Analysis: Unstated reasons for CAP reform may be the most important

Phil Hogan. Photo: Damien Eagers
Phil Hogan. Photo: Damien Eagers

Alan Matthews

The European ­Commission launched a three-month public consultation on ­modernising and ­simplifying the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on February 2.

The online consultation asks stakeholders 30 questions which aim at gathering the strength of preferences for the different CAP objectives, as well as ascertaining views on how well the CAP is meeting those objectives.

The public consultation is the first step of a process which will continue with an impact assessment of different policy options to be undertaken by DG AGRI over the summer. This, in turn, will lead to a Commission Communication, or green paper, outlining the Commission's preferred course of action around November this year.

Following a further period of public discussion of these proposals, the Commission will table legislative proposals for CAP reform sometime early in the coming year.

Commissioner Phil Hogan has highlighted two reasons why, in his view, it is necessary to undertake a review of the CAP regulations so soon after the completion of the 2013 CAP reform.

The first is the complexity of the CAP following the co-decision process in that the reform gives rise to a need for simplification to reduce red tape.

The second is changes in the policy environment for EU agriculture - from markets and trade to climate change and environmental challenges - which require a modernisation of the CAP.

A third rationale is left unstated but may be the most important. Before the end of this year, the Commission must come forward with a proposal for the EU's medium-term budget for the years after 2020.

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This proposal will give the first indications of how large the budget for the CAP will be at the start of the next decade.

On the last occasion when the EU medium-term budget was discussed, Commissioner Dacian Ciolo was successful in maintaining the size of the CAP budget in nominal terms because he offered to focus CAP payments more on environmental objectives.

This was the rationale behind the introduction of the greening payment to farmers.

On this occasion, Commissioner Hogan too will want to show that CAP spending is contributing to the overall goals of the Union.

He will be hoping that the public consultation will give strong support to the directions he has indicated the policy should move.

Mr Hogan has identified three priorities that he thinks should be addressed in any overhaul of the CAP regulations.

These are greater market resilience; more sustainable agricultural production; and progress on generational renewal. It is possible that other concerns will be raised in the public consultation, but I will not be surprised if these three issues make up the core of the Commission's Communication next November.

The online questionnaire is constructed mainly around multiple choice answers from which respondents are asked to choose the three or five which are closest to their preferences.

For example, Question 15 asks "Which of the following should be the most important objectives of the CAP?"

There are nine possible answers including "Ensuring a fair standard of living for farmers" and "Contributing to a high level of environmental protection across the EU". Respondents are allowed to choose a maximum of five responses from the list of nine possible answers.

Some environmental groups have criticised the format of the questionnaire because the many multiple-choice questions do not provide sufficient space for meaningful debate.

However, there is some scope in the questionnaire to provide some additional explanation of the choices that are made, as well as to upload short additional materials.

The responses will be summarised over a six-week period following the end of the consultation on May 2, and a CAP reform conference is scheduled for July 7.

Mr Hogan has indicated that almost 10,000 responses were received in the first two weeks.

Many people refer to the process initiated by the public consultation as the beginning of the post-2020 CAP reform. However, Mr Hogan avoids describing the process either as another CAP reform or as part of a CAP post-2020 process.

He sees the need to improve the functioning of the CAP in the three areas he has identified - market resilience, environmental sustainability and generational renewal.

But he has also stressed that he is determined to maintain basic income support and an effective safety net through a system of direct payments.

The big question for farmers is whether the Commissioner's objectives, all desirable in themselves, can be addressed through relatively minor amendments to the CAP regulations, or whether they will require a more radical overhaul of the CAP?

This question will only be answered in the Communication in November. The way the question is answered will no doubt also be influenced by the budget resources made available for the CAP which will become known at around the same time.

In the meantime, everyone should take the opportunity to make their views known before May 2 in the public consultation which is readily available on the DG AGRI website.

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

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