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Public goods in the spotlight

What’s in a word? Or, to be more specific, two words? Where CAP and the term ‘public good’ is concerned, quite a lot. A new briefing note from the Institute for European Environment Policy takes a look at how the slogan ‘public money for public goods’ has come to define the political debate over the future shape of the CAP.

The briefing looks at the evolution of the idea of environmental public goods as a justification for future public expenditure on agriculture. It also sounds a note of caution, that’s worth repeating here:

The increasing visibility of the public goods concept however, has resulted in the concept being interpreted in different ways. It appears that there has been recognition of this agenda as one with real gravity and legitimacy, and therefore for political reasons some interests are trying to justify various aspects of current policy as conducive to, or essential for outcomes that they have presented as ‘public goods’. There are for example several cases that can be found where the term is being used more generally to refer to any sort of ‘public benefit’ from agriculture. For example, COPA COGECA have started to use the term to refer to ‘maintaining farming activities’ and ‘keeping farm income stable’ as a means of justifying public support. It is also becoming increasingly commonplace for policy interventions via the CAP to be sought as a means of providing public goods, even if this is not the most appropriate policy instrument. The debate over Europe’s role in contributing to global food security is a case in point.

Some clarification of the rhetoric of public goods in the agricultural context is needed. Without it there is the danger that the term will be misused as a justification for supporting anything in the ‘public interest’. CAP commentators such as Alan Matthews of Trinity College Dublin have noted this confusion, stating that current understanding of the term appears overly “elastic”.

Quite right. You can read the briefing in full at the CAP2020 website.

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