The post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform agreement struck in June introduced a new concept of social dimension that bears the potential to build a third “pillar” for the EU’s farming subsidy programme in the near future.
Currently, the CAP is made up of two main items: direct payments to farmers, which together with market-related expenditures form the so-called first pillar, and support for rural development, which is considered as the CAP’s second pillar.
But a third pillar is now taking shape as, according to the June compromise deal, CAP payments will now for the first time be linked to compliance with minimum standards on working conditions under the so-called social conditionality.
This new social dimension of the EU’s farm policy was strongly backed by the European Parliament, which introduced the idea during the negotiations that followed the Commission’s reform proposal, back in 2018.
Last November, MEPs voted a series of amendments that shaped the main elements of a “social conditionality” linking the disbursement of CAP payments to the observation of minimum labour standards.
“Including the social conditionality [in the CAP] is a historic step because we are going to defend the rights of the farmworkers,” said Mario Milouchev, deputy director-general at the European Commission’s agriculture directorate, who was answering a question from EURACTIV at a recent press conference.
Although limited in scope, the social dimension was a victory for Parliament as EU countries were reluctant to include it in the CAP reform until the very last moment over fears that it would create extra red tape for farmers.
“We finally created the third pillar of the European agricultural policy,” stressed veteran socialist MEP Paolo De Castro, one of the main proponents of social conditionality.
“From now on, the CAP will no longer fund farmers who do not respect the rights of their employees, putting an end to unfair competition with the vast majority of agricultural entrepreneurs who take good care of their workers,” he added.
The CAP’s social dimension will not start applying from day one, however. Indeed, the new mechanism will be compulsory only as of 2025, and will start being implemented only by those EU member states who are ready from 1 January 2023.
“We gave this learning period because this is a novelty so member states need to see exactly how to arrange the links between their social authorities and their paying agencies,” said the Commission’s Milouchev.
He added that the EU executive will play a central role in this process by means of delegated acts to help member states better define the links between labour and paying agencies.
However, the real game-changer that could lay the ground for a social CAP pillar any time soon is the two-year ‘rendez-vous’ clause agreed by the Parliament and the Council in which they ask the Commission to monitor the impact of the mechanism on workers and to come up with a study evaluating the progress made.
“This study is very important because, as we start with a relatively limited social conditionality mechanism, we should see how it works,” said Milouchev, recognising that, among EU countries, there is not the same level playing field in the social area as in the other two CAP pillars.
In case the study shows that the social dimension in the CAP works, the Commission might decide to enhance it and possibly enlarge its scope or the list of areas that will be subject to social conditionality.
The Commission is expected, for instance, to look at the feasibility of including the social conditionality principle in the 492/2011 regulation on freedom of movement for workers within the EU, a relevant piece of legislation for seasonal farm workers.
Workers’ rights or more red tape?
Reactions to the introduction of a social pillar were contrasted though, highlighting a divide between trade unions and employers.
The European federation of food, agriculture and tourism trade unions (EFFAT) hailed the compromise as “a great trade union victory” as the demand for social conditionality seemed to be hopeless months ago.
Tackling the issue at the EU level made sense, according to Maria Noichl, negotiator for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament for parts of the reform, who wondered why “those who engage in social dumping get the same amount of taxpayers’ money as those who hire workers according to the rules”.
But Ramón Armengol, president of the general confederation of agricultural cooperatives (COGECA), expressed concern on the idea of a social pillar.
“We already have a lot of regulation, when it comes to labor law and there are already a whole series of controls. I’m not sure this is something that should be tied to CAP support,” he told EURACTIV.
He added that while some backed this principle during the CAP talks, others very much wanted to simplify the subsidies programme and cut red tape. “These social requirements go against what a lot of people are calling for,” he pointed out.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]