A Common Agricultural Policy that is fairer, greener, and more competitive is the stated objective of proposed reforms announced by the European Commissioner Dacian Ciolos in Brussels on Wednesday.
The CAP as it is known, eats up around 40 percent of the EU budget. To maintain that sort of level in the coming years, Commissioner Ciolos says it has to adapt.
“This proposal shows the determination of the Commission to maintain a strong, responsive and modern policy across the EU. Perhaps the only truly shared policy, not just in the economic field, but covering territorial aspects and the management of natural resources.”
However on the morning of the announcement critics could be found just a short distance away. Fifty farmers from Baltic countries turned up in Brussels.
For them making the CAP fairer is long overdue. Latvian farmers’ representative Maira Dzelzkaleja said: “Latvian farmers are getting up to 95 euros per hectare, that’s what they will have in the year 2013, and farmers in Netherlands, in Belgium, and France, they are getting more than 400 euros per hectare.”
The Baltic farmers have the support of Latvia’s President Andris Berzins, who accompanied them on their trip.
“We are in an open market and all our expenses are very similar to other countries,” Berzins said.
The arguments over the proposals will go on. With the member states having their say as well as the European Parliament, the scope of the reforms could well be modified before implementation in 2014.
So what specific effects will this latest reform of the agricultural policy have on the sector? Euronews went to meet two Belgian farmers. René Ladouce grows mainly cereals, and is also a trade union representative while Eddy Pussemier raises dairy cattle as well as growing grain and sugar beet.
Like all other European farmers, if these proposals go ahead, 30 percent of their subsidies will be dependent on environmental measures.
That means growing at least three different crops, leaving seven percent of their land fallow and ensuring permanent pasture is maintained.
But Eddy Pussemier explained farmers already protect the environment.
“First we were pushed into a very intensive, industrial type of agriculture, so everybody has forgotten about any kind of balance. But farmers started to take environmental measure years ago, such as introducing beetle banks and turning strips for tractors to prevent crop damage.”
Fellow farmer René Ladouce is not directly opposed to the reforms, but he does have concerns: “There’s a risk in once more applying a system subject to penalties. For the farmer who doesn’t have enough land, who has been growing corn continuously for years but who diversifies to comply with these proposals. He could find himself in a situation where he can’t grow enough feed for his animals, and so could end up losing financially.”
But for the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Dacian Ciolos, diversification is essential.
“I think a good farmer is a farmer who loves his land, he knows that it makes sense not to exhaust agricultural soil completely by always growing the same crops,” Ciolos said.
Even so environmentalists too have reservations. For Faustine Defossez of the European Environmental Bureau, these proposals are minor and largely inadequate.
“It’s not ambitious enough for us, it will not change the current situation, it doesn’t go far enough towards sustainable production and to developing the tools for this, and to direct aid to farmers who already follow good practice,” Defossez complained.
But Commissioner Ciolos defended the proposals.
“If we list all the measures we have provided in the Common Agricultural Policy to take into account all the environmental concerns, I think it is fair to say we did something that’s far from just ‘greenwashing’. And I challenge anyone to show me a previous reform of the Common Agricultural Policy which has gone as far as this on environmental issues.”
The other major component of the proposed reform is a fairer distribution of aid, not only between countries but within countries and between producers.
Direct aid would start to be reduced from over 150,000 euros and would be limited to a maximum of 300,000 euros, to avoid it being swallowed up by larger farms. And with the formula of a single package per hectare, Brussels aims to achieve a fair balance between farms by 2019.
But farmer René Ladouce is sceptical: “When we know that subsidies can represent — given the ups and downs of the market — between 40 percent and 80 percent of the income of the farmer, it clearly raises questions.”
Commissioner Ciolos insists the reforms are essential: “I think the little money we have must be used in a more targeted, transparent and efficient way. We must adapt the CAP to the current realities of the European Union.”
For the two farmers euronews visited, the ideal scenario would be to live without EU assistance. René Ladouce would like to see the new proposals subjected to meaningful dialogue by agricultural producers in all sectors. Eddy Pussemier simply dreams of one day living purely off direct sales of products from his farm. Ultimately it may be consumers who shape the agriculture of tomorrow.