Standing strong for Maltese farmers in Brussels | Bjorn Azzopardi

In this situation, Malta shall stand united not just to safeguard Malta’s agricultural sector for the coming seven years but to embark on the necessary reforms and modernise the sector fit for the future!

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of food security has become apparent now more than ever. Consequently, the need to safeguard the already struggling local agricultural sector was also highlighted. It is for these reasons that officials from the Ministry for Agriculture and technocrats from the Permanent Representation in Brussels have been heavily involved in discussions and negotiations at European level to convince fellow technical experts and ultimately the Council of Ministers, to take into consideration Malta’s specificities. These efforts have been pivotal to reach a general approach in the AGRIFISH Council of Ministers in the early hours of Wednesday 21 October 2020.

In all the interventions and negotiations, Malta explained its realities and rejected a one-size-fits-all solution. Although a small member state, Malta has managed to obtain important derogations and provisions to ensure the sustainability of the Maltese agriculture sector. Whilst managing to keep in line with the European Green Deal’s ambitions as laid down by the European Commission, the Maltese delegations ensured that the interests of small farmers continue to be safeguarded through a dedicated budget and appropriate legal provisions.

Through Malta’s intervention in conjunction with like-minded member states, the environmental efforts under the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) will now also be taken into consideration in the ringfencing calculations for eco-schemes. This means that Malta can make the best use of the resources available, in a manner which guarantees that farmers are provided with sufficient levels of income support and have greater flexibility in meeting the greening obligations. To further strengthen the income support for farmers, Malta has also managed to ensure flexibility between the two pillars of the CAP and subsidiarity in the allocation of funds.

Malta managed to secure an ad-hoc derogation that maintains the status quo for sectors benefiting from voluntary coupled support. This safeguards the recognition of Malta’s agricultural realities in ensuring that there is no discrimination linked to the location of agricultural land. Voluntary coupled support is provided for specific types of farming or specific agricultural systems which are experiencing certain difficulties, and which are particularly important for economic and/or social reasons. Support is provided to the extent necessary to maintain current levels of production. The scheme is of particular importance to Malta to sustain the dairy, meat and tomato for processing sectors.

By reaching a general approach in Council, the Presidency now has a mandate to commence discussions with the European Parliament (EP). This will be the next hurdle for Malta in the European policy negotiation process. Malta’s limited number of MEPs in the European Parliament means that the 6 MEPs cannot physically cover all the EP Committees. Consequently, it is no surprise that the text agreed upon in the European Parliament does not include the above local specificities which have already been included in the Council’s text.

Thus, from a European Parliament perspective, one cannot disagree with Maltese MEPs like Dr Alfred Sant, who has been very outspoken in the media for voting against the European Parliament’s text during the plenary. This is also due to the fact that the European Parliament text is not adapted to the Maltese context and without the derogation of up to €3 million Voluntary Coupled Support for Maltese farmers, the collapse of the agricultural sector in Malta is likely.

However, it is equally important to note that contrary to what has been written in the media in recent days, Malta’s specificities have already been secured in the Council of Ministers. Moreover, it is also worth noting that such a scenario has already taken place in 2012/2013 when the European Parliament’s Direct Payments Proposal for the CAP Programme 2014-2020 did not include the Voluntary Coupled Support but eventually made it to the final text agreed between the three institutions. Therefore, while at this stage there is no room for alarm, it is not yet time to rest on our laurels.

For this reason, the next move for the Maltese Government, is to hold meetings with Maltese MEPs to assist in convincing their party affiliates in the Social Democrats (S&D) and the European People’s Party (EPP) groups to better understand Malta’s specificities. Bilateral meetings are also being held with the European Parliament rapporteur and shadow rapporteur of the CAP Strategic Plans Regulation, to better explain and defend what has been achieved in the Council with the ultimate aim being to convince the European Parliament to compromise and agree on a common text during the upcoming trialogue negotiations, that best addresses Malta’s specificities, as was also the case in 2013.

In this situation, Malta shall stand united not just to safeguard Malta’s agricultural sector for the coming seven years but to embark on the necessary reforms and modernise the sector fit for the future!

Bjorn Azzopardi is du=irector - Policy Development & Programme Implementation at the Ministry for Agriculture