The news which hit the Brussels based Associated Press on Monday evening (11th March 2013) may not sound like a big deal to many Europeans. The announcement that over 350 proposed amendments to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will go before the full European Parliament (EP) plenary session on Wednesday (13th March) will probably just elicit groans of “Agriculture? Farming? Pfft, boring” (to which I would probably nod my head in agreement) from many of you; whilst a few others might shrug and mumble “Parliaments going to vote on amendments? Isn’t that what they do for a job…?” (once again, hard to disagree with you.)
But if we just take a minimal step back, glance at what this means across the EU and the future of CAP reform, it can have pride of place as an EU Black Swan event (for those unfamiliar to the term, I direct you to that guardian of truth, Wikipedia). Let’s just cast our minds back to November 22nd 2012, the heads of the 27-Member States descended on Brussels for final negotiations on the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF), the 7 year budgetary ceiling for EU spending. It was the first time in history that an EU budget was decreased due to widespread condemnation of a proposed increase in these times of economic austerity (mainly led by the UK and northern Member States).
I’m not going to give a historical run-through of why and how CAP has always been the largest budgetary expenditure, many of you will know, and those who don’t can maybe make an educated guess when I mention that France is a major beneficiary of it. EU 101: Germany has its industry, France has its agriculture and the UK has its financial sector (for the meantime). These are the basic principles of EU power play. None of this trio wants to lose out in these vital sectors or their EU participation is less beneficial and harder to “sell” to the public. The CAP amounts to roughly one third of the MFF ceiling (368.9bn of the 939bn EUR 2014-2020 MFF to be exact); it is the largest beneficiary of member state contributions even though it is increasingly un-competitive, out of sync with other trade agendas and only contributes marginally to total EU-GDP. This isn’t just a rambling Englishman talking, this is a widely acknowledged fact, but the political impasse which would be (and frequently is) reached whenever this idea is even whispered amongst the European institutions is enough to keep it off the table indefinitely.
So why is the AGRI (Agriculture and Rural Development) committee’s decision to open up the CAP amendments to the EP plenary even remotely important or interesting? Simply put, it’s never been done before. CAP has firmly been the playground of the Council; retaining national interests are the goal here – it’s not about efficiency, growth or competitiveness, it’s about who gets/retains the largest slice of the budget. The EP has only recently gained and begun to exert its authority over policy areas such as CAP (2009 can be a reasonable starting point to analyse from). The EU’s core issue is its detachment from the European citizens its decisions ultimately impact upon. The EP is the direct link in this regard – much like any other elected parliament across the world, and its power in decision-making is growing, most notably through co-decision with the Council of Ministers. Citizens are seeing huge sums of money spent on policy areas they don’t directly benefit from or understand, and before everyone jumps up and exclaims “we all benefit from CAP you idiot”. Yes I do know that CAP increases stability in market prices, offers Europe a competitive edge on adapting to consumer needs and helps retain a highly skilled/dedicated workforce employed across numerous member states, many of whom rely on agricultural production and CAP benefits as a key source of national GDP.
However, this still doesn’t quite cover any reasonable arguments against the CAP. It adversely affects developing countries – which rely on agriculture exports much more than European nations, doesn’t allow a free global market within food stores, which goes against every other liberal initiative the EU embeds in its trade deals and ultimately is not cost-effective (the price CAP costs us is more than the beneficial gains to consumers). Furthermore, yes it keeps a workforce in place, but let’s not forget that CAP beneficiaries are still regimentally linked to land size (although this is slowly changing), farmland has high value and is historically only owned by a select few. I did find a great figure which placed 90% of Europe’s farmland owned by only 2% of EU farmers but I was unable to verify the source – even if this figure is too extravagant, it speaks volumes for the spread of wealth and ability for original enterprises.
With the AGRI committee giving the EP a chance to vote and voice opinion on the many amendments posed, it gives a voice to the citizens, a voice not just from those members of the committee but a chance for reasoned debate amongst all member states MEPs. This lies outside the hot-bed of Council negotiations where national interests rule the roost (understandably and I believe this must be retained), but a larger say from the EP will, in the long-term, help break down these national interests. Political party interests, not national alignments, have never been more important or needed. An MEP seeing common sense with how this CAP budget fits in to the long-term growth plan of Europe can act accordingly – they are there to see the collective EU picture, not the national short-term impact.
This decision can only be lauded, not only has it opened up the biggest and most controversial policy the EU has to the democratically elected representatives (no one can argue that this isn’t a good thing), but it has changed the context for future amendments. Nobody, least of all me, is expecting to see a whole draft of “no” votes on these amendments – they have been discussed and analysed by expert groups in the field for long enough, whilst it is impossible for an MEP to wrap their head around 350 separate amendments, form cross-party coalitions on certain aspects and factor in national pressure in a 36 hour timeframe. I am however expecting this vote to happen again. Once a procedure has reached the plenary, once elected personnel have had a taste of what they can influence, they are dead-set against losing it. In 2020, when the MFF negotiations come around again (if you think the 2012 was controversial – you just wait), I’d be amazed if a plenary session was not scheduled long in advance on CAP, with key EP involvement from start to finish.
As I’ve stated, this would not only help break down national barriers but put in place reasoned opinions on long-term EU goals. If the CAP is looked at, focused on and evaluated rationally, there is only one option – it must be reduced. This frees up valuable resources for other sectors – R&D, infrastructure, labour skills, coordinated health approaches and even a pan-EU welfare plan (long-shot but you can’t blame a guy for wishing). This single action will not dramatically change the EU in the short-term, but it’s a precedent, a precedent which can radically change the future negotiating platform as reasoned and transparent parliamentary debate occurs on the subjects which impact upon the citizenry the most.
It’s a step, a small step, but sometimes history proves that small steps can be the biggest.
Thursday 14th March Update:
With the vote occurring in Strasbourg on Wednesday the 13th March, here is just a quick update. In summary, the EP adopted a controversial package which defied Committee recommendations. Market subsidies for sugar beet were entrenched beyond the 2016 timeline whilst direct payments to farmers were also upheld. Conservation groups decried the lack of environmental attachments for certain direct payments whilst the delay in implementing this CAP budget has been pushed back to 2015 due to the need for Commission and Council negotiations to take place again.
Overall, I’m not overtly surprised by these outcomes. This bill was too unwieldy for a single session of Parliament and MEPs aligned on core agricultural interests. Agreeing with those MEPs who have an inherent interest in CAP from their constituency is infinitely easier than combatting in an area you have no experience or attachment to. I still feel confident in my prediction of this being a good thing in the long-term. Conservation groups can canvass more MEPs, opinions can swing, coalitions form and longer planning can result in a more streamlined, amenable CAP budget for the betterment of the EU and its future efficiency.