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maandag 25 februari 2019

Opinion: EU to climate strikers: try again in 7 years’ time

The CAP no longer even pretends to assist the sector’s green transition, writes Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy – It need not be so.

Now that the whole world watches with admiration how Europe’s youth take on their governments, the United Nations and the European Union over their failure to tackle climate change appropriately, you would think there is nowhere left for them to hide.
You would think wrong, as the EU is proving.
Europe plays a crucial role in their battle by outlining the regulatory framework for national and international partners to adapt to, and it has, on the whole, taken a rather courageous stance in global climate negotiations. But it all too often shirks its responsibility when it comes to its own policies and funding. Especially the latter: almost 40% of the EU budget goes to agriculture, and the way these will be spent over the next seven years guarantees Europe’s food sector will remain a massive burden on our environment. All changes on the table so far aim to do one thing: safeguard the status quo.
While sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg was welcomed to the Berlaymont with open arms, behind closed doors agriculture ministers and EU-negotiators are stitching up farm policies exactly as they have been doing for the past sixty years. A political anachronism leading to an ecological… well, at what point are we officially allowed to call it apocalyptic?

Vintage Eurocracy
Subsidiarity is now the name of the game. Self-service with a smile is what it amounts to.
Some of the symbolic idiocies that have made the EU so controversial and unpopular in recent decades survive in the proposed common agricultural budget for the seven years to come: €67 million a year goes to promoting European wines abroad – there’s a hint of bitterness to that Dom Perignon ad in a Singapore weekly, paid for with EU taxpayers’ money.
But the real scandal lies not in the money spent, but in the lack of conditions attached.
These should be the very essence of the story: the only reason we have common policies in the first place is to safeguard the European public good. For agriculture, one aspect, food security, is less relevant than it used to be; the sector is now so competitive we have become a net exporter of food. Other public benefits are ensured elsewhere, mostly through internal market regulation and trade agreements. The environmental angle of our agricultural sector is not just increasingly important in light of climate change, it is just about the whole rationale for us to have a transnational, shared agricultural policy as such. We need to take the lead in developing a solid agricultural sector, innovative enough to secure our basic needs while making sustainable use of the land we have.
We have not been very successful so far: only 5% of our agricultural land is used for sustainable agriculture, while small farmers’ dependence on overpowering market players hasn’t decreased at all – quite the opposite. So you would think a pretty fundamental revisit of the CAP is called for.
Juncker doesn’t think so. Tired of haggling over CAP funding, he proposed to send the responsibility back to national governments, and pretty much wash Europe’s hands of the whole thing. Policy goals are vaguely defined, to be filled in by governments themselves. Some countries, including my own, like to present that as an opportunity to raise the bar. Considering the lobbying power of the agricultural sector at national level, it is destined to become, in practice, an unprecedented race to the bottom.
A telling technicality: all CAP funding would henceforth be exempt from the Common Provision Regulation, which outlines conditions for EU investments and funding, including the possibility to stop or recover money misspent. The message to agriculture ministers is clear: you make your own rules.
A political problem solved, maybe, but a massive economic and ecological opportunity lost for sure.

By and for whom?
Funny thing is, a genuine debate on the most effective and realistic conditions to go with that money could really make a difference. Farmers know which way the wind is blowing, they are already taking steps to innovate and adapt to 21st century demands, and transparent EU rules and targeted money could help them get there faster. There is nothing wrong in applying incentives and conditions to make sure EU funding actually assists Europe’s welfare, including mandatory eco-schemes and minimum requirements working towards societal objectives through the CAP. There’s a lot of grayscales between the feared green fundamentalism and the current political cynicism.
We won’t see them if we continue to consider agriculture policies as something decided by and for farming interests only. The new CAP should work for the public and the environment as well as for farmers, so the key is in the politics: we need an open discussion that takes all aspects and concerns into account. The kind of old boys’ backroom politics currently in command in Council, Commission and Parliament is simply unfit for purpose
This story isn’t over yet. In yet another surprising political move, the European Parliament has this week kicked the ball into the long grass, so that no decisions need to be taken before the European elections. Maybe then a more balanced and more hopeful approach to common agricultural policy can prevail.