EU’s no-strings commitment to agricultural reform must end

EU farm ministers met on Monday to discuss the environmental aspects of the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but the talks failed to address the crucial transformation needed in EU farming, Célia Nyssens and Bérénice Dupeux explain.

Monday’s meeting of the EU’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council was officially focused on the environmental dimension of the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but in practice the real focus was on “flexibility”, with farm ministers calling for flexibility in response to everything and anything.

The debate clearly showed increasing tensions between the traditionally “common” agricultural policy, based on common rules and values for a level playing field across the EU, and the new flexibility given to member states to design and implement the future CAP. 

We have strongly criticised the European Commission’s contradictory position: continuing to defend its two-year old CAP reform proposal despite its various environment and climate flaws, while pledging leadership on climate and biodiversity action in the EU Green Deal. After this failure to ‘green’ the Common Agricultural Policy, it is unsurprising that the Commission has passed the buck for ensuring higher environmental ambition in the future CAP to co-legislators at the Council.

Reining in flexibility

Unfortunately, member states are missing out on the opportunity to use flexibility to design more effective policy interventions that protect farmers, nature and the environment. History shows that national governments use flexibility in CAP spending to race to the bottom in terms of environmental protection.

There is no doubt that without ambitious ring-fencing for eco-schemes, little will be done. Even if some member states were willing to set the bar higher than their neighbours, they would quickly face strong opposition from their farming lobbies, who would argue that this higher environmental ambition hurts their competitiveness on the European and global markets. 

The solution is to put in place a high common ambition on the EU market and strict sustainability standards for imports from other parts of the world.

Fork in the road

The European Green Deal is at risk. Without adequate financing for environmental measures, the CAP cannot deliver on the Farm to Fork Strategy. The Commission recognises this, and has stressed the importance of eco-schemes to the Green Deal’s agricultural objectives, even admitting the need to designate specific funding for these measures. Despite this, many agricultural ministers are still arguing against a minimum ring-fencing for eco-schemes.  

For the new eco-schemes to deliver on the promises of the European Green Deal, half of the CAP budget must be dedicated to environmental and climate measures.  

Member states repeatedly expressed concerns that if a percentage of the CAP budget is specifically earmarked for eco-schemes they could lose money if they do not manage to spend all the funds allocated to environmental actions.

If that were to happen, basic economics tell us that would be because they did not make the eco-schemes economically attractive enough and business as usual was still the most profitable option for farmers.

National governments possess all the necessary powers and flexibility to design economically attractive eco-schemes, and if necessary, to revise them to boost uptake. If money is not spent, the right course of action is to try harder, not to transfer the money to other objectives. Flexibility should only permit the transfer of designated funds between eco-schemes and climate and environmental actions in the Rural Development Programmes. 

A high ringfencing for environmental actions is crucial to deliver the European Green Deal because strong conditionality, uniform across member states, is the only way to ensure that environmental payments deliver real change. 

Hedge funds

Moreover, member states were debating whether a common, EU-wide percentage should be set for how much land farmers receiving CAP subsidies need to dedicate to non-productive areas and features (i.e. hedges, ponds, buffer strips, fallow land, which provide crucial habitats for pollinators and other wildlife on farmland). On this, the new Biodiversity Strategy sets a clear direction of travel: “there is an urgent need to bring back at least 10% of agricultural area under high-diversity landscape features.”

Unfortunately, here too, the majority of farm ministers preached flexibility, putting intensive farming interests before the survival of our natural world. 

Member states also held their second round of discussions on the Farm to Fork strategy. Despite general statements of support for the EU Green Deal across the board, most governments showed their reluctance by stressing the importance of “food security” or “competitiveness”, calling for impact assessments, or asking for a science-based and flexible approach.

For most member states, a strong commitment to a constructive collaboration with the European Commission to achieve the Farm to Fork targets was missing. It is particularly telling that even some of the greener EU countries questioned the legal basis of the Commission’s proposed approach to aligning the CAP with the EU Green Deal.  

Law of the land

There is no doubt after Monday’s meeting that the European Commission needs a stronger legal basis than their current CAP reform proposal to ensure the future CAP delivers on the Farm to Fork strategy. If the European Commission is serious about the Green Deal, it must amend its CAP reform proposal before co-legislators finalise their position on the new CAP, to give the policy a clearer and more binding direction. 

This is why the EEB, alongside the European organic movement and four major environmental NGOs, wrote to Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans on Monday, calling on him to take action to fully align the CAP with the EU Green Deal. The new CAP must include stronger governance and stricter environmental safeguards to deliver the Green Deal’s climate neutrality, biodiversity, and zero-pollution promises. 

The agricultural sector is suffering from structural weaknesses, such as chronic overproduction of unsustainable livestock and dependence on migrant labour in the fruit and vegetable sectors. In times of crisis, such as the coronavirus crisis or heatwaves, those sectors suffer the most. Only a more environmentally and economically resilient farming system will be able to respond to these multiple challenges.

Flexibility cannot be about choosing between environmental and socio-economic objectives. Flexibility must be about how best we can meet all our objectives, from designing targeted measures to ensuring the long-term future of our farmers by initiating a transition now.