The European Commission must not greenwash the Common Agricultural Policy

We are pleased to welcome this guest post by Célia Nyssens and Bérénice Dupeux, Policy Officers for Agriculture at the European Environmental Bureau.

Will the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) deliver on the agriculture-related objectives of the European Green Deal?

This question has been asked of the Commission countless times since the Green Deal was announced. On 20 May, alongside its Farm to Fork (F2F) and Biodiversity Strategies, the Commission sought to give a definitive, reassuring answer. But the answer only reaffirmed our concerns. In a Staff Working Document, the Commission emphasised the “potential” of the CAP to deliver on the EU Green Deal (EGD), but it also explicitly recognised several weaknesses, namely:

  • The lack of ringfencing for eco-schemes and the omission of key animal welfare laws in conditionality
  • The risk of key aspects of the proposal being watered down in the co-decision process, particularly conditionality rules and the performance framework
  • The need to rely on Commission officers to “carefully assess” the national CAP Strategic Plans to avoid harmful subsidies, especially regarding coupled income support
  • The need for member states to set national targets against the objectives of the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy, with no legal provisions to that effect in the CAP framework

Head in the sand

This Commission analysis is unconvincing. Numerous independent assessments previously found the new CAP would not deliver the claimed higher environmental and climate ambitions. Already in 2018, the European Court of Auditors (while the current Agriculture Commissioner was an Auditor) found that “the proposal does not reflect a clear increase in environmental and climate ambition” and that the Commission’s claims for how the CAP would contribute to EU environmental and climate objectives appeared “unrealistic”. More recently, 3,600 scientists co-signed a declaration calling for a fundamental reform of the CAP in order to tackle the urgent biodiversity and climate crises.

It is important to recall that the proposal for the future CAP (published in June 2018) gives substantial flexibility to Member States both in setting the level of environmental ambition and in designing the new CAP to achieve it. Moreover, the proposed new CAP performance framework only requires member states to set targets and report “performance” against “result indicators”, which are indicators of uptake of given schemes with no relation to real impacts.

Given the race to the bottom on greening during the 2013 CAP reform, Member States’ history of keeping environmental ambition at a minimum in CAP implementation choices and their very lukewarm reactions to the Farm to Fork Strategy, it is hard to see national agricultural ministries suddenly finding the political will to step up the environmental and climate ambition of the new CAP.

As things stand in the Agriculture Council and the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee, the new CAP has the very high potential to be worse than the current CAP in terms of environmental performance. Over the past two years, agriculture ministers have radically weakened the accountability and performance monitoring mechanisms of the New Delivery Model, and watered down the conditionality so much it is nearly meaningless. In 2019, MEPs on the Parliament’s Agriculture Committee adopted a suite of exemptions and equivalence rules dangerously undermining conditionality.

Yet, instead of tabling amendments to its CAP proposal to address the identified weaknesses listed above – like it did a week later to strengthen the Covid-19 Recovery Package – the Commission decided to rely on a dialogue with Member States, in the hope that they would voluntarily deliver on its new flagship green policy through their CAP Strategic Plans (SPs). This could be seen as the Commission giving up on a failing reform. Instead of trying to improve the situation, it has hit the ball (and future blame) into the court of Member States. The Commission gave up on the Common aspect of its Agricultural Policy.

By refusing to amend the previous Commission’s CAP proposal, this Commission is failing to give itself the mandate to achieve a new CAP that is compatible with its Green Deal. It has no legal ground to require Member States to do anything more than what is written in the legal CAP framework, and as things stand, that is very little.

A political, moral, and legal obligation

In a legal analysis of the Commission’s position on CAP in light of the Green Deal, Client Earth lawyers concluded that the Commission is failing not only in its political commitment to the Green Deal, but also in its legal obligations under the EU Treaties, by defending a CAP proposal which it recognises is not aligned with its new flagship EU Green Deal and in particular its Farm to Fork Strategy.

 “Keeping consistency among policies and throughout an institution’s own course of behaviour is a logical approach but it’s also a legal requirement under the EU Treaties,” Head of Agriculture at Client Earth Marc Pittie explained. “The current CAP proposal is outdated and, without amendment, will block much of the ability of the European Green Deal to deliver climate, environment and biodiversity impact.“

This is why Client Earth concludes that amending the current CAP proposal to align it with the EGD commitments is not only an option but an obligation for the Commission.

