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Euroviews. Billions from EU taxpayers damage nature — here’s how it can stop

MEPs participate in a series of votes as they attend a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, April 2024
MEPs participate in a series of votes as they attend a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, April 2024 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Ester Asin
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The only way Europe can move forward is by redirecting destructive subsidies towards activities that protect and restore nature and supporting greater citizen participation in policy development, Ester Asin writes.

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In recent months, tractors have rolled through European cities as farmers protested against the EU’s agricultural policy. 

The EU's rapid response, which involved rolling back environmental regulations on agricultural subsidies, misses the mark. 

This approach is a superficial fix that fails to address the underlying problems: aggressive lobbying by extreme right groups manipulating the narrative and the misuse of EU agricultural funds by member states.

A new WWF report highlights an uncomfortable truth amidst the growing cost-of-living crisis: EU member states allocate between €34 billion and €48 billion of EU subsidies annually to initiatives that damage nature. 

While these destructive subsidies span all major sectors of the economy, the bulk of them are allocated to agriculture. 

Billions spent on unsustainable practices

European countries use up to 60% of the funding from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which amounts to €32.1bn each year, to promote large-scale, unsustainable farming practices. This sum is on par with the total yearly expenditures of nations like Croatia and Luxembourg.

The CAP incentivises industrial farming practices, overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, and monocultures, which leads to water pollution and over-extraction, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and the decline of pollinators. 

From the Netherlands to Spain ... the subsidies have dramatic consequences in every corner of Europe. They jeopardise our economy, our food system, and our very survival.
A man holds a European Union flag as he walks outside the European Commission building during Europe Day celebrations in Brussels, 4 May 2024
A man holds a European Union flag as he walks outside the European Commission building during Europe Day celebrations in Brussels, 4 May 2024AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

From the Netherlands, where the iconic black-tailed godwit’s habitats are threatened, to Spain, where EU funds are draining wetlands and escalating the risk of water scarcity and wildfires, the subsidies have dramatic consequences in every corner of Europe. They jeopardise our economy, our food system, and our very survival.

These harmful subsidies not only devastate natural habitats but also offer scant support for farmers transitioning to sustainable and climate-resilient methods. 

The recent farmers’ protests across Europe clearly indicate that the current system is failing. However, the solution is not as simple as (environmental) deregulation, which doesn’t address the root of the issues at all. 

But why is "cutting the red tape" such a big part of — what seems like — the farmers’ narrative?

A third of the budget, a big debate in Brussels

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and its impressive funds — 31% of the EU’s budget — have always been at the centre of discussions in Brussels. 

Yet, one must question how many of these discussions have occurred in a genuinely open, democratic forum. The significant influence of agro-industry lobbyists on political and public debate is well-documented, illustrating a skewed dialogue. 

The only way Europe can move forward is by redirecting destructive subsidies towards activities that protect and restore nature and supporting greater citizen participation in policy development.
Protestors light fires next to their tractors during a demonstration of farmers near the European Council building in Brussels, March 2024
Protestors light fires next to their tractors during a demonstration of farmers near the European Council building in Brussels, March 2024Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP Photo

Over the last months, farmers’ protests across Europe have made headlines. The outcry ultimately led the European Commission to scrap key environmental measures under the CAP, a cowardly move that set back this policy decades in time.

These demonstrations have been politically motivated: a recent investigation by DeSmog has exposed how far-right groups and politicians, backed by oil-funded think tanks, are manipulating the narrative of farmer protests across Europe and peddling fake news and conspiracy theories. 

This interference, which aims to undermine the EU’s flagship European Green Deal, highlights the critical need to reevaluate how subsidies are allocated and who influences these decisions.

Voters are about to shape Europe's future

The only way Europe can move forward is by redirecting destructive subsidies towards activities that protect and restore nature and supporting greater citizen participation in policy development. 

This shift would not only fortify our food system — making it more sustainable and resilient to climate impacts such as droughts and floods — but could also bridge the financing gap needed to meet the international and EU biodiversity goals.

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To ensure the effectiveness of this transition, national governments and the EU must establish a legally binding framework to phase out harmful subsidies in a timely and socially equitable manner. We must pivot towards nature-based solutions that shield European citizens from the adverse effects of climate change while providing them with access to healthy, sustainable food.

In less than a month, Europeans will head to the polls. While the EU may often seem complex and bureaucratic, these elections are a direct opportunity for citizens to shape the future of Europe. They have the power to direct how their tax money is used and to champion policies that preserve our environment, guiding the continent towards a more sustainable, democratic and affordable future.

Ester Asin serves as Director at the WWF European Policy Office.

Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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