CAP communication promotes ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ policy, agri experts say

Under the Commission's communication, the rules on biodiversity could vary from one side of the fence to the other. [Terry Hughes/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report How the CAP works for you.

The European Commission has presented its long-awaited vision for the future of the Common Agricultural Policy after 2020. But agricultural experts fear the communication, which proposes a radical overhaul of the policy’s delivery, rather than its substance, will weaken environmental protection and create unfair competition between farmers.

Presented on Wednesday (29 November), the Commission’s “simpler rules and more flexible approach” to the CAP will hand member states greater freedom to decide how to invest EU funding in order to support their farmers while protecting the environment. It will, the EU executive says, future-proof the bloc’s biggest and oldest common policy.

But the analysts at think tank Farm Europe disagree. They see the proposed reform as an attempt by Brussels to “shirk” its responsibility and say the only people whose lives the reform would simplify are the EU civil servants who administer it. Farmers and member states will still have to present complex proposals in order to access CAP funds.

EU member states and farmers often complain about the complexity of the CAP, which many say puts an unacceptable bureaucratic burden on farmers who have neither the time nor the expertise to deal with the large amounts of paperwork required.

“This communication is the Commission saying ‘You keep telling us the CAP is too complicated, so administer it yourselves’,” said Luc Vernet, senior advisor at Farm Europe.

“It focusses on institutional simplification, not for the farming sector.”

Toppling the first pillar?

The CAP is worth around €408bn for the 2014-2020 budget period. This sum is divided between two ‘pillars’ that focus on different methods of support for agriculture.

The first pillar provides income support in the form of direct payments to farmers, as well as ‘greening’ payments, disbursed in return for environmentally responsible farming practices such as crop rotation and the designation of ecological focus areas (EFAs) to protect biodiversity.

Crucially, the requirements for these payments are set at EU level and are applied with one methodology to all farmers in all EU countries; a truly common policy.

The second pillar is designed to foster rural development by allowing member states to identify their own needs and set their own objectives, which are signed off by the Commission.

For Farm Europe, the reform now on the table amounts to the transformation of the first pillar into an extension of the second; pushing subsidiarity to its limit and effectively abandoning the ‘Common’ in Common Agricultural Policy.

Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan refuted this assessment as “absolutely untrue”, saying that “on the contrary, the reform will increase the accountability of national governments for performance and results, while the policy will remain an EU-level common agricultural policy”.

Political trouble ahead

Yet just how much control the Commission will have over the implementation of the national programmes remains to be seen.

In theory, Brussels currently has the final say on countries’ rural development programmes (CAP second pillar) and scrutinises each one to ensure compliance. In reality, things rarely run so smoothly. According to the European Court of Auditors, member states tend to produce such hefty documents – often running to well over 1,000 pages – that the approval process almost always overruns.

Auditors slam EU rural development spending as complex and unfocused

The European Court of Auditors criticised on Tuesday (14 November) the EU’s rural development programme for its slow implementation of spending and lack of focus on measurable results.

Political pressure on the civil servants responsible for approving programmes then mounts as implementation is delayed, eventually forcing them to give the green light to programmes that are a less than perfect match for the EU’s rural development objectives.

This is the destiny of first pillar payments too, Farm Europe’s experts warned, if the EU executive goes ahead with this communication. “Officials will not have the political strength to resist pressure to approve programmes,” said Vernet.

How the new CAP would work for you: economic and environmental implications

A recent report commissioned by a group of environmental NGOs and the European Parliament’s Greens and Socialists and Democrats groups concluded that the CAP’s direct payments to farmers had been successful in supporting farm income and European food security.

Since the policy was implemented, there has been no shortage of food in the bloc and although farmers’ incomes are just 40% of the EU average, real poverty in the sector is a thing of the past.

EU agricultural policy incoherent and outdated – report

The Common Agricultural Policy has done a good job of ensuring farm income and food security but it is incoherent, inefficient and outdated, and must be radically overhauled to ensure good value for money in the future, an independent report has found.

The same report highlighted the tension between these direct payments, which it said encourage intensive practices, and greening payments, which farmers receive for the environmental measures they take.

Hogan insisted that the proposed reform signified a step up in the EU’s efforts to tackle the climate impact of agriculture and meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. But he also said it was “the end of greening”. In future, member states will decide how to replace it.

For agronomist Yves Madre, this is not a good way to ensure coherence and value for money. “National targets are a big problem,” said Madre. “Targets must be applied equally to every farm, otherwise some can sacrifice environment for competitiveness.”

“What if countries end up spending money to counteract the effects of spending in another country?” he added.

Joao Pacheco, a Farm Europe advisor and former deputy director-general in the European Commission’s agriculture directorate (DG AGRI), agrees. He fears that rather than resolving the tension between income support and environmental measures at farm level, the new system would shift the tension to national or regional level and risk amplifying it.

Leaving EU countries to design their own direct payments and environmental schemes will “inevitably” lead to a “beggar-thy-neighbour policy”, Pacheco added, as designers of future schemes would seek to undermine the level playing field of the single market to gain a competitive advantage for their chosen agricultural sectors.