Greens grumble at EU farm reform fudge

EU negotiators on Friday finally hacked out a long-delayed compromise deal on the EU’s €270 billion farm subsidy package but Green members of the European Parliament were quick to warn that the agreement had been gutted of environmental ambition.

The Common Agricultural Policy is the single biggest plank of the regular EU budget and negotiators have been under pressure to impose stricter conditions that farmers should only receive their handouts in return for major steps to reduce agriculture’s negative impacts on climate and biodiversity. These demands for environmental action have sparked bitter political debates and the last attempt to finalize the CAP collapsed in acrimony in late May.

On Friday, however, the parties managed to find common ground and EU farm ministers are on Monday expected to rubber stamp the 2023-2027 CAP, after Council negotiators representing the EU countries and European Parliament representatives clinched an agreement in principle. The Council immediately celebrated a deal that “paves the way for a simpler, fairer and greener CAP.”

EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski hailed the final compromise as “one of the most ambitious CAP reforms in history.”

Greens, however, saw it as quite the reverse.

In a press conference, Green lawmakers slammed the European Commission for failing to block a deal that they say was marred by loopholes that would let EU countries off the hook when it came to protecting workers and the environment. They also said the CAP was insufficiently linked to Europe’s broader environmental targets laid out in the Green Deal.

“There are too many derogations,” said Green MEP Martin Häusling, a shadow rapporteur on the CAP. He added that the “biggest disappointment was the EU Commission,” which he accused of bowing to mounting political pressure to clinch a deal before the end of the Portuguese presidency of the EU Council.

“I’m very surprised by the fact that [Green Deal Commissioner Frans] Timmermans did not oppose it, because all this green architecture has no value,” he added. 

Latching on to loopholes

Climate and environmental NGOs, who saw the future CAP as crucial to reaching the EU’s flurry of 2030 and 2050 climate and environmental goals, blasted the deal. Harriet Bradley from BirdLife Europe slammed the new CAP as “a free-for-all dressed up as system change.”

One of the biggest debates about the CAP had focused on what proportion of cash in the all-important first pillar of the CAP — the lion’s share of the money paid out in direct payments — should be dedicated to eco-schemes that shift farmers toward environmentally friendly methods. The countries had pushed for 20 percent, while the European Parliament wanted a more ambitious 30 percent target.

While a compromise was struck at 25 percent, the critics were quick to point out a loophole. The Greens identified a rebate mechanism that would still let countries dedicate less to eco-schemes if they reached a certain spending threshold in the CAP’s second, smaller pillar, dedicated to rural development. The criticism from the environmentalists is that this weighting given to spending in the second pillar would not trigger the same sort of radical shifts toward greener food production methods as the demands for eco-schemes in the first pillar.

The Greens also fumed about other green components of the CAP that seemed to take a hit, saying the Council managed to secure “page-long exceptions” watering down rules on a list of good farming practices that put conditions on farmers’ access to direct payments. 

“I got very upset because everyone is talking about these so-called successes or wins of the climate but things have not changed,” Häusling said. “This is really fooling the general public and, in some years, the EU’s Court of Auditors will again say that nothing has changed,” he said, citing a recent report that found that green funding schemes in the current CAP had not helped cut the EU’s farm emissions. 

Pascal Canfin, who chairs the Parliament’s Environment Committee and is a member of liberal Renew group, said the deal delivered “on the essential” and it ensured that “consistency with the climate and environment legislation is now the backbone of the system.”

Protecting workers

The compromise deal also secured a certain level of protection for farm workers through a new social conditionality mechanism, pushed by the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, which aims to link direct payments with higher respect for farm workers’ rights.

Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann, agriculture coordinator for the center-right European People’s Party, told POLITICO that the new CAP will introduce this mechanism on a voluntary basis from 2023 and will make it mandatory from 2025. But the Greens were critical that these protections would leave millions of EU migrant workers out in the cold.

While the Greens have pledged that they will not support this deal during the EP plenary this fall, it is unclear whether they will garner enough votes to block it. Haüsling said that the ball was back in the member countries’ court.

“Member states have possibilities to do a good job … they can find opportunities and eco-schemes that are ambitious and achieve exactly what is requested by the Green Deal,” Häusling said. “Clearly member states must use all possibilities.”

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