Farmers welcome CAP simplification, wary of renationalisation

The EU is banking on smart farming to up competitiveness and keep young people in rural areas. [Allexxandar/Shutterstock]

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

EU farmers have joined the debate on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy by stressing the need to simplify common rules. but they have vigorously rejected any attempt to renationalise the bloc’s biggest common policy.

The vision that the European Commission presented on 29 November for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after 2020 promised to boost the sector’s resilience to crises, support farm income, accommodate digital innovations, reduce red tape and promote generational renewal.

While leaving the existing structure and objectives of the policy in place, the EU executive proposed a new delivery method to give member states greater freedom to adapt farm support to their own requirements and, it hopes, strengthen the delivery of key environmental objectives.

The CAP is divided into two pillars. The first, worth about €308 billion for the current 2014-2020 budget period, funds income-supporting direct payments to farmers, as well as environmental ‘greening’ measures and market measures to help manage crises. The requirements for all these schemes are set centrally in Brussels and apply across all EU countries and agricultural sectors.

The second pillar, worth €99 billion, concerns rural development, and counties and regions are free to draw up their own rural development plans based on their own particular challenges and needs. These plans are then assessed by the Commission to ensure they comply with the broader objectives of the CAP before funding is released.

By recreating the second pillar’s decentralised delivery mechanism for the first pillar, the Commission claims it will cut down on inefficiency while ensuring the EU’s common goals are met by targeting spending in the most effective way at national and regional level.

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Simplification but no renationalisation

Joachim Rukwied, the president of EU farmers organisation Copa, welcomed the attempt to simplify the policy, saying common and simple rules were vital. However, Copa stressed that “guarantees are needed to ensure that simplification will deliver results for farmers”.

This echoes the concerns of think tank Farm Europe, which last week slammed the Commission’s communication, saying it would simplify life only for the EU executive itself but leave farmers and governments with mountains of paperwork.

Rukwied added that it was “good news that the Commission proposed keeping both pillars in the CAP in its plan”, and that direct payments should continue to support farmers’ incomes.

But Copa again echoed widely held concerns over the increased freedom handed to member states to allocate their first pillar payments. For the EU farmers union, the CAP must truly remain “a common policy without any renationalisation”, otherwise it risks generating unfair competition between sectors and countries.

Besides the damaging effect this would have on the single market, spending could also become less efficient as payments in one country could be used to cancel out the effects of spending in another.

Revamped objectives “still relevant”

In a policy paper published in November, Copa-Cogeca, the union representing European farmers and agri-cooperatives, said that the CAP’s objectives “as established in the [EU treaty] remain equally relevant today”.

This view was not shared by the European Parliament’s Greens and Socialists & Democrats groups. Their conclusion, based on a recent fitness check of the policy commissioned in partnership with environmental NGOs BirdLife Europe, the European Environmental Bureau and NABU, was that the CAP was “incoherent, inefficient and outdated”.

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While it hailed the eradication of hunger in Europe and poverty among farmers as a success, the fitness check was clear that the change to the post-2020 CAP should run deeper than the delivery mechanism.

Linking smart farming and generational renewal

Although the fundamental objectives remain the same, the Commission hopes to encourage a greater focus on the adoption of technology in agriculture as a cornerstone of rural development. And the farmers tend to agree.

Not only will smart farming help boost farm income by cutting costs and increasing the efficiency of expensive inputs, Copa-Cogeca said, but it can also promote generational renewal on Europe’s farms and help rural communities to thrive in other ways.

Bringing high-speed internet infrastructure to rural areas is essential groundwork for the roll-out of smart farming in the EU. On top of the benefits it could bring for farmers, increased connectivity can help provide work opportunities for young people in rural areas, allowing them to compete for talent with the big cities.

For Jannes Maes, the head of the European Council of Young Farmers, this is essential if Europe wants to encourage more young people to get into farming.

“Generational renewal must become a priority in the new policy framework,” he said. Currently, only around 6% of EU farmers are aged under 35.

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