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An auditor’s take on ECA’s work on the post-2020 CAP

By Liia Laanes and Charlotta Törneling, ‘Sustainable Use of Natural Resources’ Directorate

In June 2018, the Commission published its proposals for the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) — aimed at a greener and more results-based CAP. What did the ECA say about these and how did we go about it? In this article, Charlotta Törneling, head of task for opinion 7/2018 on the post-2020 CAP proposals, and Liia Laanes, head of task for opinion 1/2020 on the transitional regulation, reflect on the process and give their take on working on a review paper and opinions related to the post-2020 CAP. This provides some insights into how such work is done within the ECA.

Using the review paper as a starting point

Our work on the post-2020 CAP started at the end of 2017, when the Commission published a Communication on the future of food and farming, outlining its vision for the post-2020 CAP. The ECA decided to respond to that with a briefing paper — now also known as ECA review 2/2018 — to which both authors of this article contributed.

Deciding how to go about this task was a creative process, starting with a brainstorming meeting to identify key requirements for a successful result-oriented policy and criteria for assessing it. This resulted in a set of criteria structured around the ECA programme logic model, developed to establish and assess relationships between socio-economic needs to be addressed by the policy or intervention and its objectives, inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes. We shared these criteria with staff of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) and met with them on several occasions, mainly through videoconferences, to discuss the different topics covered by their Communication. As the CAP is a broad policy and the Communication touched upon a wide range of topics, we also organised videoconferences with other Commission DGs (DG CLIMA, DG ENV, DG REGIO and DG SANTE) to obtain a better understanding of the areas for which they were responsible.

Our work for the review paper consisted of two main parts: a documentary review and consultation. We reviewed around 70 different reports, research papers, position papers and policy papers from the ECA, other EU institutions, various think tanks and academics. The aim of this work was to scrutinise the assumptions the Communication was based on. The internal consultation with our colleagues in our directorate took place via four focus group meetings, dedicated to each of the three CAP objectives and horizontal issues. We also consulted the cabinets of our audit chamber, and, to complete our review, external experts.

We structured our review of the Communication around the programme logic model and the established criteria. The review paper was published only one day after the ECA approved it, through its audit chamber responsible for sustainable use of natural resources, which is quite unusual and meant that our colleagues in other parts of the organisation had had to make significant efforts to make this happen. The aim was to publish it well in advance of the Commission’s legislative proposal for the CAP reform and the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) package. Based on a survey, a majority of respondents assessed the usefulness of our review as high or very high.

An extensive documentary review can be time-consuming, but if it is well documented the work can often be re-used for other tasks. We found the documentary review completed for the review paper useful for the subsequent opinion on the CAP post-2020 proposals, but also two years later when preparing chapter 4 of our report on the performance of the EU budget.

An ambitious task within a short timeframe

Knowing that the Commission’s post-2020 CAP proposals were in the pipeline, we started planning the work for an ECA opinion as soon as the review paper was published. To haveg been involved in that publication was very helpful, not only for planning the task but also because of the review work already carried out.

We decided to deviate from the standard structure and base the opinion on the criteria identified in the review paper. The opinion is thus structured around assessing CAP (i) needs; (ii) objectives; (iii) inputs; (iv) processes; (v) linking CAP inputs, outputs, results and impacts; and (vi) assessing CAP accountability.

When the Commission published the eagerly awaited CAP proposals on 1 June 2018, we knew the task was ambitious, not only because of the sheer length of the proposals and the variety of topics covered by the CAP, but we were asked to publish the opinion within a short timeframe — around five months after the proposals were published.

