IEEP CAP Health Check Review: Cross Compliance

This is one of four briefings written by IEEP to analyse the outcomes of the 2008 CAP Health Check. One briefing provides an overview of the main outcomes, another examines Article 68 and a third examines the implications for the dairy sector. This briefing examines the changes to cross compliance.

Will the Health Check Compromise Weaken the Baseline Level of Environmental Protection Provided by Cross Compliance?

The Health Check has resulted in changes to both the Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) and the standards defined for Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC). The GAEC framework of four ‘issues’ and eleven corresponding ‘standards’, as introduced by the 2003 Fischler reforms, has been reworked with the addition of two new issues, and, somewhat controversially, the subdivision of the original ‘standards’, all of which were mandatory if relevant, into those which are ‘compulsory’ and those which are ‘optional’. By rendering certain standards voluntary, the possibility of the emergence of an unequal mandatory baseline across Europe is opened up.

... these new standards appear to have been introduced at the expense of number of previously mandatory standards, which have been demoted to voluntary status.

Two new issues focus on water management, whilst a new compulsory GAEC standard requires Member States to introduce a standard for buffer strips next to watercourses. The pre-existing compulsory standard to retain landscape features has been revised to refer to specific features. Depending on Member State implementation, these standards should provide additional benefits for biodiversity and the protection of natural resources. However, these new standards appear to have been introduced at the expense of number of previously mandatory standards, which have been demoted to voluntary status. Since the introduction of cross compliance in 2005, there has been some confusion as to whether the standards were optional or mandatory for the Member States to implement. More recently, legal opinion within the Commission Services has increasingly treated the standards as mandatory. The insertion of the explicit reference to compulsory standards is perhaps intended to dispel any ambiguity. An annotated version of the new GAEC framework showing the changes that have been made can be downloaded here.

Depending on the standards a Member State has already introduced, and the way in which it reacts to the redrafted legal texts with the introduction of new or revised standards, it is our initial impression that these revisions to cross compliance may result into a weakening of the environmental baseline as provided by GAEC in some Member States. Whilst the majority of Member States will need to introduce additional GAEC standards for buffer strips and landscape features, thereby improving the baseline level of protection within the country, the new GAEC framework provides those Member States who have not introduced standards that are now accorded optional status an excuse to maintain a relatively weak environmental baseline.

SMRs Weakened

As had previously been anticipated, the water framework Directive has not been added to the list of SMRs as this was seen as premature, given that operational programmes will not be fully implemented until December 2012. Although all key environmental SMRs remain, some of the articles under the wild birds and the habitats Directives have been removed as they were not considered relevant to farming activities. This is a cause for concern. Whilst the articles selected for removal are not specified in the final Presidency compromise, those originally proposed included Article 8 of the Birds Directive and Article 15 of the Habitats Directive, both of which regard non-selective killing methods, such as the use of poisons. According to the RSPB (see also this report from the Guardian), a landowner in Scotland received a penalty to the Single Payment of £107,000 (about €130,000) in September 2008 due to a breach of this SMR. Removing these articles from the cross compliance SMRs further weakens the reinforcement of EU nature conservation legislation at the farm level.

New GAEC Buffer Strip Requirement Should Improve Water Quality

The new requirement to establish buffer strips alongside water courses is to be welcomed, as there is strong scientific evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of grass buffers in improving water quality. Member States have until 2012 to introduce an appropriate standard. However, there is no minimum width specified, and the width of the strips that farmers are asked to introduce under GAEC is likely to be small as Member States will meet resistance from farming unions if they seek to introduce strips that significantly impact upon the productive area of the field. For example, a similar standard, already introduced in England, requires farmers to introduce a 1m ‘protection zone’, measured from the top of the ditch bank.

The new requirement to establish buffer strips alongside water courses is to be welcomed, as there is strong scientific evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of grass buffers in improving water quality.

The greatest opportunity to enhance the environmental baseline is via the new optional standards for the ‘establishment and/or retention of habitats’ and the revised compulsory standard for the ‘retention of landscape features, including, where appropriate, hedges, ponds, ditches, trees in line in group or isolated and field margins’.