The Covid-19 crisis only strengthens the moral case for a change of direction in EU agriculture. Addressing the root causes of the emergence of new zoonotic diseases must be a paramount priority. In a new UN report released on Monday 6 July, the authors identified seven trends driving the increasing emergence of zoonotic diseases, including a growing demand for animal protein and unsustainable farming practices. Tackling these threats must be central in the new CAP.

Moreover, the resilience of EU food production must be given serious consideration. The overspecialisation and chronic overproduction of several sectors was put in the spotlight by the crisis. A deep restructuring of those sectors is urgently required to increase the resilience of European farming in the face of future crises.

Saving what could still be saved

The 2018 CAP proposal was not seaworthy to start with, and two years into the negotiations it is starting to sink into the dark ocean of business as usual. If nothing is done to stop the CAP reform going under, the Farm to Fork Strategy will drown with the whole ship. So far, the Commission’s strategy has been to play music on the deck while hoping Member States and MEPs will salvage the situation. The Client Earth analysis should be a wake-up call to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her team.

The Commission must revise its CAP proposal to ensure the future CAP is aligned with the EU Green Deal and addresses the vulnerabilities laid bare by the Covid-19 crisis. Stronger safeguards, a clear direction of travel, and robust governance need to be written into law to have a chance for the new CAP to deliver on the EU Green Deal. Here is our take on the five key priorities:

1. Do no harm: Public policy and money must not support or, worse, promote practices which are clearly contributing to the climate and biodiversity crises, polluting our environment, or depleting natural resources. As an absolute minimum for policy coherence, strict legal safeguards are needed to end CAP support for intensive livestock production, farming on degraded peatlands, or over-abstraction of water for irrigation – to name but a few examples.

2. A strong and common environmental baseline: To ensure a level playing field across the EU and enforce basic good agronomic and environmental practices, common standards must be established in conditionality. A strict and EU-wide baseline will help align the CAP with the EU Green Deal and avoid a race to the bottom between Member States. This should include, as per the ENVI opinion, strictly protecting permanent grasslands and peatlands, setting a maximum stocking density, dedicating space for nature on all farms, and mainstreaming basic integrated pest management practices such as crop rotations, buffer strips and constant soil cover.

3. Quantifiable targets in the CAP linked to spending: The agriculture-related EU Green Deal targets must be brought into the CAP and linked to the performance framework to ensure their effective implementation and to give a clear direction to the policy. Without this legal basis, the Commission has no mandate to ask member states to set targets or to contribute to EU-wide voluntary targets. The targets must also be linked to the money, so where national governments cannot demonstrate due efforts to reach them, penalties would apply.

4. Ringfencing: For the new eco-schemes to deliver on the promises of the European Green Deal, they must be based on sound science and sufficiently funded, with at least 50% of each pillar reserved for environmental and climate action. In addition, in line with the Biodiversity Strategy, €15bn per year should be reserved for targeted funding for effective biodiversity measures. However, this funding will only be meaningful if the ‘do no harm’ principle and conditionality rules outlined above are effectively implemented.

5. Transparency and accountability: As long as the CAP is funded by public money from the EU budget, member states must be accountable to the Commission for how the money is spent and whether it contributes to achieving EU environmental objectives and laws. This requires improved accountability and transparency mechanisms in the CAP, including the obligation for governments to set targets and monitor progress against impact indicators, a clearer link between spending and impact indicators and an obligation for the Commission publish CAP Strategic Plans.

Given the mountain of independent assessments of the proposed new CAP concluding that it will not deliver on the EU’s climate and environmental targets, the Commission’s continued defence of the CAP amounts to public greenwashing of a failed policy. If the Commission is serious about its new political priorities outlined in the EU Green Deal, it must take action now to translate these commitments into the future CAP. The legitimacy of this Commission, elected on a green mandate, and of the whole European project, is on the line.

This post was written by Célia Nyssens and Bérénice Dupeux.

Picture credit: Alan Matthews

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