Europe and Central Asia
27 Feb 2018

CAP 2020 - a poor vintage?

By Harriet Bradley

Can the European Commission’s proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reverse the environmental crisis on Europe’s farmland? It all depends on the ability of the EU to hold Member States accountable, argues Harriet Bradley.


Some of the finest things in life improve with age – a fine oak-aged pinot noir for example. But not everything passes the test of time; the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – the 58 billion EUR pot of money (i.e. 38% of the EU budget) that shapes farm practices around Europe – is a ‘grand cru’ long past its best.

When introduced in 1962 to ensure food security and stabilise markets, the CAP was the shining star of the project we call ‘Europe’. But this aging baby-boomer has long been out of step with the times. For decades, intensive agriculture, with its over-reliance on chemicals and the same few crops has been devastating the environment, wiping out wildlife and harming public health. And CAP’s distorted subsidies system has vastly favoured big landowners and polluting farms, at the expense of smaller or more sustainable farmers.

Last spring, the European Commission was given a clear citizen mandate for reform, with 258,708 citizens standing up for a ‘fair, environmentally sustainable, healthy and globally responsible’ food and farming system[1]. Hopes were high that 2020 (when the next EU budget comes into effect) would be a vintage year for CAP. But when the Commission published its ‘new vision’ in November, it quickly became apparent that Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan is serving ‘old wine in a new bottle’.


Commissioner Phil Hogan at BirdLife-EEB CAP Conference, May 2017


Old wine in a new bottle

Hogan’s bright idea is to make the CAP more ‘results oriented’: the EU will set common objectives and the Member States will decide which farming measures they will fund to meet them. In theory, this could be a step forward. In practice, it all hinges on how clear and ambitious these common EU objectives are – and what tools the Commission will have to actually hold Member States to account. But the Communication offers precious little substance on that front.

It is also alarming that the same old ‘direct payment subsidies’ – proven to be socio-economically and environmentally unsound[2] – remain a fixture of the ‘new’ proposal. Since when has ‘money for nothing’ equalled ‘results-based’? Once again, in theory, these direct payments could be tied to concrete environmental objectives. But the examples that Hogan has given are so vaguely worded – e.g. ‘income support’ tied to the objective of ‘a resilient farming sector’ – that, in practice, they will very likely mean (unsustainable) business as usual.[3] And in a ludicrous reversal of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, those who benefit most from the CAP (80% of the money goes to 20% of recipients) argue that if farmers must deliver more on the environment, then they should get more money. All of this sounds eerily familiar and that’s because we have been here before. Real reform, however, has to be based on substance; if not, it’s just old ingredients turning sour in pretty re-packaging.  


An acquired taste? 

There is still time for the Commission to acquire a taste for real reform and add the substance and necessary safeguards to the budget and CAP proposals. And they can whet their appetite with BirdLife Europe’s proposal ‘For an EU budget serving people and nature’. Here we argue for a €15 billion fund within the CAP ring-fenced for targeted measures to protect biodiversity. There should be separate, non-tradable objectives on biodiversity, water, soil, air and climate. Member States should also have to demonstrate that environmental measures are truly ‘green’ and not ‘green-washed’. Accordingly, environmental authorities should be responsible for programming and implementing the environmental aspects of the CAP.


The grapes of wrath

Without such safeguards or accountability, we are headed for a de facto renationalisation of the CAP. This will inevitably lead to ‘sustainability à la carte’, with Member States picking and choosing their menu of token greening measures, as has already happened to the ‘Greening’ of Pillar 1.[4] This, along with the ‘rich get richer’ approach only further delegitimises the way taxpayers money is spent in the eyes of the citizens and farmers who demanded a radical overhaul of the CAP in last year’s public consultation.

With populism shaking the foundations of democracy across our continent, the EU needs to show its citizens that it is truly listening to them. As John Steinbeck warned in his great opus on the hardships of depression-era tenant farmers, ‘in the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling’. For this reason and so much more, CAP 2020 cannot afford to be a poor vintage.


“...and in the eyes of the people there is the failure;

and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling

and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” 
― John Steinbeck, ‘The Grapes of Wrath


Harriet Bradley, EU Agriculture & Bioenergy Policy Officer - BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

[3] Hogan’s address to the Council on 29th January 2018 outlined the following possible objectives i) support for a fair standard of living for farmers & farm resilience; ii) increased competitiveness & enhanced market orientation; iii) improved position for farmers in the food chain; iv) farmers’ contribution to climate change mitigation & adaption; v) the preservation of nature & landscapes, vi) support for generational renewal. Source: Agra-Facts No. 07-18.

[4] BirdLife Press Release, 12 December 2017: European Court of Auditors exposes CAP greening as sham 



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