The BirdLife-ELO escapade

I am a great fan of BirdLife’s work on the CAP, but in their joint position paper with the European Landowners’ Organization (ELO), presented on 27 January 2010, BirdLife has taken a step in the wrong direction. What’s more, it has announced that this is only the beginning of their cooperation with the ELO.

At first sight, this cooperation has something going for it. It navigates between the extremes – stubborn farmer federations that resist change, on one side, and, on the other, non-farm interests that want to squeeze money out of the CAP budget with little regard to the societal values at stake. It is attractive to the ELO, who is afraid that the political rigidity of farmers, their traditional allies, will backfire and play into the hands of the CAP critics. The ELO has recognized that substantial concessions are necessary to re-legitimize the CAP. Maintaining the size of the CAP budget is more important to them than defending farm income support at the expense of public goods payments. Some of the public goods payments will still end up as profit for land owners, and these payments will improve the quality of rural life about which the ELO cares. Its cooperation with BirdLife will also give it more leverage over farmer federations who now cry foul (e.g. the NFU) but may gradually soften their positions to avoid isolation. This logic is sound.

However, it makes much less sense for BirdLife to team up with the ELO. First, the ELO states the intention to build on the experiences and successes of the CAP. Its ambition is a gradual improvement, not a bold switch to a sustainable land-use policy. Environmentalists who cooperate with the ELO thus lower expectations and soften pressure on the Commission to include ambitious reform options in its proposals. Second, lower expectations will dampen the general interest in CAP reform. The power of environmentalist arguments depends very much on raising the stakes of CAP reform and pushing it to the center of public debate. If CAP reform boils down to a tug-of-war between farmers and finance ministers, the outcome will be a smaller CAP centered on farm income support. Third, the ELO has not been very specific on what policy instruments and subsidy allocations they are aiming for. It is doubtful whether they would endorse a stringent greening of the CAP (especially when political pressures inside the organization grow as the CAP negotiations move forward). My expectation is that environmental objectives will receive more funds under a ‘green and lean’ than under a ‘big and a little better’ CAP.

Fourth, BirdLife had to subscribe to the idea of threatened EU food security as a justification of the CAP. Of course, food security as meant by BirdLife is nothing else but ‘environmental security’: we need to farm sustainably to protect our natural farming resources in the long run. But the ELO use of the term comes closer to what farmers mean by it. Environmentalists should be most careful not to strengthen a term that is the most powerful and misleading argument of old-style CAP defenders (I have summarized the case against the food security argument here).

While warning of the dangers of closer cooperation between environmentalists and land owners (or other stakeholders who benefit most from CAP subsidies that are not effectively targeted at public goods), I do not overrate this joint position paper. It is rather vague and contradictory, and it says very little on the most contentious issues, such as farm income support, the definition of European public goods, the choice of targeted policy instruments, and co-financing.

Let me repeat my general appreciation for BirdLife’s CAP reform advocacy. They have published excellent studies, such as ‘Could do better! Why EU Rural Development Policy is failing to reach its biodiversity potential’ and ‘Through the green smokescreen’. And they have recently developed a much more precise vision of the future CAP together with four other farming and environmental NGOs.

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