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France urges EU to review standards for permanent grassland

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France will ask the European Commission to ease up on constraints on permanent grassland, the country’s Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced, adding that he plans to bring a proposal on the subject to the next ministerial meeting on Monday (26 February).

On the eve of the Paris International Agricultural Show (February 24 – March 3), Attal announced that he would be taking agricultural policy simplification measures to the European Commission in Brussels to supplement national measures.

“We have submitted 41 requests, notably concerning cases of force majeure, risk management, controls and the grassland ratio,” he announced at a press conference on Wednesday (21 February).

Paris is targeting the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) requirement of maintenance of permanent grassland – a requirement defended by NGOs and environmentalists but vilified by some in the farming world, who see it as the embodiment of a technocratic standard.

After the recent U-turn on measures requiring 4% of land to be left fallow, France is hoping to repeat the trick with another derogation on conditions for direct payments.

Permanent grasslands and sensitive grasslands

Under the new CAP (2023-2027), one of the conditions to receive EU subsidies for good environmental practice is the maintenance of permanent grassland, which enriches soil, traps carbon and promotes biodiversity.

In practical terms, this rule – which falls under “good agricultural and environmental conditions” (GAEC) 1 – is established at the regional level. If a region has lost more than 2% of its grassland area since 2018 (the reference year), farmers must apply for authorisation before they can convert their grassland.

Above 5%, conversion becomes prohibited and farmers must plant new grassland.

In the European Union, 34% of agricultural land is covered by permanent grassland. 

Another cross-compliance requirement, GAEC 9, concerns sensitive permanent grasslands, which are rich in biodiversity and located in Natura 2000 protected areas.

France calls for greater flexibility

But the obligation to maintain or replant grassland, even when the farmer has converted to arable farming, is too complex, the French say.

At the last extraordinary European Council on 1 February, French President Emmanuel Macron already asked the European Commission for “flexibility” on this issue.

On the same day, the French government proposed “changes” to the conditionality requirements for permanent grassland and sensitive grassland.

“Pending developments at European level on this point, we will apply a derogation from the obligation to replant for one year,” Attal said.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU already granted a derogation from certain conditionality requirements, including permanent grassland, for 2022 and 2023.

Last summer, a coalition of member states called the Commission to maintain these derogations in 2024, but their demand was refused.

Just recently, the members of the Committee on Agriculture at the European Parliament asked the Commission to “relax” some of the CAP environmental requirements.

Commission is already on the case

The majority French farmers union, the FNSEA, has been campaigning for several months for the Commission to concede derogations on the permanent grassland rule.

“We sense a willingness” of the government “to do so”, FNSEA boss Arnaud Rousseau stressed following the press conference on Wednesday, but he wants France to be more active and firmer in its dealings with Brussels.

However, the government seems confident – indeed having pledged to “finalise” this European dossier by March.

For Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau, the European Commission has also made progress on the issue: “There are proposals […] echoing those that we ourselves put forward,” he added.

According to him, France has succeeded in putting the issue on the agenda for the next European Council of Ministers on Monday (26 February).

According to various EU sources, the European Commission will present ideas on the CAP simplification and proposals for discussion on Thursday. This roadmap “will be possible to implement very quickly”, Attal has promised.

[Edited by Angelo Di Mambro/Nathalie Weatherald]

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