French reform paper: An exercise in decoding

France has produced a paper on the future of the CAP which is designed to stimulate discussion at the informal farm council to be held there in the Rhone-Alps region on 21-23 September. The paper is very vague, no doubt deliberately so, and interpreting has to be an exercise in decoding.

The paper argues that in the ‘new context’ of rising food and fuel prices, the future of the CAP should centre around four areas. The first of these is assuring food security in the EU. No suprises there, as France has been a vigorous adopter and champion of the revived food security discourse which provides a new underpinning for subsidy and protection.

New content can be placed in it, however, as is evident from a discussion on economic patriotism I participated at Science Po in Paris last week. The argument there was that even new market approaches could be brought under the economic patriotism umbrella.

The second objective is contributing to sustainable and balanced food supplies in the world. A laudable aim, but the EU has frustrated it by dumping surplus produce on the world market and undermining local suppliers, as well as frustrating the development of commercial agriculture in the Global South by placing barriers to entry around the European market. Hopefully, some of the worst of these practices are coming to an end.

The third aim is preserving the rural fabric and ensuring territorial cohesion, an objective close to French hearts with its emphasis on the cultural dimension of the CAP. The paper argues that the uniformity of Pillar 1 is in danger of stifling the diversity of the French agricultural landscape. Vulnerable areas, of which no doubt there are many in France, should get some sort of ‘top up’.

The fourth objective is participating in the mitigation of climate change, which everyone is in favour of, but the challenge is how you actually do it, particularly in an economic downturn.

The most specific the paper gets is a call for less static support tools which a decoding suggests are favoured in part because they may be a way of getting around international trade rules. As well as providing support for integrated enviromental measures, these tools (whatever they might be) would be a means of dealing with increased market volatility.

This leads me to suppose that one might be talking about some modernised verision of deficiency payments, as used in Britain before it joined the common market. It may be, and this is just surmise, that the French think they cannot keep the SFP going beyond 2013, but they may be able to sell a subsidy that is linked to climate change and environmental benefits and also gives farmers some protection in hard times.

Whether such a vague document will lead to a structured or useful discussion at the informal Farm Council remains to be seen, but somehow I doubt it.

More information on the meeting is at the French EU Presidency website and the French discussion paper is available in the original French and an English version too.

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