HC Deb 23 July 2004 vol 424 cc795-6W
Mr. Connarty

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what the outcome was of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 19 July; what the Government's stance was on the issues discussed, including its voting record; and if she will make a statement. [185932]

Margaret Beckett

I represented the United Kingdom at a meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels on 19 July 2004.

The new Dutch Presidency presented its work programme for the next six months. Key themes will be sustainable agriculture and its public responsibilities, and initiatives to reduce the administrative burden on the industry.

The Presidency and Commission presented plans for greater member state co-operation on agricultural research in order to maximise value for the money spent. The UK Government strongly supports this initiative.

The Commission reported on negotiations with Russia to renew certification arrangements covering animal and animal product imports from the EU. The negotiations are currently deadlocked and the Presidency indicated that it was planning an intervention at political level in an attempt to unblock them.

Member states were asked whether their views had changed with regard to a Commission proposal to authorise the marketing of a variety of GM maize which had failed to get qualified majority support in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health. The UK has supported this approval on the basis of the safety assessments carried out and our position remained unchanged. Member states failed to give the proposal majority support, but if the Council fails to act within three months the Commission will have the authority to proceed with its approval.

The Commission presented its proposal for a European Fisheries Fund to replace the existing Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance (FIFG). The main focus will be to eliminate excess fishing capacity and use structural measures to reinforce stock recovery plans.

The Council held a public debate on the Commission's new proposals for changes to the Rural Development Regulation. I stressed the need for more flexibility and better value, for a greater transfer or resources from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy, for more emphasis on environmental schemes and for a fairer allocation of rural development resources. There will now be detailed negotiation at official level which will extend over a number of months.

The Council also debated a new Commission communication on its preferred option for reform of the CAP sugar regime. The proposal calls for significant cuts in EU price support with a further review of the regime in 2008. I gave a general welcome to the proposals as a step in the right direction, while urging a swifter end to quotas and emphasising the need to address urgently the impacts on those developing countries which currently enjoy preferential access to the EU market. Again, the proposal will now be remitted for detailed consideration at official level.

The Council was asked to vote on proposals to change the import tariffs for rice which the Commission has been negotiating with India, Pakistan, Thailand and the United States. The Commission had failed to get agreement with the last two countries which felt that the proposals increased tariffs to a degree that breached WTO rules. While welcoming the agreement with India and Pakistan, I voted against the proposal on the grounds that the Commission was seeking to implement the changes on a basis which was contested by some of the parties and that they should instead continue negotiations. The Council, however, voted by qualified majority to adopt the proposal although a number of those voting in favour urged the Commission to continue negotiating with the United States and Thailand with a view to reaching an agreed conclusion.

The Presidency urged the Commission to come forward soon with proposals to address the illegal timber trade. I endorsed this call.

In an informal exchange of views after the Council had ended, the Commission updated Ministers on the latest developments in the current round of WTO negotiations. I supported the Commission's efforts towards securing a framework agreement at the WTO General Council on 27 and 28 July.