Brussels struggles to marry green goals with farm reform

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Europe wants to be the world’s leader in fighting climate change and protecting nature, but it’s struggling to reconcile that vision with its mammoth farm subsidies scheme.

Under the European Green Deal, Brussels has committed to making the EU climate neutral by 2050 and boosting biodiversity with binding cuts to pesticide and fertilizer use by 2030. The bloc is also in the midst of reforming its €336 billion Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which the Commission views as crucial to meeting those targets.

But even before Brussels has been able to enact Green Deal legislation, it’s facing pushback from some capitals and farm lobbies to soften its targets or overhaul its plans altogether.

Six Eastern European countries, for example, this month called for the green goals to be made advisory rather than binding, and an influential farmers’ group in Germany is working to mobilize a mass movement against the Green Deal across Europe.

Brussels should not expect farmers to “support a strategy that undermines the viability of [their] sectors,” warned Pekka Pesonen, the head of the Copa & Cogeca lobby, in May.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has conceded that Brussels’ plans could be “revised” if they threaten competitiveness or food security.

The debate about how far to push farmers on environmental measures — and how much funding they would need to meet certain targets — was always going to be contentious. But it’s been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, which has squeezed farmers’ profits, prompting the need for emergency support and looser regulations.

Now critics are questioning whether the CAP reform and Green Deal can really be aligned or whether one will ultimately win out over the other.

The CAP reform was proposed in 2018, long before the Green Deal was a twinkle in Ursula von der Leyen’s eye, and it contains innovative new greening programs.

But meaningful green spending in the CAP “has to come with conditionality upfront,” said Karl Falkenberg, the former head of the Commission’s environment directorate. Without this, “it will remain ‘Sunday speeches’ and the rest of the week the farmers will behave as ever before,” he told POLITICO.

Greening obligations

The EU’s new green goals are meant to address a climate as well as biodiversity crisis, which threatens almost half of Europe’s native trees and more than 1,500 of its animal species with extinction. Europe is on track to miss all bar one of its 2030 biodiversity goals and conditions for its soil, wildlife and ecosystems are deteriorating, according to the European Environment Agency.

Critics have long argued the CAP needs to do more to incentivize change in a sector that is also responsible for a 10th of total EU greenhouse gas emissions — an outsize proportion considering that it contributed just 1.1 percent to the EU’s GDP in 2018.

A major underlying issue is that the subsidy scheme, from its onset, was set up to boost farm productivity, markets and incomes — which are still 40 percent lower than for non-farmers. It’s only recently that Brussels has started to graft elements of ecological thinking onto this foundation.

The results have not been spectacular, according to recent reports by the European Court of Auditors. They found the CAP had done little to combat dwindling pollinator populations or declining biodiversity. In a 2018 audit, they questioned how effective the CAP reform can be without a “clear link” between subsidies and the results they achieve.

German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner, who currently chairs EU agriculture minister meetings under her country’s Council presidency, said that in her view, Green Deal plans like the Farm to Fork strategy could become “a component” of the CAP, but she rejected the idea of “setting up a parallel system.”

Asked which should take precedence — the CAP or the Green Deal — Klöckner said that because the new targets were inchoate, “for us, it is therefore decisive to make progress regarding the CAP.”

The Commission argues the CAP reform will be able to amplify environmental rules from the previous mandate, with yearly “eco-schemes” that will be mandatory for countries to set up, but voluntary for farmers to join. These would work to encourage things like organic farming, safeguarding pollinators or soil protection.

A Commission staff working document from May on linking the CAP and Green Deal acknowledged that there were “potential obstacles and/or gaps jeopardising the ambition level of the Green Deal.”

It proposed ways to address this, such as ring-fencing a proportion of CAP funds for eco-schemes. “We saw eco-schemes as the tool that could fill the gap between what we proposed in 2018 and what we have put forward as the Green Deal now,” a Commission official said.

The paper also proposed hosting a “structured dialogue” in which Brussels would review capitals’ “national strategic plans” for spending farm subsidies. Before approving plans, Brussels would be able to make recommendations in which “particular attention will be paid” to green targets.

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Both ideas were rejected by agriculture ministers at a meeting last Monday. Still, EU officials believe a measure designating 30 percent of total spending for climate projects under the next seven-year budget will work as a de facto earmark for eco-schemes in the next CAP.

“I just honestly can’t see the [green] transition happening without properly funded eco-schemes,” the official said, adding that without an earmark, it would be “very difficult to justify” not attaching conditions to increased funds for some countries.

In the red

How the Green Deal targets could affect farmers’ finances and competitiveness will be one of the key topics for a series of impact assessments now getting underway in Brussels.

Klöckner said if “additional burdens arise” due to the green plans, “there has to be adequate compensation” for farmers.

Protests over the cost of green rules have brought tractors to the streets of Berlin, Paris and The Hague in the last year, and more could soon be dispatched.

“We are making a network with farmers in the other European countries and we expect to make a big demonstration in Brussels against the Green Deal,” said Markus Vianden from the “Land Creates Connection” movement, which organized Germany’s protests, and who also works as a freelance consultant for pesticide-maker Syngenta.

Europe’s farm lobby has taken several policy scalps in recent years, successfully pushing to withdraw a soil framework directive and easing conditions for an emissions ceiling directive.

Ben Allen, the agriculture lead for the Institute for European Environmental Policy, said weakening the Green Deal strategy in favor of CAP measures could sound the death knell for the EU’s environmental goals.

“It would be perverse for the policy objectives to supersede those in the strategy,” he said.

In July, ClientEarth warned the Commission it may even be violating EU treaty obligations by not aligning the CAP reform with the Green Deal. A spokesperson said the Commission is looking into ClientEarth’s letter and will respond “in due time.”

One senior EU official said the deepest dilemma for CAP reform efforts was conceptual and unlikely to change unless it was transformed into an income compensation scheme that helps farmers take on greater environmental stewardship.

“As long as you give farmers more than half of that [CAP] money for income support, you’re in a way protecting the status quo,” the official said, “and that is the real problem.”

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