EU agriculture ministers have voiced concerns over the inclusion of social conditionality in the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s farming subsidies programme, while stakeholders warn that this must not be forfeited in favour of clinching a quick deal.
With the clock ticking to close the CAP negotiations in time for the end of the transition period which expires in 2022, and for member states to file their national strategic plans, the Portuguese rotating presidency of the EU Council has made it clear that closing a deal on the CAP reform is a top priority.
“In the next six months, we will be committed to the conclusion of the CAP negotiations,” the Portuguese agriculture minister Maria do Céu Antunes told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
This impetus for concluding negotiations on the CAP was reiterated at an informal video conference of the European Parliament’s AGRIFISH Council on Monday (25 January), where ministers stressed that time was of the essence.
However, a number of issues remain to be hashed out between the European Parliament and the Council representing the 27 EU countries.
One of these is social conditionality.
In October, the European Parliament voted on a series of amendments on the shape of the post-2020 CAP, which included mandatory references to ‘social conditionality’.
In this way, CAP subsidies would be conditional upon farmers’ upholding working and employment standards.
“For the Parliament, farmers who meet social and economic legislation of the EU should have access to EU funds,” do Céu Antunes highlighted during the meeting, adding that she will give more information on this when the Council has a “clearer picture of what Parliament wants on this matter”.
However, several member states voiced their concern over the proposal, highlighting fears that this may complicate the proceedings.
Czech agriculture minister Miroslav Toman said that in the interest of time and cutting red tape, they “cannot back measures put forth in the European Parliament’s proposals”, including social conditionality.
“It is extremely important that the future CAP is as simple as possible and not give rise to additional red tape – consequently we can’t agree with the proposals from the European Parliament for a hybrid delivery model and social conditionality and a number of other aspects,” he said, emphasising that talks must be concluded as soon as possible to fit within the necessary timeframe.
Croatian agriculture minister Marija Vučković called for “caution” when considering additional requests from the Parliament, especially those which “go beyond the current remit of the CAP, like the inclusion of social conditionality,” adding that Croatia has reservations in that respect.
Likewise, Romanian agriculture minister Adrian Oros warned that he does not want the future CAP, which is much more ambitious than initially proposed, to create great difficulties for farmers and make them give up producing public goods.
As such, he said he believes that the application of social conditionality “should not lead to extra administrative burdens and automatic penalties for farmers”.
‘No need’ to impose additional burdens, says farmers association
Paulo Gouveia, chief policy adviser of EU farmers association COPA-COGECA, told EURACTIV that he is “very concerned that the current process of CAP reform will increase red tape and administrative burden for farmers” and explained that “social conditionality should not be linked to labour rights and/or wages/salaries”.
“Labour rights are already established nationally through statutory law or collective bargaining, so there is no need to impose additional burdens on employers at a EU level,” he said.
He added that, regarding wage-setting, the EU has no competence to introduce a legal instrument on the matter based on Article 153 (5) of the EU Treaty, which also explicitly excludes collective bargaining from EU regulation.
“This is for good reasons as it would strongly interfere with member states’ competences,” he warned, adding that, in this regard, national legislation not only safeguards social partners’ autonomy as well as the principle of subsidiarity, but also accommodates sub-agricultural sectors according to their specific conditions.
Time pressure ‘not an excuse’
However, proponents of social conditionality argue that time pressure is no excuse.
Kristjan Bragason, general secretary of the European federation for food, agriculture and tourism trade unions (EFFAT), told EURACTIV that this can be achieved “easily and in a non-bureaucratic way”.
“Workers rights are not red tape. It is not a question of timing, but really of political will,” he stressed, adding that it would be a “bad signal” if member states do not endorse this principle, which has the support of the European Parliament.
“Introducing social conditionality is ethically correct, it would improve working conditions as well as decrease unfair competition, which would be beneficial to farmers who may be undercut by others who do not comply with labour rules,” he said.
Federico Pacheco, of the NGO European coordination of via Campesina’s coordinating committee, told EURACTIV that time pressure is “not a good enough excuse to disregard the rights of agricultural workers”.
He pointed to the “many violations of agricultural workers’ rights” that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the climate crisis, as proof that implementing social conditionality is itself an urgent requirement.
“It is key to moving away from exploitative and intense agriculture in order to promote fairer, more sustainable food systems that respect human rights,” Pacheco added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]