New Atlantic action plan and impact of COVID-19 on rural areas also discussed.
The European Committee of the Regions has given its preliminary backing to a set of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the European Union embraces agro-ecological principles and techniques in its efforts to reduce agriculture's contribution to climate change, secure the EU's food supplies, and support rural communities.
The meeting of the natural resources (NAT) commission, on 23 November, also held a first exchange on the EU's action plan for its maritime strategy for the Atlantic, during which Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, described his work – including the Atlantic strategy – as being "to develop a new approach for the blue economy and make it an integral part of the European Green Deal".
Commissioner Sinkevičius said: "The transformation process the Green Deal calls for is necessary. We knew that already before covid-19 came up. The pandemic just forces us to accelerate it."
The agro-ecology opinion, which was approved (with some amendments) by the assembly's commission for natural resources commission by electronic vote on 24 November, will now go for review and debate by all members of the CoR, at their plenary in February 2021.
The rapporteur, Guillaume Cros (FR/Greens) of the Regional Council of Occitanie, said: "Through positive economical return for farms, shorter supply chains and restoration of environment and biodiversity, agro-ecology will boost rural economy and attract young people into farming and rural activities."
Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said that agro-ecology will struggle to make headway within the current agricultural system, which is very focused on export markets and does not include environmental costs. However, he emphasised the "growing consensus in the scientific community that the system is not sustainable" and agro-ecology's environmental virtues, its job-creating potential, and its productivity. He underlined that more and more studies are showing that agro-ecology can be as productive as industrialised farming as well as being better for the environment and for regional economies.
Thomas Waitz (AT/ Greens/European Free Alliance), member of the European Parliament's AGRI committee and himself an organic farmer, emphasised that agro-ecology “will play an important role against climate change thanks to carbon sequestration in the soil”. He added that “embracing agro-ecology in the natural favoured areas” where “monocultural approaches and industrialised agriculture are exerting “unbearable price competition” on farmers from other areas is critical to efforts to keep local communities “lively”.
There was also strong support for an agricultural system with fewer pesticides, shorter supply lines, and more diverse products and producers from Geneviève Savigny, rapporteur on agroecology for the European Economic and Social Committee, who said: "Agro-ecology reconciles nature and agriculture, and this needs to be our horizon in the EU". Marta Guadalupe Rivera Ferre of the Vic-Central University of Catalonia, emphasised that "the transition to a sustainable system is not just technical, but also a change of paradigm".
The agro-ecology report, which was initiated by the CoR, will feed into and supplement the CoR's recommendations on the EU's Farm to Fork strategy, a major element of the European Green Deal. The CoR will adopt its Farm to Fork recommendations in December.
Separately, Wolfgang Burtscher, Director-General of the European Commission's department for agriculture and rural development, updated members of the CoR on the state of debate between the European Parliament and the EU's member states on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Central to discussions are questions related to the contribution of the CAP to meeting the EU's ambition to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050 and to the regional governance of the CAP.
ATLANTIC MARITIME STRATEGY
The CoR's rapporteur for the "Atlantic action plan 2.0" of the Atlantic maritime strategy is Paula Fernández Viaña (ES/Renew Europe), minister of the interior, justice and foreign action in the government of Cantabria. Ms Fernández Viaña said: "It is important that the opinion of the European Committee of the Regions on the revised Action Plan for the Atlantic collects the experience of Atlantic regions and cities that have, on one side, concrete plans and projects for its development and, on the other side, are well aware of the limitations of the current cooperation framework. It is necessary to strengthen regional cooperation in the Atlantic with ambitious projects in the field of transport and renewable energies, which contribute to the objectives of the European Green Deal but also in the fields of research, culture and training. There has been progress in the recent years, but there is still a long way to go to achieve the full cooperation potential in the Atlantic area."
Commissioner Sinkevičius said that the maritime strategy for the Atlantic, adopted in 2013, is working, noting that it has resulted in "1,200 new maritime projects, primarily targeting environmental protection, improved connectivity and social inclusion in the Atlantic area" and investment totalling nearly €6 billion from the EU, the European Investment Bank and national, regional and private sources.
There are, though, now "new imperatives of sustainability, of carbon neutrality, and – more recently – of recovery". He specifically mentioned the value of promoting "green shipping", taking action against marine litter, improving the "observation and protection of our coasts" to help adaptation to climate change, developing offshore renewable energy, and "[closing] the skill gaps in the blue-economy sectors".
The action plan includes a communication, due in 2021, in which "the regional component will be pivotal", the commissioner said, concluding by saying: "With the help of the regions, we can write a beautiful success story."
Other speakers at the roundtable were: Pierre Karleskind MEP, chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Fisheries; Claude Wohrer, for the French Presidency of the Atlantic Strategy Committee; and María Ángeles Elorza Zubiría, (ES/Renew Europe) of the Basque Country, representing the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe. MEP Karleskind underlined the need to include aquaculture and fishing in the main pillars of action, while CoR members added insights from EU's Atlantic regions to the debate.
IMPACT OF COVID-19
The NAT commission also held its first discussion on a dossier from the European Commission, which has asked the CoR to provide its perspective on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the EU's cities and regions, and in particular on its rural areas.
The rapporteur – Joke Schauvliege (BE/EPP), a member of the Flemish Parliament – said: "In a very short period of time, the coronavirus led to a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and a far-reaching crisis in various areas in our society. The crisis has had a very asymmetric impact on cities, regions and rural areas across the EU. It is striking that different problems arise in rural areas than in urbanised environments. Known problems in rural areas have been magnified and exacerbated by the crisis. The vulnerability of these regions has been rediscovered. We must therefore use this global crisis to find out which proposals have actually led to solutions and what lessons can be learned for a better approach to these and other crises. A thorough evaluation will make us wiser and stronger for the future."
Ms Schauvliege's opinion will draw on a wide-ranging report of the pandemic's effects drawn up by the CoR this summer and early autumn. The CoR presented the report – the first Annual Regional and Local Barometer – at its plenary in October 2020 at which it debated the effects of the pandemic with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Ms Schauvliege's opinion will supplement the findings of the Barometer with new data about how rural communities' needs and about their use of EU emergency funding.
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