19th Mar 2018


Simplification of EU farm policy: a never-ending story

  • Before negotiations begin on the reform of the EU's farming policy, everyone wants simplification. But in the scramble for victories, things become messy (Photo: George Hiles)

Maltese sheep and goat shepherd Ricardo Zammit voted against his country joining the European Union.

Thirteen years later, he would vote in favour. But not because he is such a fan of the EU's farm subsidies.

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Zammit, who also owns a restaurant on the Maltese island Gozo, recently told journalists visiting his country on a press trip that the improvements in infrastructure on the EU's smallest nation have convinced him of the benefit of EU membership.

But he complained about the “paperwork” that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) required, and he said that discouraged other Maltese from increasing their flocks.

It is a commonly heard complaint from European farmers, voiced through interest groups as well as government officials: the red tape that the 7 million beneficiaries of CAP subsidies are faced with.

According to EU commissioner for agriculture, Phil Hogan, “simplification” of the CAP is his “ultimate objective”.

EU legislators will have an opportunity to simplify the farm policy in the near future, as discussions have begun about how the CAP should look after 2020.

The European Commission is preparing a strategy paper, out by the end of the year, titled 'Modernising and Simplifying the Common Agricultural Policy'.

It asked for input through an online public consultation, which yielded more than 300,000 responses. A summary of the replies will be presented at a conference in Brussels next month.


One aspect that some believe the CAP should incorporate more is environmental friendliness.

“We continue to hear, even today, the strong desire of ministers to have the environmental dimension, the sustainable development goals, and the Paris climate agreement all integrated into the next review of the CAP,” Hogan told journalists in March after a meeting of farm ministers in Brussels.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), a lobby group, also wants “greater emphasis on sustainability” said Stephen Meredith, deputy policy manager.

“The problem is at the moment that the issue of sustainability is a sort of add-on to the policy, which is understandable because it's an old policy,” Meredith told EUobserver.

He said the policy, which began in the early 1960s, and since the 1990s has undergone several reforms, is “not very coherent”.

“At the moment within CAP you have many different tools, with a lot of inconsistencies between them,” said Meredith.

The €400 billion CAP budget, spread over the period 2014-2020, is used to support farmers' income, but also to help them diversify crops and maintain permanent pasture or grassland, and to encourage farmers younger than 40 years to enter the business.

Complex for a reason

The problem is that while everyone would agree on the need for simplification, the complexities are there also because they were requested by different EU legislators.

Each of the 28 EU member states and the political groups in the European Parliament has its own interests and pet peeves, and so do the organisations lobbying them.

Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of the largest agriculture lobby group in Brussls, Copa-Cogeca, said he recently attended an event with representatives from the Polish government.

“They said [about the CAP]: 'we have to make it simple', and then they had half a dozen requirements they had from the Polish perspective,” said Pesonen.

When this website asked him in an interview how the CAP should be changed, Pesonen first mentioned “simplification”, but then went on to list several other aspects.

“We have seven,” he said of the number of items on Copa-Cogeca's wish list.

“You are perfectly right, simplification is a challenge, for us too,” he noted.


Pesonen also brought to mind the previous reform of the CAP, which was concluded in 2013.

He said that Copa-Cogeca members were susceptible to support last-minute changes that would benefit the farmers in their countries, even though that would make the system more complex.

“It was a bit of a disappointment for us. Almost all of our member organisations also at the last moment, they went for these national derogations on X, Y, Z,” said Pesonen, snapping his fingers, “and guess what, we had an extra 5 percent increase of administrative burden because of those derogations.”

He said that instead of a common agricultural policy, there is a “CAP-28” - referring to the 28 EU member states, each of them having one or another derogation from the common rules.

According to EU commissioner Hogan, only a year after the European Parliament and the member states agreed on the most recent reform, did they conclude “it ended up far too complex than it should be”.

“I agree with them, and I hope that we will be able to do better next time,” he said.

But that hope was there the previous time too.

The European Parliament said in a text adopted in 2010, that the new CAP “must be easy to administer, transparent, and reduce red tape and administrative burdens on farmers”.

A European Commission publication from 2012, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the CAP, said the policy should be “simpler and more efficient”.

But we can go back farther in time than that.

In 2009 the commission published 'A simplified CAP for Europe - A success for all', a paper which was preceded by 'Simplification and Better Regulation for the Common Agricultural Policy' from 2005.


Historian Tony Judt wrote in his 2005 book 'Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945' that the policy's origin itself in the 1960s was the result of “some very old-fashioned horse-trading”.

“Germany's small farms needed heavy subsidies to remain in business. French and Italian farmers were not especially high-priced, but no-one dared instruct them to restrict production, much less require that they take a market price for their goods.

“Instead each country gave its farmers what they wanted, passing the cost along in part to urban consumers but above all to taxpayers,” Judt wrote.

The original structure of the subsidies, which Judt called "absurd" because it led to food waste and unfair competition internationally, has been largely confined to history. But the challenge of giving everyone what they want remains.


On top of that, the upcoming reform of the common agriculture policy is complicated by the fact that the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU before the new CAP period begins in 2020.

The UK is a net contributor to the EU budget, which comprises for around 38 percent of CAP payments.

EU commissioner Hogan noted at the March press conference that there will be €9 billion less in the EU budget, but that demand for EU intervention in other policy areas was increasing.

“We are in a classic situation where we have a lot more proposals than we have money,” said Hogan, noting that the member states and the EU parliament “will have to decide where we are going get the money”, or if there will be “cuts in expenditure”.

At the recent press trip in Malta, the Mediterranean nation's agriculture minister Roderick Galdes said it was “premature” to say how Brexit will affect the CAP.

But farming lobbyist Pesonen said he already knew what would happen.

“We will automatically go down with the finances because of this [Brexit]. None of the net paying countries will offset that,” said Pesonen.

Commission cleaning up

After the messy negotiations in 2013, with its last minute scramble for changes and derogations, the European Commission has tried to clean up the CAP legislation.

It has done so by passing so-called delegated acts, which require much less involvement of the other EU institutions.

In March, Hogan said the commission had already made some 250 changes, and that more were afoot.

“This is a rolling issue, doing as much as we can as quickly as we can, to make it easier for farmers to apply for their support, but also to be able to apply in a less bureaucratic way,” said Hogan.

But if the past is any indication, there is a fair chance that Hogan's work will be undone during the negotiations for the next period.

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