EU Budget: If the CAP fits, wear it
18 November 2010
On 18 November, the European Commission will present outline proposals for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. The main objective: to restore a balance in the sharing of costs and subsidies.
Old stereotypes never die and the caricature of the French farmer complete with a screw-on beret and a Gauloise jiggling in the corner of his mouth is likely to be with us for some time to come. More often than not, when this creature is let loose to roam the pages of the media, you’ll be informed that he is an embattled Breton producer of unpasteurised goat cheese. Never mind if no one makes goat cheese in Brittany, the important point is that he is embattled and riled up over the latest decisions in Brussels to the point where he’s ready to set fire to old tyres and man road-blocks on motorways.
With this convenient image providing a focus for facile commentary, the real beneficiaries of the common agricultural policy can discreetly go about their business. Don’t expect to see any of their lobbyists setting fire to tyres in the streets of Brussels.
The old agricultural policy of the 1960s is up for reform, and the question is what is going to take its place. It is worth bearing in mind that no other piece of legislation has more impact on the daily lives of European citizens. It is the common agricultural policy that sets out the conditions for the production of our daily bread, and determines which foods will be produced and how they will be consumed. In setting quotas and taxes, it has an immediate impact on the wallets of consumers and producers alike.
Remote from the man in the street
And that is not all: it also plays a key role in major European programmes on climate change, the environment and public health. Finally, the provisions of the agricultural policy exert a crucial influence on the EU’s relations with the rest of the world, both in terms of trade and cooperation and development.
All of Europe’s political programmes are more or less linked to the common agricultural policy, which is why it should be of interest to all of Europe’s political leaders – who should not just see it as an enormous source of expense.
But this literally vital policy is developed in a manner that is very remote from the man in the street, and structured by a regulatory framework with a weighty requirement for bureaucracy that only experts understand. If Europe’s political leaders were intent on honouring their pledge to make the EU more representative of its citizens, they now have an opportunity to do just that. The time has come to establish our priorities.
Limited reforms, which amount to an update of the status quo
For the first time ever, the governments of all of Europe’s member states will take part in negotiations. At the same time, the Lisbon Treaty has made parliament a full partner in a co-descision procedure.
In view of the fact that the agricultural policy will have a major impact on the long-term post-2013 budget, the rule of unanimity will apply: in other words, every country will have a right to veto. All of these extraordinarily complex negotiations will come to a close under the Danish Presidency of the European Union in the first semester of 2012, which also coincides with the next presidential election in France.
The European Commission’s proposal could lead to a number of different scenarios, but all of the indications are that the ultimate recommendation will be for limited reforms, which amount to an update of the status quo. With a view to satisfying a broad range of national interests, the Commission will have to emphasise the multifaceted nature of measures that adapt common principles to the needs of specific countries. At the same time, it has a mission to simplify agricultural policy. Not surprisingly, it is hard to see how all of this will be possible in practice.
A tighter budgetary framework
The prudent approach adopted by the Commission is a reflection of its interpretation of the political climate in a majority of EU member states. Sweden, Britain and the Netherlands form a minority that is hoping for much more radical change. It remains to seen to what extent this minority will succeed in communicating its point of view.
For the moment, it is impossible to predict what will be the final position adopted by the European Parliament, which includes a number of active reformers, as well as heavyweight representatives of the interests of traditional producers. The situation has been made even more complex by the fact that the issue cuts across major parliamentary groups. However, the likelihood is that Parliament will play a significant role in the final bargaining stages.
Among the proposals that are expected is an adjustment to the current regime of payment for maintaining land in cultivatable condition, and the introduction of a number of alternative measures including provisions to favour the development or rural areas, and promote environmental protection. As part of the continuation of a process that has been underway for the last 20 years, the reforms will also introduce a tighter budgetary framework. Since 1988, the progressive reforms of agricultural policy have always included measures to pare back the budget.
European aid is not directed at small farmers in Brittany
The question of fairness remains a burning issue, and in particular variations in the conditions enjoyed by recent and long-standing member states. This is especially glaring in the system that attributes subsidies per hectare, which is largely determined by historical entitlements. As a result, the subsidy per hectare is five times greater in Greece than it is in Latvia. There is also the question of the equitable distribution of European funds.
The truth is that the flow of European aid is not directed at small farmers in Brittany. On the contrary, the main beneficiaries are a very select group of major landowners and corporations, which includes the Queen of England. The subsidies paid to the British Monarchy are often cited as symbol of the inequality inherent in the common agricultural policy.