French resistance

CAP defenders have the numbers but not necessarily the initiative

Last month 22 member states met in Paris to discuss the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Only the UK, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Malta were left out.

On first glance it looks like a cast-iron case of Franco-German CAP manoeuvring: a deal being stitched up before the debate on the future of farm policy has even got going. However, there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Contrary to what the Paris summit looked like to the outside world, the liberal bloc is by no means out in the cold. Neither is the debate on the future of the CAP anywhere near being stitched up by the traditional recipients of CAP largesse.

The resolution that arose from the meeting was not only short on detail, but also heavy on defensive rhetoric.

“Only an ambitious public policy, applied across the continent and with adequate resources, can guarantee Europe’s independence,” according to the Appel de Paris.

Wind blowing in the opposite direction?

It is interesting to cast an eye over the last decade of CAP evolution.

Wholesale changes have occurred as the EU has moved from open-ended farm subsidies and generous market support to a more accountable system: basic food safety and environmental conditions are now attached to the bulk of payments (termed ‘cross-compliance’), while additional payments for ‘beyond the baseline’ eco-system services are available and increasingly well budgeted in the Rural Development remit.

The country which will have been the most pleased with these changes is surely France’s arch-rival on the CAP: the UK.

The wind is increasingly blowing in this direction. Outgoing Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel has even talked about “a strong political consensus” for cutting payments free of their historical anchor and embedding environmental concerns and ‘public goods’ more deeply into the whole CAP framework.

“Some politicians say this loudly and some just admit it quietly under their breath,” according to the Dane.

Safety in numbers?

The UK is nowhere near achieving its overarching goal of dramatic cuts in the overall CAP budget, but neither is the French bloc, despite its 22 strong hymn sheet.

Was the Paris meeting an occasion for CAP stalwarts to admit the need for change “under their breath”? And perhaps to forge a common front on what core principles must remain, when the winds of change inevitably blow through the CAP corridors?

22 might seem like a big number, but these are only farm ministers, addressing their message at least partially to agricultural lobbies; back in national capitals their cash-strapped finance departments may be starting to line up alongside the Commission, and large swathes of the general public, in demanding a more streamlined system.

Even within the 22 there are major lines of conflict which will surely prevent the Paris declaration developing into anything more concrete: big Eastern European countries such as Poland are dead set on levelling CAP subsidies between old and new member states, an idea which would erode the windfall payments received in France and other EU15 states due to prior production patterns.

The new Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos will be key in how this debate develops, should the Romanian survive January’s parliament hearings. Much has been made of his ties to France, but this could count for little once he is staring budget constraints in the face.

Food security at stake

One strength of the Paris resolution appears to be its focus on ‘food security’, an increasingly important buzzword in the resource-centric politics of the 21st century.

The G22 format was initially cobbled together to force the Commission’s hand on dairy policy as prices slumped this year. The spectre of European milk farmers going out of business served their cause well, and key concessions were drawn from the Commission.

The risks of European land abandonment and concentration of food production in low-cost countries have been clearly spelled out.

But will these suffice to justify big CAP payments in the long term? Despite its food security focus, the Paris paper does little to explain the global perspective; the case is still to be made for how we can overcome the historic contradictions of European surpluses coexisting with (and in some people’s eyes contributing to) third world hunger.

Out of their hands?

What is clear is that CAP reforms will not take place in a vacuum, and other policy challenges appear increasingly inter-connected.

The outcome of post-Copenhagen talks on climate change, and the ongoing Doha Round discussions at the World Trade Organisation, will feed directly into the CAP debate. These multilateral talks have the potential to dramatically change the backdrop against which the EU is planning its next round of CAP reforms: greater environmental imperatives and tougher Doha obligations could shift the balance considerably. And who would bet against the two issues coming together, and carbon tariffs eventually being factored into WTO agreements?

It quickly appears that the CAP discussions are so full of variables – internal and external — that any combination of member states would have their work cut out trying to short-circuit the debate at this stage.

Paris will need all of the friends it has, and even its ‘enemies’. Within a fortnight of Michel Barnier securing the EU internal market and financial services dossier, Brown and Sarkozy were able to team up to co-author fundamental policy proposals on bank regulations and climate change. And while the ‘UK excluded from Paris talks’ line was conducive to media coverage, British diplomats were nonetheless present at the G22 CAP talks in ‘observer capacity’.

Maybe, once the initial posturing fades, the traditional antagonists will need to find some common ground to avoid having their destiny decided for them.