Alan Matthews: CAP reform remains in limbo but will be affected by shifting political landscape


General view of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: REUTERS
General view of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: REUTERS

Alan Matthews

Phil Hogan made a passionate intervention at the last meeting of the Agricultural Council where ministers had an opportunity to discuss the proposed new green architecture in the Commission's legal proposal.

The Commissioner insisted that there is an urgent need for farmers to do more for the environment, and that the need for aiming higher has never been more urgent. The new green architecture refers to the following elements of the Commission proposal:

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  • Move the obligations now associated with the greening payment to become part of cross-compliance renamed as enhanced conditionality;
  • Require the use of a new farm software app to facilitate the sustainable use of fertilisers as a condition for direct payments;
  • Add an obligation to use part of the Pillar 1 direct payments to fund a new voluntary eco-scheme;
  • Continue with voluntary agri-environment-climate payments in Pillar 2.

Both ministers and the agricultural committee of the European Parliament have pushed back against the Commission proposals, although neither the parliament nor the council have arrived at their final positions.

Among the ideas floated are:

  • To leave the greening conditions voluntary to be funded by the eco-scheme;
  • Give responsibility for encouraging the use of the farm sustainability tool for nutrients to the advisory service rather than making it a mandatory condition to receive direct payments;
  • Cap the amount of Pillar 1 payments that can be used for eco-schemes;
  • Loosen the constraint that agri-environment schemes must account for at least 30pc of Pillar 2 rural development spending.

The European Parliament's agricultural committee adopted its opinions on the three CAP-related legal proposals earlier this month.

However, a lack of time during this parliamentary session before next month's European Parliament elections means that it will not vote on these opinions until the new parliament reconvenes in July.

While the outgoing committee would like to see the new parliament use its opinions as the starting point for its plenary voting, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. Seat projections by polling groups suggest that the composition of the political groups in the new parliament will be different to the current status quo.

The agricultural committee in the current parliament has been dominated by the two main parties: the centre-right European People's Party (EPP, to which Fine Gael belongs) and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, to which the Labour Party belongs).

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Projections indicate that these two parties will probably lose their joint control of the legislature for the first time in 25 years.

Projections indicate that Eurosceptic parties on the right of the political spectrum are likely to make significant gains in the elections. These parties are characterised by hostility to immigration and to the idea of the European Union, favouring stronger powers for nation states.

Many of these Eurosceptic parties will likely associate with a new political grouping in the next parliament, the European Alliance for People and Nations, which has been announced by Matteo Salvini, the leader of the governing LEGA party in Italy.

Projections suggest that this new grouping and its allies could win up to 25pc of seats in the new parliament.

A further 15pc will be held by the left and green parties.

The growing strength of Eurosceptic parties will be partially balanced by a projected growth in the liberal ALDE group, to which Fianna Fáil is affiliated, who are likely to be joined by members of French President Emmanuel Macron's En Marche group.

Adding ALDE MEPs to those from the EPP and S&D groups means it is likely that the pro-Europe mainstream groups will continue to have an overall majority in the parliament with around 55-60pc of the seats, with the remaining taken by non-affiliated MEPs.

These are the groups that have been responsible for the agricultural committee opinions in the current parliament, so there is a good chance they will agree to continue with the positions that they have already adopted. If, however, the Eurosceptic parties succeed in forming a unified group after the election, this would give them a much stronger platform to influence the CAP legislation. In the current parliament they are fragmented into three political groups which has limited their impact.

How they might use this influence is difficult to say. Although they may share general perspectives, in areas such as economic or agricultural policy, party views can be very diverse.

The CAP proposals respond to a growing demand from public opinion across Europe to address the challenges of climate stabilisation and to move food production on to a more sustainable development path. These are also the goals of Irish agricultural policy.

But the new parliament, with its different composition, may take a different view on some of the key issues in the current Commission proposal. Opinion may shift on the appropriate degree of targeting of direct payments, on the priority to be given to environmental ambition, and on the need for more active market management instruments.

As I have written before, uncertainty about the shape of the future CAP will continue for some time.

Alan Matthews is Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin

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