The recent disasters to hit the British and European farming industry have increased the pressure for radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. France and Germany are ready for change. But don't expect anything soonby Julie Wolf / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
It used to be that discussion of European farm policy was confined to Brussels bureaucrats, with the occasional eruption of protests by farmers threatened by freer international trade. But try mentioning farm subsidies at a dinner party these days. The ensuing conversation-well informed or otherwise-will range from mad-cow disease to foot and mouth to organic farming. And while there may be some disagreements, one thing is certain: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be seen as the main culprit for the problems of British and European agriculture.
The story isn’t that different elsewhere in Europe. Even in France, where there has long been a consensus among governments, consumers and farmers in defence of EU subsidies, the BSE crisis has provoked a rethink. Add to this the high cost of extending the system to the 13 countries seeking to join the EU, plus the demands for change from other members of the World Trade Organisation, and the CAP looks increasingly shaky.
Goodbye to the CAP?
That is good news for those who believe that the CAP is in need of reform. But the level of disagreement over what has gone wrong in European farming underscores the difficulty in coming up with remedies. Moreover, as past reforms of the CAP have shown, the horse-trading so common to the EU process often produces unsatisfactory results. And there are big differences in the interests of the member states with farmers ranging from Portuguese smallholdings to the grain barons of East Anglia and northern France.
Although the food crises have created an appetite for radical change-especially in Germany-they have also added to the confusion surrounding the CAP and farm policy in general. At one end of the spectrum the CAP is blamed for sheltering inefficient small producers from global competition; at the other end it is blamed for intensive production, bad food and destruction of the environment.
That both these are partially true bears witness to the complexity-and durability-of the CAP. This system of domestic supports, external protection and export subsidies was established in 1962, when the memory of wartime food shortages was still fresh. Its aim was to create an internal market in agricultural goods while at the same time providing Europe with a secure supply of food and its farmers a viable income. The problem is that the CAP worked too well, at least when it came to producing food. By setting…