ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s new government will join France and Germany in opposing new environmental regulations being proposed as part of an overhaul of European Union farm laws, Agriculture Minister Mario Catania said on Monday.
Catania, a career civil servant named by Prime Minister Mario Monti to his technocrat cabinet last week, said the government had a “very strong European vocation” and recognized the need to protect the environment but wanted to ensure jobs were protected.
Negotiations on the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) that will take effect in 2014 are still in their early stages.
“Close attention to environmental aspects is fundamental, but this policy must not turn into higher costs for farmers,” Catania said.
Adoption of such strict environmental guidelines “will cause the farmer to leave the land because he can’t afford to work it. The best environmental policy is to keep people working the land.”
Moves for so-called “greening” of the common agricultural policy, which would make a proportion of payments to farmers dependent on meeting environmental criteria, have drawn strong opposition in France and Germany, the EU’s two biggest powers.
Catania said proposals that would encourage farmers to leave land fallow would penalize productive farmers and reward others for doing nothing.
“Greening costs a lot to anyone running a business but it doesn’t cost anything to someone who’s decided to stop operating,” he said.
“If I’ve got a farm that I’ve decided to stop investing in or even not to cultivate, not only does greening cost nothing but I get a big present from the EU.”
WORK STARTS NOW
Catania, who had been overseeing the ministry’s EU affairs until last week and who did not know he would be part of the government until the morning of the day he was sworn in, said he admired Monti for his work as European commissioner from 1995 to 2004.
“I was here doing my job, and then in the last few hours I was told that my name was being considered,” Catania said. Since taking office, he’s only been able to talk to Monti once about the priorities of his ministry.
“We had brief exchange on the sidelines of the first cabinet meeting, but it’s clear that all the work starts now,” Catania said Monday morning in his office. “Today is the first post-confidence-vote Cabinet meeting. The prime minister worked all weekend, obviously on the emergency situation.”
Monti took over from Silvio Berlusconi last week at the head of a government formed “to resolve a serious emergency” caused by an escalating crisis on financial markets which sent Italy’s borrowing costs to dangerous levels.
During his first speech to parliament a day later, Monti warned that the EU wouldn’t survive if the monetary union failed.
Tuesday he’ll meet European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in Brussels, and Thursday he’s scheduled to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Strasbourg, France.
Another priority of Catania’s ministry in coming months will be to implement a law already on the books that will allow Italy to sell publicly owned farmland. It will take time to sell about 338,000 hectares, which farm lobby Coldiretti estimates could bring in as much as 6.2 billion euros, Catania said.
The use of the land the state sells must remain agricultural, Catania said, adding part of the aim is to favor lowering the average age of Italy’s farmers.
“The law gives preference to younger farmers,” Catania said. “One goal is a generational shift because the average age of Italian farmers has been rising in the last few years.”
Editing by James Jukwey
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