The CAP Communication: Paradigmatic change or empty rhetoric?

The following guest post was written by Professor Emil Erjavec, Professor of Agricultural Policy and Ilona Rac, researcher, at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The European Commission’s Communication on The Future of Food and Farming stands apart from all its predecessors. Rather than being a conceptual presentation of new mechanisms, as has been the norm since 1997, the document focuses on new political priorities and broad areas of intervention. We are presented with a range of new and not-so-new emphases arising from a number of EU strategies, a public consultation on the future of the CAP and various position papers presented by Member States and interest groups.

The intention of the Commission to preserve and strengthen the role of the CAP as an important European policy is quite clear: while the policy has had a “solid performance”, as clearly corroborated by support expressed in the public consultation (inevitably visualised in one of a series of visually appealing infographics), there is of course “further work to be done”.

Even more intensively than before, there is an attempt to connect agricultural strategic priorities to both EU (e.g. the Juncker priorities, the White Paper on the future of Europe) and global (SDGs, Paris climate policy agreement) goals, continuing the shift of agricultural policy towards societally acceptable agriculture that has been occurring since the Fischler 2003 reform. The present document plainly indicates that further financing of the policy is contingent upon the meeting of societal objectives.

These new CAP goals might be construed as a new take on the sustainability paradigm, as they emphasize the economic, environmental and social functions that underpin the original definition of sustainability. Seen in this way, there are no real novelties as compared to the Fischler and ‘greening’ CAP reforms, but merely a reformulation of the same substantive framework using new terminology.

This applies to all the priority areas: lagging incomes, environmental issues, generational renewal, ‘new’ investment support, etc. – all recycled. However, some topics are receiving more attention than previously, e.g. the importance of knowledge and the need for innovation and better risk management; there is also a stronger emphasis on consumer attitudes towards food, and on employment and growth. These ‘new’ topics are also marked by weak conceptualisation: it is difficult to ignore the nagging feeling that the inclusion of these topics is a consequence of populistic pragmatism, as these parts of the text read pretty much as a succession of clichés, without any clear connection to actual policy mechanisms.

Renationalisation or weakening of the common policy?

The Communication envisages a single ‘CAP Strategic Plan’ for both pillars, which is an almost revolutionary novelty. There has never before been a requirement to justify direct payments and market measures; this has, on the other hand, been required under rural development policy, though demonstrating needs and selecting measures has always been an ordeal for both planners and stakeholders.

There are commentators who see this very element as an indicator of renationalisation, as it represents a significant change as compared to the practice so far, in which the first pillar fell entirely under EU jurisdiction. This approach, within which the EU retained full control over measures and their execution, enabled the introduction and enforcement of many good initiatives which might otherwise not suit individual Member States. The sometimes patronising system of Commission control often reinforced this aspect.

The second biggest shift after the strategic plan is brought about by changes in environmental and climate policy. The current schizophrenic system, which features environmental measures in both pillars, is to be replaced by a single architecture of result-oriented measures. This is the very point around which the majority of criticism of the current policy revolves, and therefore represents the area of greatest challenges.

While the new approach is sensible, it is likely going to be difficult to realise in all parts of the EU. The proposed changes remain at a very general level, however, since attaining greater goal orientation and significance is often quite elusive in the real world. There is also a new emphasis on collective approaches that involve both farmers and stakeholders. This is a logical and expected step in the development of the policy, as the approach has the potential to both unburden the EU budget and stimulate locally relevant and sound practices.

In principle, being able to prepare its own strategy offers a Member State an excellent opportunity to tailor policy to its needs. However, there are also quite a few potential pitfalls, as pointed out by a number of critics. Environmentalists warn that without a clear mandate and accountability at the EU level, the quality of policies could deteriorate. A similar concern is voiced by some Commission officers, who doubt the ability of some countries to prepare adequate plans, as well as the professional and political capacity of the Commission itself (and DG AGRI in particular) to handle negotiations with countries potentially wishing to deviate from the agreed common EU strategic direction.

Past experience shows that this misgiving is not entirely unfounded, nor is the concern for a societally relevant development of instruments: strategies could conceivably become hijacked by narrow interests and/or watered down due to a lack of competent and creative programming of measures.

