Environmental claims of new EU farm subsidy policy are questioned

The environmental claims of a newly agreed €387bn EU farming subsidy policy have been described as a “paper reality”, despite a commitment that a quarter of its budget will be spent on “eco schemes”.

A new five-year common agricultural policy (CAP) was provisionally agreed by the European parliament, European Commission and the 27 member states on Friday after two and a half years of negotiations.

The CAP, launched in 1962, is a system of subsidies paid to EU farmers with the aim of guaranteeing minimum levels of production and ensuring a decent standard of living for them. It accounts for about a third of the EU’s spending today.

The policy has been criticised over the decades, however, for the support provided for large-scale intensive farming and a lack of transparency over the beneficiaries of the funds. The money earned by organisations with close links to the Hungarian and Czech prime ministers, Viktor Orbán and Andrej Babiš, has been a cause of recent discontent.

The demands on reform have been increasingly focused on better protection for biodiversity and greater spending on types of farming that will reduce the sector’s carbon emissions.

Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European Commission, said he believed the new policy represented a “real shift in how we practice agriculture in Europe”.

“In the next years, we will protect wet- and peatlands, dedicate more farmland to biodiversity, boost organic farming, open up new income sources for farmers via carbon farming, and begin to redress inequalities in the distribution of income support,” he said.

For the first time the CAP will also include “social conditionality” to receive funds, under which beneficiaries will be monitored over their respect for European social and labour law, in a recognition of the low wages paid in western Europe to migrant workers from the east.

However, critics said there remained insufficient support for smaller farmers, and far too much wriggle-room for national governments over the commitments to green spending.

The final sticking points in the recent internal talks between the parliament, commission and council representing the member states had been over the percentage put aside for ecological spending and a link in the policy to the bloc’s Green Deal objective of climate neutrality by 2050. The amount to be spent on “eco schemes” will be set at 20% of payments to farmers in the first two years, 2023 and 2024, rising to 25% between 2025 and 2027.

A reference to coherence with the EU’s greenhouse gas target is also contained, although only in the preamble text, which critics argue has little legal standing.

The Green group in the parliament said they would not support the policy and called on liberal and leftwing groups to join them in scuppering the provisional agreement, which will need to be signed off by member states and the full plenary of the parliament.

Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Green MEP, said there were insufficient safeguards to ensure 25% was spent on credible green initiatives, with the national governments playing the key role in deciding what was a green project, and that the detail would make those who read the policy proposal “cry”.

“These eco schemes are not defined yet,” he said. “This is not serious, this is a paper reality constructed by conservatives. We really call upon all our progressive friends to be serious about it, because otherwise we are fixing another non-reform of CAP.”

Europe’s largest federation of environmental groups, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said that about three-quarters of the €270bn budget for direct payments to farmers would still go to intensive farms under the new policy.

Earlier this month, the European court of auditors, the union’s spending watchdog, had complained that under the old policy, €100bn of CAP funds attributed to climate action had little impact on such emissions in the sector.

It added that the CAP did not seek to limit or reduce livestock, which account for up to 50% of agricultural carbon emissions, and supports farmers who cultivate drained peatlands, which account for 20 %.

Célia Nyssens, agriculture policy officer at the EEB, said there had been insufficient change. She said: “This new policy is a monumental failure of leadership to take on those grave threats. We are already seeing national governments planning for business as usual, to keep the money flowing to intensive farms.”


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