EURO MPs will have a much stronger voice in determining agricultural policy once the new EU constitution comes into effect from 2009.

While the new commission president grabbed the headlines, giving MEPs a role in setting agricultural policy was the most significant change for farmers.

Farm policy is currently determined by the consultation procedure. The EU parliament is asked to give its opinion on whatever issue is being discussed.

But it is EU farm ministers that make the final decision, often with little or no regard to what the MEPs have said.

But from 2009 onwards agriculture will be subject to the co-decision procedure, under which both the parliament and the council of ministers have to agree to new policy and legislation.

This approach already applies to food safety and environmental protection.

The National Farmers Union believes that including the EU parliament in agricultural decision making will improve transparency and accountability.

“Currently, we have a situation where all decisions are taken by ministers behind closed doors,” says Betty Lee, director of the NFU‘s Brussels office.

“If we‘ve not got Defra on side, then we have nowhere else to go to.

“Through co-decision we will have much more opportunity to lobby MEPs and change the shape of the legislation.”

One of the main criticisms of co-decision has been the slow pace of getting legislation agreed, normally reckoned to take about two years.

But Ms Lee says this does not have to be the case, pointing to recent food and feed controls which were agreed in about six months as MEPs wanted it cleared before the EU elections.

“Co-decision can work if the will is there,” Ms Lee says.

There are also fears that co-decision will give MEPs with an anti-farming agenda too much scope to make extreme demands on the industry to meet the expectations of environmentalists and consumer groups.

But Scottish Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson says that, while this might be true for the parliament‘s environment committee, it is not the case for the agriculture committee, which contains many MEPs with a direct interest in the industry.

Granting them co-decision powers will help redress the balance and ameliorate some of the excesses coming out of the commission, he suggests.

For example, it was the agriculture committee that helped reverse EU Commission plans for the double tagging of sheep last year.

NFU policy director Martin Haworth believes MEPs will act more responsibly when they are in a position of power.

“In the past they have often tended to take up populist positions, because they have had no real power when it comes to agriculture. This should change.”