Path dependency of CAP societal priorities

In its presentation of the new CAP’s mechanisms, the Commission has given priority to the role of knowledge and innovation supporting sustainable agriculture. This is sensible, given the fact that developmental theory and practice underline the importance of knowledge as a key factor that separates successful regions from unsuccessful ones. However, it is quite unclear how the Commission intends to approach this issue. While the previous (leaked) version of the Communication stated that Member states will have to prepare an AKIS (agricultural knowledge and innovation system) plan, this has been omitted from the current document.

Given the weak position of knowledge in certain Member States, it is doubtful that national policymakers will be able to tackle this problem successfully on their own. It would require the establishing of complex systems that demand not only public funding, but also good staff, effective institutions, public-private cooperation and a network approach. This is one of the critical points at which the difference between agriculturally developed and underdeveloped economies becomes obvious; and most EU Member states fall in the latter category.

The Communication clearly states that direct payments remain ‘an essential part of the CAP’, though admittedly their distribution is contentious. Despite the fact that the document to some extent dismisses (though somewhat less vehemently than its leaked predecessor) these accusations of ‘unfairness’ as unfounded, it concedes that ‘a more balanced distribution of support should be promoted’ and that direct payments should be simplified and better targeted.

The Communication also states that the possibilities of capping, degressivity and introducing targeted redistributive payments should be explored further. It is difficult to discern from these descriptions precisely what kinds of schemes will be possible in the future. Apparently, the general direction is towards regionally uniform payments, but it is unclear how better targeting of such support is to be achieved, and the same goes for the manoeuvring space that Member States will be granted in implementation. Most likely, limiting payments will again remain a voluntary measure. As with other topics, there is a feeling that the text is meant to appease the general public and not to introduce a serious debate about future funding schemes.

The text emphasizes the need to improve risk management tools; there is a vague description of an EU risk management platform, including an income stabilisation payment and certain new measures, e.g. new financial instruments, reinsurance, and an emphasis on the possibility of state aid. Although activity in this field was expected, the proposal is a disappointment to many. A significant number of Member States and interest groups, as well as the European Parliament, have been stressing the importance of this topic, yet the Commission’s approach is half-hearted once more. There are no real new ideas and no concrete proposals, clearly indicating that Member States will be left to their own devices in devising and applying measures.

In the field of rural growth and employment, the Communication reads as a very ambitious document, though it is difficult to shake off the feeling that this is the very field in which the policy is least thought-out and incapable of rising above the fog of general, agreeable and vaguely described goals. What does the CAP really have to offer in terms of general employment in rural areas? A somewhat more critical assessment, some grounding and specification of these intangible, nice-sounding goals on the authors’ part would be welcome.

There is a similarly vague statement regarding the need for farmers to better understand the needs of consumers and adapt to them. Again, the Communication seems to be very ambitious, but reads more as a populistic wish list. Certainly these are societally important priorities, but there is no inkling of what kind of measures are to be used to achieve them.

The part of the Communication that pertains to external trade reflects a continued course towards the liberalisation of trade. While it is expressly stated that full trade liberalisation will not be pursued, this globalist orientation is bound to be rejected by certain countries and social groups, especially since future trade agreements are going to increase the pressure on weaker regions, farmers and countries.

Finally, the introduction of questions of migration into agricultural policy is an innovation that is difficult to fathom. Most probably it can be included into the ‘miscellaneous’ group of issues that are addressed in order to increase societal relevance and thus the policy’s perceived importance, while they are not really backed by any kind of thought-out measure. It remains to be seen whether this category of issues will actually be addressed in the CAP regulatory proposals or remain as a footnote to be considered in national strategies.

A quickly forgotten strategy/communication?

The Communication is a text that reads nicely, but leaves the reader empty and doubting the seriousness of the European Commission’s intentions. It seems that the Commission has grown weary of constant criticism and is putting the ball in the Member States’ court: “Well, YOU make a better CAP then, since you are so good at criticising”. This is especially evident from the suggestion to introduce a Strategic Plan and from the integration of environmental and climate policies, which are in the author’s view the only real novelties (ignoring, of course, the ‘miscellaneous’ category).

While the text is full of politically acceptable catchphrases, there is a large gap in place of concrete mechanisms to achieve these shiny goals. We will have to wait for the legislative proposals to see more concrete measures. It is not entirely unconceivable that the vast majority of mechanisms will be retained, slightly tweaked, with the added task for Member States to prepare a Strategic Plan and result-based measures.

