This week’s summit on the European Union’s multi-annual framework will be a tough one. In the middle of a deep economic crisis, heads of state and government will have to take important decisions on the size and distribution of the EU budget over a seven-year period.
Yet what is at stake goes far beyond simply money. Our leaders must ensure that the new budget is representative of the values the EU is built on – including the equality of all its citizens. The farmers from the Baltic region should not and cannot be an exception to this rule.
We have seen in recent years a great deal of discussion about the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The EU wishes to maintain its high safety standards and to set an example to the rest of the world in promoting green, sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture. The farming community supports these ambitions, while taking on the challenge and cost of implementing them.
However, achieving these goals will only be possible if proper support is given to farmers. This is partly achieved through rural development funds. But most of the money still needs to come from the farmers themselves.
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Unfortunately, whereas we all work within the single market – with similar environmental, animal welfare and food-safety standards leading to similar production costs – we are not all treated equally; and right at the very bottom of the chain of support you find the Baltic farmers.
Although production costs in the Baltic states are often as much as or sometimes higher than the European average, a Baltic farmer currently receives less than €100 per hectare, compared to more than €400 per hectare received by farmers in the Netherlands, Belgium or Italy. This has very serious consequences.
The example of the Baltic states is a worrying foretaste of what could happen to the European countryside and farming in general if we maintain high standards in the face of unequal support.
As we operate in a single labour market, there is a tendency for young and skilled workers to leave disadvantaged countries to look for better opportunities in other parts of the Union. To give just one example, according to official statistics, from 2001-11 Lithuania lost nearly 15% of its total population. The majority of those leaving the country came from rural areas. This resulted in the rural population shrinking by nearly 50%, leading not only to problems in finding skilled workers but also to profound changes in the whole social infrastructure of the countryside. Many schools, kindergartens, cultural centres and local businesses were closed due to a decline in the population.
This is not an isolated problem in a small part of Europe. The price of inequitable CAP support is paid by all European consumers, in the form of higher food prices.
The good news is, though, that EU leaders have a great opportunity to address this situation by taking the right political decisions at the upcoming summit. We are therefore calling on the European leaders to ensure equal treatment of all European farmers. This requires a direct payments system that ensures truly fair and honest competitive conditions among all EU member states. As farmers operate in a single market, there should be no significant differences in direct payments.
As far as the Baltic states are concerned, the amount of direct payments (financial envelope) must be determined by applying a new method of calculation, based on the current EU 27 average for one hectare. This method should be applicable as of 1 January 2014, taking into consideration that new member states have been working in accordance with transitional provisions since their accession.
The political decision taken at the summit should result in the European Parliament improving its current proposals. Although a slight improvement on the original proposal from the European Commission, they would still leave farmers in Latvia receiving almost three times lower direct payments than their counterparts in the Netherlands, despite facing similar production costs.
We hope that the presence of Baltic farmers in Brussels around the summit will remind our leaders that, beyond budgetary figures, there are wider European values; and that all EU citizens should be treated equally, no matter which member state they come from. A strong, just and competitive agricultural policy is in the best interests of all Europeans.
Andriejus Stančikas is chairman of the Lithuanian Chamber of Agriculture. Juris Lazdins is chairman of Latvian Farmer’s Parliament. Andres Oopkaup is chairman of the Council of Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce.