Simpler – fine. Now, what about more effective?

The Commission review of Cross Compliance proposes some “simplifications” that may indeed make the cross compliance system easier to administer. However it does not address the real flaws of the system, and these have little to do with the alleged “burden” for farmers and civil servants. Cross compliance has been applied in an extremely patchy way across the EU. Just to give one example, vital for biodiversity conservation, landscape elements protection has not been correctly applied in most Member States: some countries protect stone walls while “forgetting” hedgerows while most ignore residual native vegetation.

The EU regulation itself is not nearly as strong as it sounds. The Commission always refers to the fact that permanent pasture is now protected by cross compliance. In reality, Member States are only required to maintain 90% of their grass surface, and this regardless of grassland ecological quality. In most of Europe, old growth- species rich grasslands can still be ploughed up, as long as some arable land somewhere else is converted to artificial- species poor grassland. In practice, the landscape is to remain green to the eye, but biodiversity erosion can continue undisturbed.

In yesterday’s press conference, Commissioner Fischer-Boel correctly said that many Member States should “do their homework better”. When time comes for the Health Check real reform will be needed to ensure that cross compliance actually delivers something of an acceptable baseline for public money spending. This requires tougher rules and a mechanism to hold Member States accountable for delivery. This does not need to lead to a more complicated or costly control system as most of the rules needed, at least for biodiversity, can be easily checked even through remote sensing.

While a sound cross compliance is vital to justify any public payments to farmers, EU politicians must face the evidence that direct payments a giving very poor value for tax payers’ money. We do need to reward farmers for the delivery of public goods, but targeted and more precise tools such as agri-environment schemes are much more likely to deliver. One can only hope that the Health Check debate will focus on what should citizens get in return to their money, rather than on how burdensome is it to ensure their money is not misused to damage their environment. The alternative, I’m afraid, will be to face a much tougher EU budget debate where Finance ministers will be asking why the money should go to the CAP at all. If it goes that way, both farmers and farmland birds would be on the losing side.

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