How are Members States expected to fulfil this, if the Commission itself is not able (or willing) to do so? Writing a strategy is not an administrative task, it is intellectually demanding work that must be based on good analyses, data and, ultimately, political decisions. Are these conditions really met at Member State level? There is also the dangerous and very real option that Member States will use the façade of strategic planning to keep current suboptimal mechanisms in both pillars. This almost seems to be an inevitable fact given the current political-economic situation. Is ‘greenwashing’ to be followed by ‘strategy faking’?

A less cynical view might be that the Communication reflects a firm rooting of the multifunctionality discourse and that, this time, agricultural policy is not only preoccupied with itself at the strategic level, but actually trying to contribute towards fulfilling societal goals. Conceptually, this would mean a final detachment from classical agricultural policy, i.e. from addressing only the income issue and the consequences of dealing with this issue.

However, one of the main issues with texts such as this Communication is that there is no financial planning to back them, nor any analysis of the performance of the current policy. This naturally limits discussions and the possibility of constructive, substantiated responses. While the suggested (re)direction of the CAP does have the potential to represent a radical, paradigmatic shift, it is equally possible that it is nothing more than a modern populistic and pragmatic approach to policy concealing an effort to retain financing, or even reflecting a certain level of ignorance or impotence of decision-makers.

There is even an often-voiced opinion in the EU that the proposal is but a pro-forma document designed to bridge the period between the current and future European administration, as we are in the pre-election period. Some commentators dismiss the applicability of the approach entirely and say that the current policy will be extended until 2023, with no real negotiation until 2020.

If the intent of the authors of these strategies was to write a text that cannot be opposed by anybody while offering no basis for decision-making, they have completed this task marvellously. But sadly, we are passing up the opportunity to undertake radical, necessary changes to the CAP. Apparently the Commission lacks the will, power or ability to do so, or perhaps it is not quite the right time due to the prevalence of other, more pressing topics. Perhaps it is also an indicator of key CAP stakeholders (Member States and interest groups) actually not wanting any change.

In a time of decreasing CAP funding, which is inevitable after Brexit and the introduction of new EU political priorities, the agricultural policy community has the real opportunity to reconsider societal needs and priorities related to food production and processing, the countryside and the environment. With the possibility of running a more autonomous policy opening up, Member States could use the reform for their own, desperately needed changes. However, making this move still requires precise guidance by the European Commission, as well as clear accountability.

This post was written by Emil Erjavec and Ilona Rac.

Photo credit: Vojko Flegar

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2 Responses to “The CAP Communication: Paradigmatic change or empty rhetoric?”

  1. Anna Michalcakova
    December 22, 2017 at 11:47 #

    Hello, first of all, thank you for your article. For me the biggest discrepancy in the COM is the fact that the Commission declares subsidiarity for member states but at the same time says “we know better, so we will define the goals, we don’t want to intrude much, but we’ll also authorize your strategic plans”. That’s no subsidiarity it’s just a transfer of responsibility, because the Commission feels like it failed to enforce a change in the CAP but I don’t think the states will do much better work, at least some of them, Czech Republic for example. Personally, I welcome the idea of getting rid of the principle “one size fits all” but I’m not sure how I’ll work in practice and this COM didn’t disperse my doubts at all. Can’t wait for the legislative proposals.

  2. Emil Erjavec
    December 23, 2017 at 10:28 #

    Dear Anna,
    thanks for this good points. I have the same opinon that in many cases the strategic planning at the Member state level would not improve significantly the CAP outcomes. There are several weaknesses:
    - low capacity for smart and creative programming at the national level;
    - patronising approach by DG agri (the power of desk officiers to “control”, but also to “dictate” the content of policy programms as we learned from RD policy);
    - political non-wiliingness for change (in fact there is also a poor awarnesses by decision makers);
    - weak data situation and analytical platform.

    For me the key starting element for better policy is educated, trained and experienced staff for programming at MS and DG Agri level. The transparent and democratic process including all human potential in the country is also requested. Finally, the data base, solid analytical platform and politicaly willingness to have results and not interest based policy are also important conditions. The policy challenges are complex, multi-disciplinary and are asking for institutional innovations at EU and MS level.

    One of idea could be to have independent think-thanks (EIP for programming for policy?) to assist the Member states and Commission with the logical frame, good cases, innovative ideas. Policy design is not adminsitrative, but intelectually demanding job which request also inclusion of all important stakeholders and strong political willigness for change.

    For decades the CAP was run as politically dependend policy with mostly redistributional orientation sharing interest and political power at multi-national and intra-national level. Now is the time to make this policy societal, evidence based and more targeted.

    Emil Erjavec