CAP reform sows seeds of panic among French farmers

Earlier this month, Germany's environment ministry presented a National Peatland Protection Strategy, which, according to the ministry, is to ensure both the protection of intact peatlands and the restoration and sustainable management of previously drained peatlands. [sacratomato_HR/Flickr]

The CAP’s complicated new “greening” criteria are causing a headache for Europe’s 12 million farmers. In France, the revision of plots eligible for the subsidy has added to the confusion. EURACTIV France reports

The French agriculture ministry has extended until 15 June a deadline for 360,000 French farmers to complete their 2015 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) declarations.

But these six extra days may still prove too little.

For several weeks, agricultural organisations have been voicing their concerns over the latest CAP reform, which has turned out to be unexpectedly complicated. Flyers detailing the procedures of the new CAP were published in France in early May, but the policy is still vague. The Commission has also promised to publish a set of guidelines, which are yet to appear.

“It is the first time that so many aspects of the CAP have changed, and of course this requires us to make a big effort and change the way we think,” an agriculture ministry source said.

This is not only a French problem. In Italy, where a million businesses with smaller plots of land receive CAP subsidies, the situation is even more serious. The Italian government is calling for the deadline to be extended until 30 June.

>>Read our LinksDossier: CAP 2014-2020: A long road to reform

The complexity of the EU’s agricultural support system is nothing new. Since his arrival in Brussels, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan has been working to simplify it. But he now seems even further from this goal, as the new CAP allows all member states to adapt their subsidies according to their own national priorities.

>> Read: Farming deal ‘too flexible’ but caps largest direct payments

And any review of the policy so soon after such a long and complicated series of negotiations is surely impossible.

Suspension of green subsidies?

The debate largely revolves around ecological focus areas (EFAs). Under the new CAP, a farm’s green subsidies depend on the existence of EFAs on its land, as well as on crop diversification and the protection of pasture land. At least 5% of any farm larger than 15 hectares must be classed as EFA in order for it to receive the green subsidy, which now represents 30% of the total CAP payments.

Any business that does not adjust to these new rules may have its income cut significantly.

“By examining their declarations, some have realised that all they had to do to get the subsidy was to plant chickpeas. But now it’s too late…” one farmer explained. Chickpeas, which absorb nitrogen and are considered an EFA crop, are planted in March and April.

Controversy over the redefinition of plots

The greening of the CAP has brought with it the uniquely “French” problem of reviewing the size of plots of land. In 2014, France was forced to pay a €1 billion fine following a dispute with Brussels over the criteria for evaluating a farm’s surface area.

>> Read: France told to pay back €1.1 billion in EU farm subsidies

France’s regional agriculture authorities employed the National Geographic Office (IGN) and satellite imaging to reassess the size of all the country’s plots of land. They also made certain clarifications, at the request of EU auditors, about which types of land cover should qualify for subsidies.

Undergrowth, for example, is no longer eligible, even if this leads to the destruction of hedgerows: the very opposite of greening.

Guy Vasseur, the president of the French Assembly of the Chambers of Agriculture, said “This is absurd, because on the one hand they ask us to conserve hedgerows for biodiversity, and on the other they cut workable land subsidies if hedgerows are too wide, which will encourage farmers to get rid of them.”

In light of these problems, the French Chambers of Agriculture have asked the Commission to be lenient with the 2015 CAP allocations. They sent a letter to Commissioner Phil Hogan, asking that all farmers be granted the green subsidy for the year 2015. A Commission source has said it is “unlikely” that this request will be approved.

At close to €60 billion per year, the budget of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) represents almost 40% of the EU’s annual expenditure of €130 billion.

The European Commission presented its budget proposal for the period 2014-2020 in June 2011. In this plan, funding for agriculture remains relatively unchanged, although slight reductions to the budget will be progressively introduced.

One of the main challenges of CAP reform lies in progressively transferring existing subsidies to the new member states of central and eastern Europe without increasing the policy's total budget.

>> Read our LinksDossier: CAP 2014-2020: A long road to reform

Subscribe to our newsletters