On the EU's menu: the Common Agricultural Policy


Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Sara Ramos Magaña
Sara Ramos Magaña

Programme Assistant at Friends of Europe

In the wake of COVID-19, the scientific community has made it clear that human destruction of habitats and climate breakdown is causing a large number of animal diseases to migrate to human hosts. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, and take planetary health seriously, the fundamentals of our food system should be reconsidered.

With EU leaders agreeing on the largest-ever budget for the EU’s recovery from the crisis and one that hopes to build back better and greener, the elephant in the room is the Common Agricultural Policy. The CAP is one of the original pillars of the European Communities and comprises a framework of agricultural subsidies and other programmes that shape Europe’s agriculture, farming and food system. However, it is perhaps the last bastion of what’s wrong with the EU bureaucracy – outdated, opaque, harmful to the environment, full of vested interests and buoyed by poor governance.

While Europe’s food system might be one of our most prized jewels, the key lesson to draw from this pandemic is that a sustainability perspective may shed a very different light on seemingly well-oiled systems. What may be efficient and resilient now may not sustain the test of time. Less so in a world struck by a health and climate crises. In this sense, Europe’s food system can at best be described as a colossus on clay feet.

As Brussels returns from the summer break, the CAP priorities and fund allocations will be negotiated as part of the new 2021-2027 MFF. Against the current backdrop of global health, biodiversity and climate crises, there should be no beating around the bush. Leaders need to address two long-standing issues that have plagued the development of the CAP. First, the policy underpinnings of the CAP, deeply incompatible with the transition to a sustainable agricultural model. Second, the historic lack of transparency in the negotiation and implementation of CAP subsidies, where the presence of vested interests prevents meaningful policy change.

Hoarding 40% of the EU’s budget, the CAP is a pool of long-vested interests

Despite numerous reforms, the current CAP upholds a system that has so far failed to tackle many of the pressing challenges of today, including unhealthy diets, biodiversity loss and greenhouse emissions. The kind of industrial farming encouraged by the CAP’s model of subsidies has resulted in the degradation of our planetary health through landscape simplification, increased use of pesticides, irrigation expansion and soil degradation. Particularly relevant today, it is also a well-recognised enabler of disease transmission similar to COVID-19, notably prone to happen where animals are kept in high numbers and close contact.

In a recent special report on Biodiversity on Farmland, the European Court of Auditors noted that the current policy orientations have failed to halt the decline of farmland birds and grassland butterflies, down 30% since 1990. A different audit also claimed that wild pollinators, essential to the quality and quantity of our food, fall through the cracks of EU action and essentially remain unprotected.

Many European farmers also continue to face unfair prices and bargaining conditions, leading to 80% of the money going to just 20% of recipients.

Another issue? Hoarding almost 40% of the EU’s budget, the CAP has been a historic pool of vested interests at the national or local level. In the Council, member states scramble for CAP money for different reasons: France or Spain, as the two largest recipients, hold on to it as their fair share of returns from their contribution to the EU budget. In Eastern European countries, CAP funding has been a key element of political leverage for some politicians, often ending up benefiting a powerful few. The Czech Prime Minister is the country’s biggest beneficiary while the New York Times has investigated the use of agricultural subsidies by Victor Orban to benefit his friends, family and political allies. The European Parliament is not immune either – a 2018 investigation by Green Peace found that a majority of AGRI Committee members have strong links to the agriculture industry. This has made any reform of the CAP historically difficult and slow. Many windows of opportunity were shut down before more environmentally-friendly voices could have an impact.

Science and transparency should be the cornerstones of the CAP negotiations

Looking ahead, there is clearly much work left to do. For the first time ever, the European Parliament has full co-decision powers on the CAP. What’s more, the leaders of the European Parliament’s political groups have now decided to grant shared competence over the CAP’s green elements to ENVI – hoping this move will sit better with the activist and scientific community.

This is the opportunity for Parliament to stand its ground with the Commission and the Council and push for environmental requirements to be more present in the allocation of direct payments. There are a plethora of policy tools endorsed by environmentalists to do so: from allocating direct payments depending on social and environmental contribution, to conditioning public subsidies to lower stock density.  These would be in line with the European Commission’s key new initiatives to make farming greener, as laid out in the Farm to Fork strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy. However, earlier this year, bitter disagreements between the AGRI Committee and the ENVI Committee led negotiations over the post-2020 CAP to break down, showing there is still a long way to go before achieving consensus.

The current pandemic has raised the bar of what is enough when it comes to protecting the planet. Science and transparency should be the cornerstones of the CAP negotiations.  At stake is not only a big chunk of taxpayers’ money but more crucially, the long-term health of our planet and the agricultural sustainability of Europe’s food system.

This brings us to the purest exercise of democracy:  upholding a common good against certain exclusive interests. Short-sighted political gains should not blur the priorities for all. Faced with a combined climate, health and biodiversity crisis, MEPs need to be held accountable when interfering with science.  The pandemic has shown us that our societies are only sustainable as long as our health is – and that, indeed, includes our planetary health. Missing this key lesson in our agricultural policy could come back to bite us.

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