Fischler hints at plans for single payment


FRANZ Fischler, wise man, cancelled his date with the Oxford farming conference this week.

Whatever official reason was given for that decision by the European commissioner for agriculture, the most probable political reason is that he did not want to be questioned about his mid-term review plans for EU farm policy.

His original plans took a buffeting last year, especially from the German/French backroom agreement to retain common agricultural policy spending virtually as it is until at least 2013.

But Fischler has been a European commissioner for a long time and is intent on leaving a legacy.

With no intention of throwing in the towel, he has manoeuvred decoupling - the separation of farm subsidy payments from production - and modulation - diverting a percentage of farm subsidies to rural development - back on to the agenda.

He plans to publish details of his latest proposals this month. That is why he did not want to speak at Oxford or be asked questions. Instead, judicious leaking of the proposals is coming from Brussels, mainly centred on farmers in future getting a single annual payment based in some way on their history of production payments.

That general proposal has had a broad welcome from farming organisations. The snag is what period, or periods, in the past will be used to decide the payment of the future.

Leaks from Fischler’s department now suggest that the likely reference period will be based on the average of a farmer’s subsidy payments for the years from 2000 to 2002.

That has set alarm bells ringing for sheep farmers. Last year’s sheep annual premium of 20 (about #13) per eligible ewe was "acceptable" said a spokesman for NFU Scotland, plus 1 per head more for members of Quality Meat Scotland’s farm assurance scheme and another 7 for farmers and crofters in the designated less favoured areas of hills, moors and islands.

But in 2000 and 2001 the sheep payments were barely two-thirds of the 2002 level, making a simple, three-year average unwelcome.

Taking into account a national flock, at its lowest for almost 20 years at 15 million partly because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, could also reduce the future single payment.

For the beef sector, there might be similar problems because in recent years while both the beef special premium and the slaughter premium per head have risen appreciably production has fallen.

In Scotland the suckler cow herd is barely 490,000 compared with 502,000 three years ago and being allowed to claim suckler cow premium on heifers up to 40 per cent of the herd has further complicated the issue as well as reducing the total kill of cattle in Scotland from more than 500,000 to an estimated 450,000 last year.

But leaks also suggest that changes, no matter what base is used, are unlikely until 2007.