree; stresses, however, that the criteria may not be used in all cases for objectively delimiting areas with natural handicaps;

10.  Recognises, however, that strict and purely biophysical criteria may not be suitable for all areas of Europe, and may lead to unintended consequences in terms of areas which qualify; therefore recommends that the case for socio-economic criteria such as distance from markets, lack of services and depopulation be re-examined, on a purely objective basis;

11.  Urges the Commission to take into account all the standpoints expressed during the consultation with the Member States, regional and local authorities and farming organisations, regarding the definition of areas with natural handicaps;

12.  Considers, in particular, that the inclusion of a geographical criterion referred to as ‘isolation’ would address the specific natural handicap stemming from distance from the market, remoteness and limited access to services;

13.  Considers it necessary to review the definition of the criterion of ‘soil moisture balance’ so as take account of the different agro-climatic conditions which exist in the various Member States of the Union;

14.  Notes that, to acknowledge the limitations of wet unworkable soils, the inclusion of a ‘field capacity days’ criterion would allow the interaction between soil types and climate to be taken into account (for instance to adequately reflect maritime climate difficulties);

15.  Asks the Commission, therefore, to pursue its research efforts and analysis with a view to including potential additional criteria in the new LFA scheme in order to further adapt its proposals to practical difficulties farmers are facing and build a robust set of criteria which will remain suitable in the long term;

16.  Stresses, however, that in order to apply these criteria and establish realistic threshold values in practice, it is essential that the necessary biophysical data are available to the Member States and regions with a sufficient degree of accuracy in relation to the natural environment; supports, therefore, the test of practical application of the proposed criteria introduced by the Commission; calls for the detailed maps that are to be submitted by the Member States to be used if necessary to adapt the limit values of the criteria, defining areas with natural handicaps, and the proposed threshold value of 66% at Member State or regional level (to the reality in terms of the natural environment);

17.  Stresses, in particular, that in order to address the interactions between many influencing factors in a practical manner, the cumulative use of the adopted criteria might prove necessary: it could enable those disadvantaged areas which accumulate two or more small to medium-scale natural handicaps to be classified as LFAs even when individual criteria would not trigger that classification;

18.  Emphasises that a final opinion on the basic territorial unit chosen, the criteria and the threshold values proposed by the Commission can only be given when the detailed maps drawn up by the Member States are available; stresses that, in the absence of such simulation results, the proposed 66% threshold as well as the thresholds defining the criteria themselves must be viewed with considerable caution and can only be objectively and appropriately adjusted once the national maps are made available; calls on the Commission therefore promptly to examine the results of the mapping exercise and, on this basis, to draw up as soon as possible a detailed communication to the European Parliament and the Council on the delimitation of areas with natural handicaps;

19.  Stresses that when the final map of intermediate disadvantaged areas is drawn up, objective national criteria should also be taken into account in order to make possible the adaptation of the definition of the areas to the different specific conditions in each country; considers that this adaptation should be performed in a transparent manner;

20.  Considers a degree of voluntary, national fine-tuning of the criteria for support for areas with natural handicaps to be necessary in order to be able to respond appropriately to particular geographical situations where natural handicaps have been offset by human intervention; emphasises however that where land quality has been improved, the burden of ongoing associated maintenance costs such as drainage and irrigation must be taken into consideration; proposes that farm data (such as farm income and land productivity) be used inter alia for this purpose; emphasises, however, that the decision on the criteria to be used for fine-tuning must lie with the Member States since many Member States have already developed an appropriate and suitable system of differentiation which should be maintained;

21.  Considers that the new criteria might exclude certain areas with natural handicaps that are currently eligible; points out that an adequate phasing-out period should be defined, in order to allow for the regions concerned to adapt to the new situation;

22.  Underlines that the areas which have overcome the natural disadvantages of the land through farming techniques should not be definitively removed, especially if they still have low agricultural income or very few production alternatives, and calls on the Commission to ensure a smooth transition for these areas;

23.  Calls for technical procedures intended to offset natural handicaps not only to take account of short-term advantages but also to be subject to a Sustainability Impact Assessment;

24.  Emphasises the responsibility of the Member States in connection with the objective designation of areas with natural handicaps and the formulation of balanced programmes for rural development; underlines the need for partnership with regional and local authorities in this process; stresses at the same time the need for notification and approval of these national or regional decisions by the Commission;

25.  Emphasises that the reform concerning areas with natural handicaps forms an essential part of the future development of the European Union's common agricultural policy;

26.  Calls on the Commission within one year to draw up a separate legislative text on agriculture in areas with natural handicaps;

27.  Calls for the review of the Less Favoured Area Scheme to take place in concert with discussions of CAP reform as a whole, to ensure coherence in design of the new support systems for farmers, especially in relation to the new Single Farm Payment;

28.  Is aware of the implications that the exercise to re-define intermediate disadvantaged areas could have for the future design of CAP aid, so calls on the Commission to take account of all the standpoints expressed during the public consultation by Member States and by regional and local authorities and the farming groups concerned;

29.  Demands the protection of the European budget for rural development, and urges Member States to make full use of co-financing opportunities for LFAs, as one of the most effective and important rural development schemes;

30.  Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.

(1) European Court of Auditors: Special Report No 4/2003, OJ C 151, 27.6.2003.
(2) From 16 EUR/ha in Spain to 250 EUR/ha in Malta.

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