The standard to establish and/or retain habitats found its way into the compromise largely because of successful negotiating by the UK delegation, and paves the way for the UK - perhaps just England - to introduce a set-aside mitigation scheme. Whilst subject to consultation, Defra is likely to present a proposal that will require arable farmers to manage a small proportion of their arable land for environmental purposes. If Defra succeeds, a long term replacement for set aside to provide benefits for biodiversity and to help to protect soil and water will have been found, at least in England. This has been met with fairly strident resistance from farming organisations with claims that UK farmers will face an unequal burden. In addition, because this standard is optional, it is unlikely to be introduced widely across the EU-27.

The requirement to retain landscape features is likely to present a range of environmental benefits. Features such as trees, hedges and field margins are essential components of Europe’s green infrastructure. They provide a variety of habitats and play a role in natural resource protection and, potentially, in climate change adaptation strategies. Preventing their removal is essential, particularly if pressure mounts to increase production in response to market demands and policy signals, such as those relating to biofuel use targets.

These standards were first presented in the Commission’s May 2008 proposals as a means of retaining some of the environmental benefits of set-aside. However they may be less successful in this regard as they are limited in the way they are likely to mitigate the benefits set-aside provided for biodiversity, not least because Member States have until 2010 to introduce an appropriate standard, by which point it may reasonably be expected that much mandatory set aside will have reverted to arable use.

Whilst these measures in themselves may provide some environmental benefits, they are a poor substitute for the array of benefits provided by set-aside, since the area of habitats and features that will fall under the protection of the new measures is unlikely to match the area previously protected by set-aside. In 2006/07, France, Germany and Spain had the largest areas of land formally registered as set-aside – 1.1 million ha, 0.78 million ha and 0.67 million ha respectively. The UK had the fourth largest share at 352,000 ha followed by Italy with 238,000 ha and Denmark with 151,000 ha. There is a need to monitor the environmental impacts of GAEC measures over the coming years in order to understand the extent of the baseline level of environmental protection provided through Pillar 1.

Introduction of Optional Standards Could Weaken Environmental Baseline

It is believed that the negotiating ploy of the UK to call for optional standards presented the opportunity for other Member States to request previously compulsory standards to be conferred optional status.

Existing standards which have become optional are the retention of terraces (under the soil erosion issue); standards for crop rotations (under the soil organic matter issue); appropriate machinery use (under the soil structure issue); the application of minimum livestock stocking rates or/and appropriate regimes (under the minimum level of maintenance issue); and the prohibition of the grubbing up of olive trees, and the maintenance of olive groves and vines in good vegetative condition (both under the minimum level of maintenance issue). However, a safeguard has been introduced, so that if a Member State has already introduced a standard which is now presented as optional, it must continue to apply it.

... this reframing of GAEC may result in a weakening of the environmental baseline when compared to the previous incarnation of cross compliance.

Whilst some Member States will certainly introduce new optional standards, this reframing of GAEC may result in a weakening of the environmental baseline when compared to the previous incarnation of cross compliance. It means those countries that did not previously introduce standards that are now accorded optional status can continue with the same set of standards, albeit one that is enhanced by the two new compulsory standards. The exclusion of quite basic best practice requirements, such as appropriate machinery use, from the set of compulsory standards, would seem to unnecessarily weaken cross compliance.

This may have been the trade-off that was necessary to reach consensus among the Member States to introduce the new compulsory buffer strip and landscape features standards. The likely result is a growing polarisation between a minority of Member States who implement GAEC in a rigorous way and those that prefer to apply it with a ‘light touch’. These are likely to be the same Member States who successfully called for the drafting of a declaration in the final Presidency compromise paper that states that the Council and the Commission will work towards the further simplification of cross compliance. Whether this will amount to a weakening of standards in time remains a matter of some speculation at the moment.

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02 Dec 2008




The Institute for European Environmental Policy coordinates CAP2020. It is an independent not for profit institute which undertakes research in a number of policy areas including agriculture and rural development.