The Review of the Less Favoured Areas Scheme - European Union Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 434-439)

Mr Jiri Sir and Mr Lukas Visek

5 MARCH 2009



Thank you very much for finding the time to come and help us with our inquiry.

  Mr Sir: It is a pleasure for us to speak to you.

  Q435  Chairman: It is particularly kind of you given that you are the Presidency at the moment, and it is helpful for us, if you do not mind, to get the perspectives that you bring as the Czech Republic but also, obviously, as the Presidency, so thank you very much. We are a Sub-Committee of the House of Lords. We are conducting an inquiry into the LFA scheme and its revision. This is an evidence-taking session and a note will be taken of the evidence you give us. That will be circulated to you in a few days' time and you can correct and amend it if any slips or mistakes have crept in. First of all it would be helpful to us if you could outline how, as the Presidency, you intend to take forward discussions on the review and where you expect to get to by the end of your period.

  Mr Sir: Thank you for these interesting questions and, of course, thank you very much for sending us the questions beforehand. It was really useful. You have chosen an extremely interesting topic, the LFAs, a topic which is very technical but to a certain degree political. We had hoped that the Commission would present the proposals in 2008 but this did not materialise so now the Commission will be submitting not proposals but a communication, so it is a bit different than some time ago. Currently I can tell you that the Czech Presidency expects the presentation of the European Commission's communication on the review of the Less Favoured Areas scheme to the Agricultural Council in April. It will take place on 23 or 24 April, and consequently the working party F2, which deals with rural development issues, will commence its activities. We have planned for two or three meetings at the level of the working party and two meetings of the special committee on agriculture where discussion will take place. Of course, first the Commission will have to present the communication and then we will hold discussions among the Member States in advance of preparing the June Council meeting where we hope we will be able to submit conclusions to the Council and get some agreement. I am sure you know that it is not always possible to receive the support of all the Member States which is necessary for the Council conclusions, so we are realistic but we have to be sufficiently ambitious so we hope for Council conclusions on this issue and we will do our best to get them. Anyway, for the working party work the aim is to explain all the criteria and technicalities and consequently to encourage the Member States to produce in the future a map of the other LFAs in their territories which would contribute to a homogeneous map of the other LFAs in EU-27. To the best of our knowledge there is general consensus on the need for a response to the European Court of Auditors' critical report of 2003. This agreement, I would say, was clear from the Member States' discussion at the Council in 2005 when rural development regulation 1698/2005 was agreed and adopted. The Member States also agreed that the new delimitation of the LFAs should be done on the basis of clear criteria which, of course, is the wish of the European Court of Auditors, so this is one of the basic parts and principles and the criteria should be verifiable with regard to natural handicaps. Of course, the opinions of the individual Member States may differ, mainly as regards the threshold values we have designated to the other LFAs, but this is for a debate which may come at a later stage, and there will be some requests for flexibility at the national level, we are quite sure. This is basically the framework of the Czech Presidency and you see that there will not be too much time for the Czech Presidency to work on this very complicated issue but in any case we want to hold an interesting and constructive debate to help push this matter ahead a bit and get some tangible results.

  Q436  Chairman: I think that is very interesting, what you say about the degree of consensus and the clear criteria, but also the pressure to have some degree of flexibility at Member State level. I think it is fair to say that the evidence we have picked up so far, particularly from perhaps some of the older Member States, comes down very heavily in favour of, "Let's try to keep things as much like they are at the moment", minimum change.

  Mr Sir: Frankly speaking, it would be a great thing for the Czech Republic as a Member State if things remained as they are, but we have joined the EU knowing that things may change and, unlike some others, we are quite an open nation, not one that would be commonly understood by others, and it may seem strange but we are open to discussion on changes to the criteria. We, of course, will try to find criteria which will not disturb terribly the Less Favoured Area farmers, that is for sure, but we cannot say, "Let's set aside the European Court of Auditors' report and let's do the business the old, usual way". As a Member State we are open in this regard.

  Q437  Earl of Caithness: Do you anticipate that the ongoing review of the EU budget, which inevitably will take into account the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, would impact on Less Favoured Areas and, if so, how and to what extent?

  Mr Sir: The Court of Auditors' report shows that the main reason for the revision of the LFAs is to justify the related payments. There is a focus on transparency and comparability of the criteria which are used by individual Member States for the designation of the LFAs and in those documents there is no explicit statement that the objective of the LFAs is to reduce financial resources earmarked for the Less Favoured Areas, so from this point of view it is more a technical exercise. Anyway, the delimitation of the other LFA areas is a long-term process, which indeed was initiated in 2005, so I would say there is no realistic ambition from the Czech Presidency and no ambition from the Commission communication that we complete a review of the LFA scheme under our Presidency, so it will have to go on. In any case, we see it indeed more as a technical exercise which has been prepared and decided before. We do not see a clear link with the review of the European budget so we take the European Court of Auditors' report and reasons as a basis for the change of the LFAs, not the budgetary review, I would say. It is very difficult to anticipate if there is any impact or inter-connection or relation between the two things, the LFA revision and the budget review; rather we would say that it is a technical issue which should be able to take place without the budget review. From our point of view I would say that for the Czech Presidency, which will not be dealing with the budget review anyway, we do not see anything for us as a Presidency.

  Q438  Chairman: So you see them as two distinct exercises?

  Mr Sir: Yes.

  Q439  Lord Cameron of Dillington: What do you see as the objectives of the LFA payment scheme? What does the taxpayer get out of it and where does it fit in with the rest of farm payments, the single farm payment and the agri-environment scheme?

  Mr Sir: This is a very interesting question, I have to say. You might have heard about what our minister said in the European Parliament. He said quite clearly that he wants to discuss the CAP also from the point of view of the efficient use of taxpayers' money and he declared that he would like to be able to prove to taxpayers that the money which is allocated to the CAP is well spent.

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