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Common Agricultural Policy: What is it? How does it work? How might it be about to change?

Farmers with tractors arrive for a protest against the German and European agriculture policy in Berlin, Nov. 26, 2019.
Farmers with tractors arrive for a protest against the German and European agriculture policy in Berlin, Nov. 26, 2019. Copyright AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
Copyright AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
By Jack Parrock & Natalie Huet
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The EU has long been criticised for the generous subsidies it gives to its farmers. How is the money doled out, and how might the scheme be about to change?

What is the EU's Common Agricultural Policy?


Safeguarding food supplies for nearly 450 million people is no easy task, but it’s one of the European Union’s main policy missions.

Since 1962, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has aimed to support the livelihoods of farmers and improve agricultural productivity, while ensuring a stable supply of affordable food for Europeans.

At over €58 billion per year, the CAP is by far the largest subsidies scheme the EU runs. It made up 39 per cent of the last budget – triple what the bloc pays in for job creation, for instance.

"Agricultural policy is very expensive, but at the same time I think we need to explain to our people that this budget is not just for 10 million farmers – this budget is for 450 million people," says Paolo de Castro, Italian MEP and the Socialist & Democrats’ coordinator for the European Parliament’s committee on agriculture.

CAP rules for all EU member states are set in Brussels, making it one of the rare policies where the EU has full control – and a longtime punching bag for Eurosceptics.

How does the Common Agricultural Policy work?

Until now, the policy has relied on two so-called pillars: on the one hand, giving money to farmers to support their incomes; on the other, funding projects in rural areas to make them more attractive to live in.

Farmers receive subsidies depending on the size of their agricultural land and on their environmental practices. The more land that qualifies, the more subsidy the farmer receives.

Environmentalists have criticised the scheme for rewarding intensive farming at the expense of smaller farms that may have more sustainable practices or employ more people per hectare.

"We hand out the money kind of regardless whether the farmer is doing a good job for the local community, a good job for the environment, a good job for the animals," says German Green MEP Daniel Freund.

The CAP does not even mention the labour rights of farmworkers, and a joint investigation by Euronews with Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel and Mediapart has uncovered some appalling working and living conditions on EU-subsidised farms.

Currently, around 20 per cent of EU-subsidised farmers receive approximately 80 per cent of all CAP funds, according to EU data.

France receives by far more subsidies than any other member state, at nearly €7 billion a year. Then comes Spain and Germany (around €5 billion), Italy and Poland (more than €3 billion).

Euronews sheds a light on the harsh conditions some seasonal and migrant workers face on EU-subsidised farms

How might the Common Agricultural Policy be reformed?

The European Commission has proposed a reform to the Common Agricultural Policy that outlines nine specific objectives. The focus is now far more on protecting the environment and biodiversity: the plan features "climate change action", "environmental care", "preserving landscapes and biodiversity".

The proposal was for a €365 billion fund for farmers for the budget to run between 2021 and 2027 – an estimated €5 billion less per year than before.

"We didn't even ask for an increase of the budget per se," said Pekka Pesonen, Secretary-General of Copa Cogeca, the trade group representing farmers in Europe. "We said that please at least keep the level so that we can actually make the necessary investment for the more sustainable production and we can actually make a living out of this."

But the COVID-19 crisis has thrown a wrench into reform plans. At the end of June, an agreement was reached for the current system to roll over until at least the end of 2022.

It means a delay to potential changes, such as greater social protection for those working on European farms – a hot topic since COVID-19 put the spotlight on those bringing food to our plates.

Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann, who works as the European People’s Party coordinator in the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, said the pandemic had opened the eyes of consumers who long took well-stocked supermarket shelves for granted.


"Our society as a whole understood how important seasonal workers are," Dorfmann said.

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