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Food assistance for most deprived persons

One of the revelations in the Commission’s proposed Multiannual Financial Framework was its proposal to move funding for the programme of food assistance to the most deprived persons out of the CAP Pillar 1 budget to the European Social Fund, thus saving an estimated €3.5 billion which could then be used for other agricultural spending.

Whether the EU should be funding social programmes of this kind remains controversial in the Council of Ministers, although there is unalloyed enthusiasm for the programme in the European Parliament given that the majority of parliamentarians there favour spending of all kinds.

Origins of the programme

The scheme had its origins as an emergency measure in the exceptionally cold winter of 1986/87, when surplus stocks of agricultural produce were given to Member State charities for distribution to people in need. The measure was subsequently formalised and based on intervention stocks. As agricultural surpluses reduced, the programme has been supported by a direct financial contribution, and the scheme was amended in the mid-1990s to make it possible to supplement intervention stocks with market purchases in certain circumstances.

In 2008, with surplus stocks almost non-existent and unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future, and with food prices rising, the Commission proposed that the budget for the scheme should be increased and that it should be allowed to make market purchases on a permanent basis, to complement remaining intervention stocks. But it was extremely difficult to find a Treaty basis for this expenditure, and even more so to justify Community action as a value added measure under the subsidiarity criterion.

In 2010 the Commission presented an amended proposal to revise the scheme, to overcome the impasse in the Council and to help in reaching a sufficient majority. According to this proposal, food would be sourced either from intervention stocks or from the market and would no longer be based solely on products eligible for intervention. The annual financial contribution of the EU would be capped at €500 million, with co-financing by member states up to 25%.

Failing the subsidiarity test

When the scheme was primarily a means of disposing of intervention stocks, it was justified as a measure under Article 33 (1) (c) of the Treaty which sets out the CAP objective “to stabilise markets”. It was now to be justified by Article 33 (1) (e) “to ensure that supplies reach consumers at reasonable prices”.

The attempt to justify the scheme under the necessity test was even more tortuous and self-pleading.

The CAP objective of ensuring food for all EU citizens requires a targeted and subsidiary action. As shown in 3.1, the basis for action exists in Article 33 of the Treaty. The question that remains concerns the form that action at EU level should take, taking into account programmes that already exist in the Member States in the overall context of their social welfare policies.

It is worth recalling that, traditionally, Member States have put in place support systems to address housing, health, employment, education, training and retraining. But very few have specifically addressed the question of food poverty, which since the end of the 19th century has been left to charities to resolve……

.. EU food aid action should complement actions that exist in the Member States and offer a clear value added to MS actions. Factors that can be taken into account when assessing the value added are whether the scale of the intervention is appropriate, what level of administrative capacity is required and any learning processes that may result from EU action…

There follows a table which purports to demonstrate how these factors are addressed by the programme and which includes such gems as “creating civil society attitude” and “EU labelling of food distributed”. These factors have nothing to do with the necessity test as laid down in the Treaty (Article 5 of the Treaty of European Union) and which is worth repeating:

Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.

There are no obvious impediments either in terms of diseconomies of scale or the existence of regional spillovers which make it more difficult for member states to administer a scheme of this kind.

Recent developments

Despite the enthusiastic support of the European Parliament, the Commission’s proposal has been held up by a blocking minority in the Council. The matter came to a head in April when the Court of Justice issued its decision upholding a complaint by Germany that the programme as it now operates cannot be justified as part of the common agricultural policy and thus has no basis in community law. As a result, the budget for the programme in 2012 has been cut from €480 million in 2011 to €134 million in 2012. This is undoubtedly a disaster for the charities which have been accustomed to receiving this aid.

At the Agricultural Council on June 28th last, Italy put the matter on the agenda and, supported by other member states (France, Poland, Estonia, Spain, Latvia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia and some others), requested the Commission to submit proposals to amend the current system to ensure its future continuity.

The Council minutes include the following response from the Commission:

The Commission presented a proposal on this subject to the Council in September 2010 but some delegations expressed reservations on this text, as was the case for the first proposal presented by the Commission in 2008, as regards the legal basis, which in their view should be drawn from social policy rather than agricultural policy. The Commission indicated its willingness to discuss on the basis of its revised proposal tabled in 2010 as soon as possible in order to limit the impact of the judicial decision on this programme.

We can now see, from the proposed MFF 2014-2020, that the Commission has decided to alter its strategy and, indeed, to make this part of the European Social Fund in future.

It is hard to argue against food distribution to the needy. Not surprisingly, the internet-based public consultation on extending the food distribution programme attracted a large response, with replies expressing overwhelming support for the continuation of the Union food distribution programme.

Food poverty, and poverty in general, is indeed an important issue in Europe and member states should be encouraged to give it a higher priority. Sharing of best practice in terms of what works and what doesn’t is a useful value added role for the Union.  For example, one issue which should be considered is whether addressing food poverty is best done by distributing bulk commodities through charities, by the use of food vouchers or through raising child benefit or minimum social welfare rates.

But as I have argued previously with respect to the school fruit and vegetables scheme, public support for the European construction will be better achieved in the long-run if we don’t blur the distinctions between what the Union and the member states should do. This is one area where money could be saved in the budget negotiations.

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4 Replies to “Food assistance for most deprived persons”

  1. Hello

    I can only assume that Alan Matthews has finally lost the plot.

    Providing Fruit and vegetables to young children is essential to healthy growth and development.

