By Gerardo Fortuna
(EurActiv) — The Portuguese presidency of the EU Council is committed to doing everything to conclude negotiations on the reform of the EU’s massive farming subsidies programme without overlooking the transition toward a more sustainable food system, the Portuguese farm minister told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Maria do Céu Antunes is the Portuguese agriculture minister and will chair the Agrifish EU Council until 30 June. She spoke to EURACTIV’s agrifood editor Gerardo Fortuna.
In a nutshell, what are the main priorities of the Portuguese presidency when it comes to agriculture?
With the motto ‘Time to deliver: for a just, green and digital recovery’, the Portuguese presidency intends to contribute to the European recovery, highlighting its activities in three central priorities, namely a fairer, greener and more digital Europe.
In what agriculture is concerned, our priorities converge on the ‘greener’ Europe pillar: to promote the recovery and structural strengthening of the European agri-food system, as well as the digitalisation of the sector. But also ensuring the sustainability of the rural world through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, the action plan for the development of EU organic production, the continuity of the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, and the long term vision for the rural world.
The outgoing German presidency is leaving you the tough task of the CAP reform. Will you work for having an agreement within your presidency?
In the next six months, we will be committed to the conclusion of the CAP negotiations, started by the German presidency, that is currently going on between the Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament materialised in three regulations: on the strategic plans, the horizontal regulation and the regulation about the common organization of agricultural markets. This is a fundamental goal: to ensure the agricultural sector’s resilience and a transition to a greener architecture, with more revenue to farmers and fair prices to consumers.
At the same time, the threat of a CAP withdrawal by the Commission is still hanging over the heads of negotiators. Have you been reassured by the EU executive they will avoid using this ‘nuclear’ option, or it is something that could happen?
We deeply believe in everybody’s commitment to lead these negotiations to a good conclusion. The CAP will be fundamental in the transition to a sustainable food system and reinforce the European farmers’ ambition to help the EU goals in climate and environment protection. It’s undeniable that the CAP has strengthened, throughout the years, the integration of environmental objectives and goals related to food supply and farmers revenue. The reform under discussion increases CAP’s environmental goals, alongside the Green Deal.
We’re all committed to that goal, in a transparent and predictable process. We started a structured dialogue, in which the European Commission sends recommendations to member States, as strategic CAP plans are concerned, namely to evaluate each State’s contribution to the European Green Deal’s goals. We will do everything to conclude these negotiations. We all want a greener, more inclusive, more efficient and more sustainable agriculture.
Withdrawing the proposal for a reform of the EU’s farming subsidies programme is off the table, the European Commission assured farm ministers after its executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans hinted at this possibility, saying the programme could be better aligned with environmental objectives.
What’s your take on the work done so far regarding the Green deal implementation in the agrifood sectors and what will be your focus?
The general agreement of the Council of agriculture ministers of 19-20 October on the CAP’s reform, has made it possible to achieve special importance, namely due to the positive and balanced balance between economic and environmental objectives.
The F2F strategy is at the heart of the Green Deal, and its objectives are to make the EU’s food system more autonomous and sustainable. This strategy involves changing the way Europeans produce food and eat, respecting natural resources and preserving biodiversity, and their importance has been reinforced by the context created by the pandemic of COVID-19.
In this transition, towards a truly sustainable and resilient Europe, European farmers will have a very important role, as will the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which will be a fundamental instrument to help farmers achieve more sustainable production systems.
When it comes to the Farm to Fork, the public opinion has so far been more focused on targets, but what kind of innovation do you think the EU should invest on in this transition?
The goals are inevitably associated with a perspective of agriculture with eyes on the future, which is agriculture that wants to be innovative, which combines technology and the transfer of knowledge with digitalisation, in order to ensure the sustainable management of resources and the conservation of different ecosystems.
All of this will accelerate the inevitable, but the needed, climate and digital transition, so important and necessary for the new generations’ strategic autonomy and a united Europe that wants to be global and socially responsible.
Food labelling was another tricky issue under the German presidency. Are you planning to return to this subject in the next six months?
Food labelling is a matter of great concern to our presidency and will have the follow up needed, so we can find a balanced and fair collective vision, where the goal is always to find a system that allows consumers to make the informed choices.
EU agricultural ministers have given the green light to an EU-wide animal welfare labelling system, although plans for front of pack nutrition and origin labelling have been shelved for the moment.
The Portuguese one will be the first EU presidency that has to deal effectively with the potential disruption caused by Brexit. Are you planning anything in particular on this aspect?
Brexit is an important dossier in our presidency. The agreement reached on 24 December between the EU and the United Kingdom has been in provisional application phase since 1 January, while the necessary steps for its ratification are taking place. The presidency will prioritise the EU’s future relations with the UK, committing itself to a comprehensive, equitable and balanced partnership, respecting the interests of the Union and the Member States. The United Kingdom will continue to be an essential European partner, of great relevance in the agricultural and agri-food sector.
You’re not the first presidency that has to deal with the pandemic though. Are you satisfied with the measures taken so far?
Working together for a more resilient Europe, one that promotes European cohesion and values is the best way to continue to guarantee the future and resilience of agriculture, particularly in the pandemic context that we all live in. This pandemic has emphasised the need to respond to crises and structurally reinforce the European agri-food system. We have the ambition to guarantee strategic autonomy and to strengthen Europe’s position in the world.