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Greening the Common Agricultural policy for real — a plea for adding value to the largest EU spending programme

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Greening the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is one of the slogans of the EU’s shift towards a more sustainable form of agriculture, and has been for more than a decade. The Commission’s current ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy is the most recent initiative to green the entire food system, including agriculture. This reform, as initially proposed, had the potential to achieve the kind of value that actions at the level of individual Member States could not achieve. However, the outcome of the negotiations on the Commission’s legislative proposals for the 2021–2027 period seem to punch a lot lower than originally intended. This has alarmed not only environmentalists, but also staff members working for EU institutions. The cross-institutional group EU Staff for Climate expressed their concerns, which are summarised below by two representatives, Elena Montani and Kevin O’Connor.(1)

By Elena Montani and Kevin O’Connor, EU Staff for Climate

We are facing a planetary emergency. Science is sounding the alarm. Planetary boundaries have been overshot and climate disruption is beginning to manifest itself worldwide. The Covid-19 crisis also illustrates how interdependent human and planetary health are. Our economy, social values and lifestyles are contributing to this climate crisis. At the same time, the climate crisis is threatening our prosperity and the future of our children, and may ultimately even pose a risk to human civilisation.

From the outset, the European Union has been a visionary project and an example to the rest of the world. It has delivered lasting peace in a region historically characterised by bloody conflicts. With the same sense of purpose, averting the destruction of our life-supporting ecosystems, preventing future planetary crises and fostering a culture of deep transformation towards sustainability ought to drive the European project for the next decades. EU policies must be as ambitious as possible, doing whatever it takes to lead the necessary transformative change in Europe and across the globe.

The European Green Deal has set out to design a set of deeply transformative policies to steer our economies towards a healthier and more resilient future, and away from the current path, which risks catastrophic climate change and environmental degradation. Agriculture is one of the key factors in determining which of these scenarios will materialise, and the Green Deal has sought to protect and restore natural and agricultural ecosystems. To that end, the EU has endorsed the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, recognising — like the European Parliament — the planetary emergency we are in, and committing, for example, to transitioning to sustainable food systems and to shifting agricultural policies away from harmful subsidies. The European Parliament has declared a planetary emergency and the European Council has adopted conclusions declaring climate change an existential threat.

The proposed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), now with the Council and Parliament, is flagrantly at odds with the Green Deal and the Leaders’ Pledge. The Commission’s original proposal would not have prevented the Green Deal from being achieved under certain conditions, at least.(2)

While the Council appears to have taken scant account of the Green Deal objectives, the Parliament’s amendments are mixed, in some cases pushing for higher environmental standards than the Commission proposal. However, the positions of the other institutions have not met most of the relevant conditions and the original proposal risks being substantially compromised.

If the CAP is passed in anything like this form, it risks locking in agricultural policies which will accelerate biodiversity loss and create food insecurity as well as having potentially broader economic implications in the medium and longer term.(3) Agriculture also makes a significant difference with regard to net greenhouse gas emissions(4) and other environmental pollution, where the difference in impact between the types of agricultural models and practices(5) should be fully taken into account in CAP support. It is our firm belief that, given the rapidly shifting political and social landscape and the accelerating climate and ecological crises, it is likely that key parts of the CAP as it is currently taking shape will be unthinkable already in a few years’ time.

Even in the short term, implementing such a CAP would hamper the ability of the European institutions to achieve the Green Deal objectives. Many colleagues working on implementing aspects of the Green Deal and related policies feel frustration at those efforts being critically undermined by a weak policy inherited from the past and further diluted by the co-legislators. Consistency in the design and implementation of different EU policies is essential for their added value and effectiveness, in line with the Treaties. Policy effectiveness also depends on a clear sense of purpose and direction among staff of the Institutions.

On 10 November, EU Staff for Climate sent an open letter to Commission President von der Leyen and to Commissioner Wojciechowski. In the letter, we advocated that the Commission defend the elements of the original proposal, which have been identified as steppingstones towards achieving the Green Deal, using the environmentally positive amendments made by the Parliament to help close the remaining gaps. We also proposed the addition of a review mechanism to trigger a process leading to the revision of the CAP in line with the goals of Green Deal.

If such amendments cannot be achieved, we propose to explore all possible options for withdrawing the Commission’s original proposal, with the goal of revising it in line with the Green Deal’s ambition. A revised proposal could design an agricultural policy more in line with the proclaimed climate and environmental objectives of all the EU institutions, in particular the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the Farm to Fork Strategy. These include binding climate and biodiversity targets for agricultural land, in line with the assessment of the European Court of Auditors. The time gained by the decision to continue the current CAP regime for the next two years could be used for this purpose. A transition period could also be envisaged in phasing out the old CAP, giving the rural backbone of Europe time to adjust gradually.

Putting agriculture on a more sustainable footing, which would ensure food security, fairness to farmers and respecting the planetary boundaries, can be done. What it requires is political will, engagement for popular support and operationalisation to put into practice the green values the EU wishes to stand for. EU Staff for Climate is committed to supporting a push for the implementation of the Green Deal to a level of ambition that matches this enormous challenge.

(1) This article is based on the content of a letter sent on 10 November 2020 by EU Staff for Climate to Commission President von der Leyen and to Commissioner Wojciechowski on Greening the CAP.

(2) Analysis of links between CAP Reform and Green Deal, SWD(2020) 93 final, 20.5.2020. Several earlier analyses have highlighted how the CAP has so far failed to contribute to key objectives of EU climate and environmental policy — for example ECA special report 13/2020 ‘Biodiversity on farmland: CAP contribution has not halted the decline.’

(3) See, for example, OECD (2019) Biodiversity: Finance and the Economic and Business Case for Action; IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (https://ipbes.net/global-assessment); International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (2020): Covid-19 and the crisis in food systems; IPBES workshop on Biodiversity and pandemics (2020) (https://ipbes.net/pandemics).

(4) See, for example, a fresh report by scientists from top universities: Clark et al, Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets, 2020 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/370/6517/705.full.

(5) See, for example, United Nations Commission on Trade and Development, ‘Wake up before it’s too late, 2020 https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf.

This article was first published on the 3/2020 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.



The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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