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Do we need a “common” agricultural policy?

The final paragraph of Commissioner Fischer Boel’s valedictory leaflet is revealing and foreshadows the debate that has yet to surface about the future of the CAP after 2013, the end of the current financial perspective. Mrs Fischer Boel makes the case for maintaining a common European agriculture policy among the EU’s 27 member states, presumably funded from the EU budget, as it is now.

Responses to the consultation on the future of the EU budget are overwhelmingly critical of the CAP, as was the Budget Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite, before she stepped down from the Commission having been elected President of Lithuania.

Despite the chorus of disapproval, I have very serious doubts about the capacity of the CAP to refom itself from within. As well as being overseen by a DG that jeaously guards its prestige within the Commission (and its budget) the policy is ultimately decided by national Agriculture Ministers. And as former Commissioner Ralf Dahrendorf put it some twenty years ago,

“… [the CAP] is little more than an instrument for Ministers of Agriculture to get for their farmers in Brussels and in the name of Europe what they would not get at their national Cabinet tables.”

So why would any farms minister seek to reduce the flow of ‘free money’ from Brussels for his or her most important client group? For the rare farms minister who is interested in more than simply how much EU money he or she can bring home, former Portuguese farms minister and former MEP Arlindo Cunha puts his finger on the most important reason barrier to reform from within,

“the decision-making system of the CAP will never allow for such a thing as a radical reform because of the redistributive effects which it implies.”

Former French farms minister Jean Glavany, who was burned by his own attempts to reorient the CAP in the late 1990s in France, put it another way:

“The CAP is a heavy cruise ship that can’t make a U-turn like an inflatable dinghy… all it takes is for one country to oppose it, for the rules not to change.”

These are the reasons that I now think that the quickest route to a more rational and less expensive farms policy will come from greater national financial responsibility for its financing. I made the case in an article in last week’s Daily Telegraph. You can read it here.

Co-financing is the first step on the road to a reorgansation of European farm policy along the lines that I have set out and it’s interesting to see that this is being talked about more and more in Brussels, not to mention certain national capitals. The fact that Mrs Fischer Boel should feel the need to mount a defence against the idea of greater subsidiarity and national responsibility shows the direction in which the debate on the CAP his headed.

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