    As someone who teaches children where their food comes from, I make the following observations from that work. Children upto the age of 10 have never seen an animal let alone touched one, many have only ever played computer games in their homes or watched the television. Those same children have never been to play in a park. They have never grown a plant from seed or sapling at home. If we wish to define depravation then that has to be it, human beings who do not where their food comes from.

    It is absolutely essential that the EU realises the implications of this for a population. The EU does need to intervene. If the EU intervenes then individual states will follow.

    How dare anyone try and get in the way of any measures that will address the medical obesity issue or indeed the potential to educate young children about wider food and farming matters.

    The EU disposed of red tape and applied EU law appropriately. The law allows for this intervention and it will be popular.

    It now appears time for the disengaged agiculture economist and other isolated desk bound academics to find out what is actually happening in real life. Time for you to catch up and understand the situation other agriculture professionals understand very well indeed.

    How much taxpayers money are you receiving exactly? And how much public good did you do today? I rest my case.

  2. @Deborah

    Many thanks for this reaction. Of course, I don’t rule out the possibility that I may have lost the plot but before coming to a final judgement let me make the following points.

    I am in total agreement with you about the need to tackle obesity and to encourage more consumption of fruit and vegetables, particularly among school children. (Note that the school fruit scheme is different to the programme of food assistance for most deprived persons, more information at http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/fruit-and-vegetables/school-fruit-scheme/index_en.htm).

    The easiest way to encourage more consumption of fruit is to make fruit cheaper. For example, consumption of bananas within the EU has increased dramatically since the mid-2000s when the EU reformed its trade regime which put an obscenely high tariff on imported bananas.

    We still keep high import tariffs in place against citrus, apple and other imports of fruit, thus making fruit more expensive than it otherwise needs to be. In that context, don’t you think it is a little hypocritical to give €90 million to a school fruit scheme which only goes part way to undoing this damage?

    I agree that good education in nutrition is also important, that it is important to find ways to persuade kids to eat fruit, and that government has a role to encourage this given the economic costs of unhealthy eating and lifestyles.

    But the question my post addressed was which level of government should tackle these issues, and my conclusion was that, under the EU constitution, this is a matter for national governments and not the EU. This conclusion is based on a legal analysis of the appropriate division of responsibilities between the EU and member states and not on the substantive issue whether the policy in question is good or not (I agree with you it is a good policy).

    You might well reply, if it is a good policy, then surely it is a good thing that we can also get the EU to spend money on it. But this is a dangerous road to travel, given the increasingly widepread scepticism about the EU among EU public opinion.

    As someone who is convinced of the value of the EU, the main argument I would use is that, through the EU, we can do things better or more efficiently than if a member state alone were to undertake the task. This implies a strictly limited role for the EU, which is fully recognised in the Treaties.

    Encouraging children to eat fruit is very important, but the responsibility for this lies with the member states and there is no value added if the EU also gets involved.

  3. Hello Alan and All

    It is understood well how the current scheme of providing fruit and vegetables is funded at the moment. It is however prudent for this broader education on food and farming to be extended. There are a number of ways this can be done and discussions are ongoing at the moment. What ever happens it has to start at the top. Otherwise every lower level of government will say we cannot make a move until given direction from the top to do so.

    I refer you back to the origins of the EU to provide stability in Farming and Security post World War ll. Only more recently has there been a branching out elsewhere as confidence increased. I also take this opportunity to remind readers that prior to WWll particularly in the 1930’s governments stabalised food prices to avoid gluts and famines. Instability – across certain countries economies- was seen to be a prime reason for the outbreak of war.

    The EU in its various names has sought successfully to provide price stability.

    As someone who worked as a researcher for the Chair of The Select Committee for The Environmental Audit I was one of the first to understand the role of a clean environment well before it became fashionable. Since then the word environment has taken on any meaning depending on who is using it ‘scientists’ have advocated wilding bringing in foreign top predators despite their being treaties to the contrary. Other ‘environmental’ friendly practises involve stripping guns from decommissioned British warships and selling those guns intact to the Middle East. The list is endless and all done under the name of the environment. It is high time a strict audit of what is being done under this label is undertaken. Please note how I avoid technical language at this stage Wilding, The Arms Trade et al are all to be discussed technically elsewhere.

    Hence my very simple point the EU has an historic duty to tackle food deprivation. As someone trained in EU law I would certain argue that law is in place to tackle the broad education issue in member states which has brought about this deprivation. That the EU is the lead organisation for this work.

    Individual member states are in charge of funding their own education systems. The finance now being ear marked for this work on Food Deprivation must include knowledge of how food is grown and raised to feed a population. The population must be encouraged to take part in understanding growing and what it involves. Food Deprivation finance must be about that and not simply about healthy food being supplied although initially that has its place.

    With regards to the fruit imports situation most young children are able to eat a small apple. From a purely practical point of view apples keep well and a child can eat the smaller varieties. This year we have seen children supplied with huge apples far too big for the children or fruit they cannot peel themselves. Statistics are useless without understanding the practicalities at ground level. Again I have endeavoured to strip away exclusive language to assist with communication.

    Alan if what you say about the EU constitution is true and it shouldn’t be getting involved it is high time you did something about changing it as opposed to getting in the way of something useful to society.

    I am beginning to think somehow certain disengaged agricultal economists et al have got themselves in a rut somewhere. Step back and listen to other professionals who work more closely with populations on the ground at a very practical level.

  4. Hello

    Finally, just as a plea can we keep this line of discussion open and available to enable development of ideas please. Sometimes they close just a little too quickly for people to reply. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Comments are closed.