Europe’s farmers are facing the biggest threat to their bottom line in years.
With Brexit about to blow a hole in the EU’s finances and calls for money to be diverted elsewhere — such as migration and combatting terrorism — the size of Europe’s multibillion-euro subsidy scheme (the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP) is going to be slashed from nearly 40 percent of the overall EU budget to less than a third.
Threats to the CAP don’t stop there: Farm lobbies, environmental campaigners and EU governments are concerned about plans to be unveiled Friday by the European Commission to loosen Brussels’ tight grip over farm policy and hand back control to national capitals. The days of Eurocrats being in charge of dictating what is grown where or how many hedgerows can be planted are numbered.
Instead, countries will be forced to design their own policies, known as national strategic plans, a move that critics say could result in the word “common” no longer being part of the Common Agricultural Policy.
“There’s enough here to be very angry,” Stéphane Travert, France’s agriculture minister, said in a televised debate earlier this month when asked to comment on proposed cuts to the CAP. “It’s a blind, drastic and massive hit and we do not agree.”
The Commission is to present a detailed overview of exactly how much each EU country will receive under the new CAP, which covers the years from 2021 to 2027. The Commission insists there will be a 5 percent overall cut, but experts and analysts have lined up to point out that Brussels has got its numbers wrong. The cuts in real terms, when accounting for inflation, will be more severe — in the order of 15 percent — they say.
Leaked drafts of the CAP proposal, seen by POLITICO, include a plethora of new rules and regulations that could have long-lasting effects on farmers. For instance, a mandatory ceiling on the amount of subsidies that farms can receive will be brought in — a move aimed at rectifying a situation where 80 percent of the bloc’s subsidies go to just 20 percent of its farms. Although the Commission originally set the ceiling at €60,000, officials briefed on the issue said a last-minute decision was made to raise the amount to €100,000.
Other measures include an attempt to provide newer member countries with a larger slice of the financial pie by giving them more cash per hectare.
The Commission will also propose scrapping “greening measures,” which tie money to a set of environmental policies, and bring in an “eco-scheme” that would give farmers more cash if they take extra measures to help the environment.
Despite the new measures — which according to the draft proposal are based on nine “objectives” aimed at the likes of bolstering farm incomes, fighting climate change, preserving landscapes and attracting new farmers — many in the industry feel the Commission has fallen way short of delivering a legislative proposal fit for the 21st century.
Yet the man behind the reforms, European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan, has staunchly defended Brussels’ plan to give countries more powers and said the cuts to the CAP budget could have been much worse.
“As public representatives, I’m sure you are familiar with the frustrations of farmers trying to apply a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, which is designed to be applicable from the Inishowen peninsula to the Greek islands or from Slea Head to Lapland,” Hogan told lawmakers in his native Ireland in April.
On the budget, he has said that “the key decision will not be made by the Commission at all, but rather by the member states, whose leaders have to decide whether or not they are prepared to increase their contribution to the EU budget and, if so, by how much.” Many countries are appalled at the idea of paying more into the EU budget to make up for the shortfall to be caused by Brexit.
On Thursday, some of the EU’s biggest farming countries including France, Spain and Ireland, pledged to fight for higher CAP subsidies during the next EU budget period.
If there’s one area that’s really causing anger and division among those involved in CAP reform, it’s the environment. Green campaigners have long called on Brussels to use its huge sway over farmers to push them toward better environmental practices.
Yet farmers complain they’re being put under increasing pressure to be more environmentally friendly, in return for less money, while Europe is flooded with imports from parts of the world where environmental regulation is less strict.
Still, there is wide agreement that Brussels’ previous attempt to turn farmers green was a failure. At present, around one-third of farm subsidies are conditional on compliance with the “greening” rules: measures such as planting several crops simultaneously to promote soil health, and regulations on leaving strips of land fallow or hedges intact for the benefit of birds and insects.
Farmers hate the greening measures, saying they don’t make sense; do nothing for the environment and can result in them being fined for making a tiny mistake. Environmentalists say the measures are mere window dressing.
As a result, the greening measures are to be scrapped and countries will be asked to devise their own agri-environmental schemes. Brussels will also propose that environmental considerations are applied to every cent that goes to farmers in direct payments, which are based largely on farm size. Those conditions will include rules on the sustainable use of pesticides, water management and reducing the use of fertilizers, a senior Commission official said.
But green groups are not happy about the proposals.
“From the environmental point of view, it’s really dire,” said Ariel Brunner, head of policy at the NGO BirdLife Europe.
“The risk from our point of view is that you’ll see a massive surge in perverse subsidies,” he added, saying he fears governments will use their newfound freedom to fund important but polluting sectors such as dairy or pork.
In addition, the section of the CAP that deals with rural development — money that is often used for environmental schemes — is facing a much deeper budget cut than the section of the CAP that deals with direct farm subsidies. Farm Europe, a think tank, and Alan Matthews, a CAP specialist at Ireland’s Trinity College, say the cut to rural development payments could be in the region of 25 percent when inflation is taken into account.
Food vs. Farm
Olivier de Schutter, co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, went as far as to call the Commission’s CAP proposal unfit for solving modern-day challenges and ignorant of the realities affecting the food supply chain.
“We don’t believe that there can be salvation from a new CAP. We believe in a food policy that is much more consistent across the whole system,” he said. He described the current CAP as being “full of inconsistencies” such as trying to meet international targets on climate change while at the same time promoting export-driven policies in the meat and dairy sectors.
The new CAP proposal “is based on ideas from the 1960s and is not well equipped to address the needs of the 21st century,” De Schutter said.
Despite all the opposition, one seasoned diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said policymakers in both the European Parliament and European Council would fight tooth and nail for a better financial deal for farmers.
“Everyone hopes the cuts are scaled back again when the negotiations start, like everyone hopes that there’s going to be new elections in the U.K.,” said Birthe Steenberg, secretary-general of the Association of Poultry Processors and Poultry Trade in the EU.