This article is part of our special report EU agrifood relations with Africa: what lies ahead?.
Critics of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) for its effect on developing African countries have an exaggerated view of its importance outside Europe, although some specific areas and particular products remain a cause for concern, according to a CAP expert.
At a global level, the EU accounts for about 15% of global trade so it is “by no means a dominant player,” Alan Matthews, formerly a professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College in Dublin, told EURACTIV.
He highlighted that exports are mainly growing to Asia rather than to Africa but pointed out that the EU has a closer relationship with West Africa, where EU products account for about 50% of imports.
His comments come on the back of intense scrutiny of the CAP over the past few years, with critics saying that the CAP penalises small farmers in developing countries by exposing them to unfair competition.
But these issues are often overestimated or misunderstood, according to the CAP expert.
“Looking at it from that global perspective, the criticisms around the CAP focus first of all on a small handful of products,” he said, highlighting milk powders, frozen poultry, onions, and tomato paste, which he explored in depth in his 2019 report.
“This suggests that we’re looking at very specific issues around those products and around that region, rather than a general criticism that somehow the CAP is subsidising EU exports more generally,” he said.
CAP misconception is outdated
Much of this misconception related to the CAP is outdated and dates back to the period when the EU used export subsidies, Matthews added.
Although criticism at that time was “fully justified”, it is no longer the major issue, he stressed.
However, Matthews, who describes himself as an outspoken critic of the CAP, added that there are still some specific areas which are a cause for concern in the EU’s agricultural policy.
In particular, he noted that the EU’s ongoing use of coupled support for the dairy sector, which, despite not amounting to much in real terms, is a “legitimate source of criticism”.
Reducing or removing these coupled supports would be a step in the right direction, he said but cautioned that he does not foresee this being on the agenda any time soon.
In other areas, such as internal convergence, Matthews was more optimistic, although much rests on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations on the future of the CAP between the European Parliament, the Council, and the Commission.
Potential for public-private partnership
For Matthews, however, it is still important to keep a focus on the impacts of the EU’s action elsewhere, especially given that, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is likely to be a significant increase in the number of hungry people and that countries with less capacity to react to the shocks have been hit hardest.
“There is no doubt these countries have been hit more adversely. I’m just not really convinced that the CAP is all that relevant an instrument for this,” he said, noting that African countries already have completely tariff-free access to the European market.
“It is development assistance which is probably needed, rather than anything we can do in the CAP,” he pointed out.
Matthews added that the development of public-private partnerships could also be a more effective avenue for change than then CAP, although he warned that this must be approached with caution as poverty is not necessarily the focus of investors in Africa.
“Nonetheless, if you can leverage the business expertise of private companies and add to that some public money, they can actually develop an outreach program,” he said, taking the example of dairy giants such as the Irish dairy processor Arla and nutrition group Glanbia, both of which have operations in Nigeria.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]