The Commission’s main post-2020 CAP legislative package consisted of three proposals: one amending regulation of the common organisation of the markets, one regulation on the rules for the CAP strategic plans and one on financing, management and monitoring. After having gathered an overview of the content of the different proposals, we went on to identify which sections and parts of the proposals fitted under each of the criteria and got down to work. At this stage, we also realised that we more or less had to read every single word of the proposals…

How we formed our opinion

For each relevant section, we compared the proposal to our previous recommendations and key points identified in other papers and studies. To ensure we did not miss any critical topics and to make the best use of our in-house competence, we carried out an extensive consultation with ECA colleagues. We arranged targeted consultations with colleagues identified as having particularly relevant knowledge or experience of certain topics, but also a general consultation organised as focus groups open to all interested colleagues, particularly those in our audit chamber. The themes of the focus group meetings were structured around the three general CAP objectives and the new delivery model: a smart and resilient agricultural sector (including direct payments); environmental care and climate action; rural areas; the new delivery model — simplification, performance, governance and assurance.

At the time, our colleagues in the ‘Investment for Cohesion, Growth and Inclusion’ Directorate were working on an opinion on the Common Provisions Regulation (CPR). Although the proposal removed the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) from the CPR, some links remained, so we mapped the provisions that were still relevant to the CAP and consulted our colleagues in the other directorate on these matters. We also communicated across audit chambers to ensure the consistency of the opinions.

Given the legal nature of the proposals, we consulted our legal service: on the proposals as a whole, on specific subjects, and on the draft opinion. Before the ECA college adopted the opinion, we carried out an ECA-wide consultation. Once we had an advanced draft, our Reporting Member, João Figueiredo, circulated it to all ECA Members and we took all comments and suggestions into consideration when finalising the document.

Throughout the period when we were carrying out our work on the opinion, we consulted the Commission on several occasions. In the early stages, we set up videoconferences to discuss individual topics with the relevant DG AGRI staff. Once the structure of the opinion began to take shape, we arranged wider consultations. In practice, we shared a list of key topics — later the draft opinion — and discussed the main elements in videoconferences with the Commission. In mid-September, a roundtable took place with ECA Members of the ‘Sustainable Use of Natural Resources’ audit chamber and the DG AGRI Director-General at the time. The key topics discussed, and addressed in our opinion, were farmers’ income and food security, the environmental ambition, the ‘performance based’ model and the proposed redefinition of EU eligibility, including potential consequences for our future audit approach.

Old wine in a new bottle?

Rather soon, we found that there were many similarities between the proposed post-2020 CAP and the one currently in place. It struck us that although some of the changes initially sounded ‘revolutionary’, at the end of the day we had the impression that, after all, not that much had changed. This, of course, needs to be considered against the long and complex history of the CAP, perhaps one cannot expect it to change fundamentally overnight…

However, the Commission had proposed a few significant changes, mainly relating to the delivery model. One novelty is the introduction of a CAP strategic plan per Member State, covering all CAP expenditure. This means that the Member States would need to justify all types of payments — not only rural development, as is currently the case. The proposal also included an attempt to move towards a performance-based system and to redefine eligibility of spending.

As mentioned above, our opinion 7/2018 on the post-2020 CAP proposals is structured around criteria based on the intervention logic. For example, when assessing whether the CAP ‘needs’ were based on solid evidence, we did not find the data published on farmers’ income convincing, one of the reasons being that it does not take into account the disposable income position of farm households, including income from non-agricultural sources. Member States do not need to compile reliable and comparable statistics on disposable farm income. The European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee (CONT) included an amendment relating to this in its opinion for the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI), the responsible committee, for the first reading in 2019, but subsequent agreements indicate that this will not appear in the final act.

Another criterion concerned whether funds (inputs) were allocated based on a needs assessment and expected results. The responsibility for this would lie with Member States, as would the level of environmental ambition actually included in the CAP strategic plans. We found the proposed 30 % EAFRD allocation to environment and climate could be an incentive for such measures, but noted that Member States would not need to earmark any money to the financed eco-schemes of the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF). Against this backdrop, it is interesting that the co-legislators have considered options for a requirement to spend at least 25 % of direct payments on eco-schemes in their discussions.

