Scottish farming was dealt a bitter blow yesterday with reports the government’s request for increased coupled payments have been shot down by the European Commission.
According to Lib Dem MEP George Lyon, European Agriculture Commissioner Dacion Ciolos has said EU rules will not allow Scotland to adopt a higher rate of coupling. The Scottish Government has been awaiting confirmation from Westminster as to whether or not it can increase the proportion of its budget it uses for coupled payments from 8% to 13%.
EU rules allow a member state – the UK in this case – to use 8% of overall budget for coupled support.
The Scottish farm minister, Richard Lochhead, has argued that Scotland should be allowed to increase this to 13% on the basis that it is the only part of the UK using coupled support, and in doing so the UK would still be within the 8% threshold.
He has repeatedly said his plans were given the green light by the EU, blaming Westminster for a delay in making the proposal official.
However, Mr Lyon yesterday said he had held a meeting with Commissioner Ciolos who said EU rules would disallow this because by opting to implement a separate Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) regime in Scotland, the country would have to adhere to Cap rules as if it were a separate country.
Mr Lyon said the commissioner had also said a letter confirming this decision was being sent out to the Scottish Government.
The reports were attacked by Mr Lochhead last night, who said it was “absolutely astonishing” that the news had emerged from Mr Lyon, rather than the UK Government or European Commission.
“It is incredible that just a few weeks ago, UK minister George Eustice and I were given a positive answer in a face-to-face meeting with Commissioner Ciolos – a decision that the UK Government refused to accept at face value and now apparently that decision has been reversed,” he said. “This outcome is a bitter blow to Scotland’s farmers but suits the UK Government and the UK secretary of state, Owen Paterson, who has made clear he is against higher coupled support.”
He said this coupled with the UK Government’s refusal to pass on nearly £190million in convergence uplift to Scottish farmers was a “horrible double whammy for our hard-working industry”.
Mr Lochhead said the onus was now on UK ministers to “sort out this mess in Europe and to challenge this ruling if it is true”.
It had been hoped the extra 5% coupling would be used to support Scotland’s sheep farmers as well as boosting payments to beef producers in hill areas and on the islands.
NFU Scotland has called for an immediate meeting with the commission, demanding to see a copy of the letter sent from the commissioner to the UK and Scottish governments.
President Nigel Miller said: “We are deeply disappointed over this sequence of events where decisions apparently taken one day are revoked the next. We are totally exasperated by the inability of the European Commission and our politicians to deliver what was a simple concept.
“We had been led to believe that additional coupling was now an agreed part of the reform and moving the goalposts at this stage is unacceptable to the many Scottish farmers who are directly affected.”
National Sheep Association development manager for Scotland, George Milne, said: “Clearly this uncertainty is totally unsatisfactory for Scottish agriculture at this stage in Cap reform. Firstly we were told that 8% was the maximum for coupling then we were told there might be 5% extra available targeted at the sheep sector. We should have known about the rules long before the Scottish Government consultation closed earlier this week.”
The UK Government last night said it had not yet received a formal decision from the EU on the matter. A Defra spokeswoman said: “Both the UK and Scottish Government are waiting for the European Commission’s response on voluntary coupled support in Scotland. There are potentially large financial risks if we act without this clarity from the commission so it is prudent to wait for their reply.”