Is the CAP simplification exercise “better regulation”?

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

The sector's profitability is based, in particular, on the low prices paid to farmers by the three largest players, which seriously calls into question the model's sustainability. It also raises the question of agriculture's objective, more generally. [Smoobs/Flickr]

The Commission’s proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy looks more like a waste of public money than an exercise in “better regulation”, argues Angelo Caserta.

Angelo Caserta is regional director at BirdLife Europe. He wrote this editorial on behalf of BirdLife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Simplification of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a hot topic with hearings in the Parliament, Council conclusions and almost every speech of Commissioner Hogan mentioning the Holy Grail: “making people’s lives simple”. Farmers, paying agencies and member states are falling over each other to propose ideas on how to simplify the policy, supposedly to better achieve its overall objectives, but in essence all wanting the same thing; to go back to the times of good money with no strings attached.

This takes place against the backdrop of the debate on “better regulation” animated by Commission Vice-President Timmermans. Mr Timmermans spends a lot of time getting the Commission to ensure “that every proposal respects the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality”. He is yet to be heard on value for money, an essential element when talking about the CAP which accounts for almost 40% of the EU budget.

The discussion on simplification also takes place right after the CAP reform, aimed at ensuring farmers protect the natural resources they use in return for the public money they receive. This was crucially important as farming itself relies on the good state of natural resources. The Commission initially proposed to link the payments to some basic good agronomic practices. However, in the name of flexibility and subsidiarity, member states asked for derogations and exemptions, leading to a complex policy that is unlikely to deliver on the ground. The very same actors who created this complexity are now begging for simplification, even before policies have started to be properly implemented. One can wonder whether these demands are made in good faith or whether the actual goal is to continue dismantling what little is left in the CAP’s empty green shell.

The CAP simplification process is flawed. Member states are only discussing it with farm interests, the direct beneficiaries of the payments, while NGOs and other stakeholders are shut out. For NGOs the message that comes across is that now that a major justification for the budget is no longer needed (that the CAP would deliver public goods in the form of greening) they are no longer relevant.

When we have a closer look at what has been proposed so far, it is striking that several suggestions seem far from ensuring “better regulation” and better efficiency for the policy. For instance, the farm lobby is demanding double funding between the greening measure and the voluntary schemes in the second pillar, in practice being paid twice for the same commitment. In times of austerity, where people are losing their jobs and basic services are being cut, even considering double payments is an outrage.

Then there are requests to decrease the level of monitoring and announce inspections up to two weeks in advance. Such monitoring and inspections are there to combat fraud, law breaking and failure to comply with the commitments for which money is received. They might be annoying and tedious, but they are necessary. And without the risk of being inspected, or having unannounced inspections, there is no reason why people would fear the law and hence comply with it. In that, agriculture is no exception to other sectors. Bakers, builders and chemical processors get inspections and audits at unexpected times. It is hard to see why farmers should be treated differently from other sectors in society.

This debate raises serious questions about the Commission’s interpretation of “better regulation”. Consulting only the beneficiaries on how EU money is spent, wasting public money and facilitating fraud are strange ways to provide “better regulation”.

If Mr Timmermans is serious about better regulation, standing up for good governance in the CAP is a good way to demonstrate it.

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