It’s not too late to save Europe’s farm policy from special interests

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

With negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) moving towards an end-game, it is not too late to forge a deal that will help European farmers and the environment, argues Tony Long.

Tony Long is director of WWF's European Policy Office.

"As the current negotiations over the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) move closer towards the end-game, it is becoming clear that a future European farming deal on the current terms may actually be working against the long-term interests of European farmers.

Farm leaders are accused of turning a blind eye to how EU’s agricultural subsidies are perceived in the court of European public opinion. At a time of national austerity, public sentiment is increasingly questioning why the largest slice of the EU’s budget continues to subsidise a sector that is failing to create new jobs while at the same time contributing towards massive environmental disruption. How do the farm leaders answer that charge? By pleading special interests it seems.

It was not meant to be this way. The current CAP reforms were supposed to be about gaining a new public confidence in a European and member state agricultural subsidy system. The key to this legitimisation as proposed by the European Commission was an overall ‘greening’ of the policy whereby farmers are rewarded for quality food production and at the same time as protecting and enhancing the natural diversity of the farmed landscapes. 

This more modern agricultural support approach fits well with what WWF discovered in a recent poll in several EU countries. It showed that 90% of respondents expressed support for the EU’s annual multi-billion subsidy to be conditional on the provision of public goods such as the reduction of greenhouse gases and improved management of freshwater resources. The European Commission’s original CAP reform proposals identified this public goods bargain as the key for farming support to continue in the next budget period but also from the next EU budget period from 2020 onwards.

Unfortunately, these lofty ambitions are becoming lost in the political horse trading now underway in the Council and Parliament. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a relatively progressive reform agenda has been hijacked by a coalition of big agri-business interests, large farming consortia and a cohort of right-wing MEPs that have a stranglehold over the powerful Agriculture Committee in the European Parliament. On the current evidence, they are managing to give life-support to a broken system that over the years has ensured that four-fifths of CAP subsidies go to just one-fifth of the richest farmers. Many of the claims that are made to sustain this regressive and backward system are quite frankly bogus.

One by one the arguments to support a continuation of the current CAP regime fall down. Far from being a job creator, the opposite is the case. Over the last 10 years, the number of people engaged in agriculture has fallen by a quarter. The CAP as a guarantee of quality food at affordable prices is now shot through with recent food scandals across Europe where public confidence in the food and agricultural sector is at an all time low. The loss of European nature continues unabated with staggering losses of many species and habitats.

It is not too late to hope that European decision-makers will begin to see where the real interests of a healthy and vibrant farming sector lie. The provision of public goods like environmental protection will almost certainly command public support. But the featherbedding of a protected farming sector to exist for dubious, ill-defined and perhaps even nostalgic reasons will be doomed to fail. Not only in this reform period but even more certainly in the next one in seven years"

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