Less encouraging was the noise around leaving capping decisions to the Member States — the Commission proposed mandatory capping of payments to individual farmers, which the ECA had recommended in 2011 (see ECA special report 5/2011) as one way to ensure a more balanced distribution of direct payments. This topic has surfaced before and reminds us of an ECA opinion decades ago (see ECA opinion 10/1998).

When looking at the CAP processes, meaning putting the CAP into practice, a positive element of the proposal was that the CAP strategic plans could facilitate consistency between various CAP schemes. However, based on previous publications, we also criticised the complexity of having several parallel environmental and climate instruments with similar objectives.

The intended move towards a performance-based system increases the importance of clear objectives, quantified targets and useful robust performance indicators. The Commission re-interpreted the CAP objectives set out in Article 39 of the Treaty with the aim of fitting them to the current context but, as we stated in the opinion, did not clearly define the nine ‘specific objectives’, which are neither specific nor translated into quantified targets. We analysed the proposed performance framework and included detailed comments on the indicators in an Annex to the opinion.

Our opinion gathered a fair amount of attention in the press, some headlines more extravagant than others. Our Reporting Member, João Figueiredo, was invited to present it at the AGRI committee. Commissioner Phil Hogan was also present and the event triggered a rather interesting and lively debate.

Bridging the gap for farmers while waiting for political agreement

When it became clear that the legislators would not manage to adopt the legislative package for the post-2020 CAP before the old programmes expired, the Commission, on 31 October 2019, proposed a regulation on transitional provisions. It was time to take up the pen (all right, laptop) for another opinion. This task was a rather quick one: the team started working on the opinion in January and finished drafting it 1.5 months later. The background knowledge acquired during the opinion on the post-2020 CAP proposals was beneficial, as we already knew broadly what the new CAP might look like and what might be the most important aspects to link the old and new policy.

We decided to focus on two aspects: the completeness (whether the transitional provisions cover all the necessary provisions in the current legislation to ensure the continuity of the CAP) and the consistency (whether the provisions are consistent with the current regulations) of the proposal. The proposal for the regulation itself was short, but it contained technical provisions and the team consulted colleagues in the ‘Sustainable Use of Natural Resources’ Directorate, who had experience with particular aspects, such as, for example, payment entitlements.

One headache for the team was that, in addition to the negotiations on post-2020 CAP taking longer than anticipated, negotiations on the MFF 2021–2027 were also dragging out. The Commission proposal contained an allocation for the 2021 CAP funding based on the not yet agreed MFF. The possibility that the transitional regulation could be adopted before the MFF created a potential legal dilemma on which we consulted our legal service. We were not the only ones with that question: the European Parliament also discussed the uncertainty, but the problem solved itself when the MFF was agreed and adopted before the transitional regulation. The opinion was published on 13 March 2020, the day when most of us started to work from home due to the pandemic.

Three years later — still no results delivered

Adopting a (re)new(ed) EU legislative framework might be a lengthy process, and the new CAP is no exception to that (see Figure 1).

Following the Commission’s proposal, one ‘super trilogue’ after another did not appear to deliver results. Hopes were high for the May 2021 Agriculture and Fisheries Council, which aimed to reach an agreement on all three CAP regulations. Discussions included topics such as social conditionality, targeting of payments and the green architecture, but did not lead to any conclusions. Three years after the Commission published its proposals, nobody knew when the proposals would become law (or when any results would be delivered)…

However, at the end of June 2021, just before finalising this article, the key institutions geared up for yet another ‘super trilogue’ and this time they finally managed to reach an agreement. Although some fine-tuning of technical details remain, it now looks as if the three CAP regulations will be approved very soon. Member States have until the end of this year to submit their national CAP strategic plans to the Commission and as we pointed out in our opinion, how different the future CAP will actually be will depend a lot on Member State choices. Having analysed the initial legislative proposals, it will be interesting to see how the post-2020 CAP will be put into practice from 2023 onward. The future will tell how much fairer, greener and more performance-based the CAP will actually be — perhaps it will be full of surprises…

This article was first published on the 2/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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