Monday, October 10, 2011

CAP remains welfare scheme for wealthy

It has been a fecund year in our garden. I produced enough spinach to make four or five vegetarian lasagnes. If the pumpkins continue to flourish, we should have more than 10 of them in time for Halloween. My wife has experimented with growing radishes and carrots. Should we now apply for EU farm subsidies?

OK, that was a facetious question. Yet I am probably more deserving of those subsidies than many who receive them. In “The Black Book of Agriculture”, Hans Weiss documented how six of Austria’s 10 richest individuals benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy. At the other end of the spectrum, only 20% of the 2.2 billion euros that Austria drew down from the CAP in 2008 went to small farmers in mountainous areas.

Every few years, the European Commission undertakes to shake up the CAP and learn from past “mistakes”. Its latest reform blueprint will be presented this week. Not for the first time, this will be an exercise in window dressing.

Words like “sustainable” will be used liberally in the hope that the Brussels press corps will present the new recommendations as ecologically and socially responsible. Yet draft versions of the blueprint indicate that little, if anything, will be done to tackle the harmful consequences of industrialised farming.

Fuzzy criteria on environment

In theory, 30% of direct payments under the CAP will be subject to “good practice” requirements. But unless the final blueprint is made tougher, these requirements will be fuzzy. They will not be flanked with rules on preventing soil degradation and erosion. Large-scale monocultures will still be allowed, despite how they reduce the nutrients in the soil.

Drafts of the blueprint do not advocate any increase in support for farmers who manage land within the EU’s Natura 2000 network of sanctuaries for endangered flora and fauna. No incentives are likely to be introduced for maintaining grasslands, even though these carbon-rich areas must be left intact if we are to mitigate the effects of climate change. And penalties imposed on farmers who engage in environmentally destructive behaviour will amount to nothing more dissuasive than withholding 1% of their subsidies.

Why are Dacian Ciolos, the EU’s agricultural commissioner, and his advisers taking a business as usual approach? By giving excessive support to intensive agriculture, the CAP has proven ruinous to traditional family farms and the wildlife found on them. Data compiled by ornithologists shows that 20 out of 36 varieties of farmland birds in Europe are in decline. Overall numbers of farmland birds have fallen by 48% since 1980, with the grey partridge down by 82% and both the corn bunting and linnet by more than 60%.

Mired in scandal

I guess that the plight of these little feathery creatures does not elicit much comment in Brussels office blocks, where a macho culture prevails. This lack of concern is short-sighted. I’d strongly urge those officials to read Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”, which is packed with case studies of how ecologically reckless practises can imperil human civilisation. (As an aside, I don’t agree with how Diamond has a favourable view of voluntary codes of conduct for big business; legally-binding measures must be introduced and enforced).

The Commission’s blasé attitude is all the more inexcusable when one considers that there have been a number of scandals involving the CAP over the past few years.

In Bulgaria, Dimitar Peychev, a former deputy minister for agriculture, has been the subject of a criminal investigation. His wife and daughter received 1.5 million euros worth of EU subsidies that he had been tasked with distributing in 2009.

The controversy bore some similarities to a previous one in the Netherlands. Back in 2005, Cees Veerman, then the Dutch agriculture minister, was severely embarrassed when it emerged that he had failed to mention his ownership of four farms in France on his declaration of interests. Veerman had trousered at least 185,000 euros in EU subsidies.

Poor oversight

Within the past month, the European Court of Auditors has published two reports critical of different aspects of the CAP. The more recent one pinpointed examples where authorities in EU countries had been slow to act when irregularities in farm spending were detected. More than 250 instances were identified by the auditors, in which the Spanish region of Andalucia waited four years or more before taking any steps to recover money in irregularity cases.

The earlier paper from the auditors examined expenditure on “agri-environment” measures. While 22.2 billion euros has been allocated to such measures under the CAP for the period from 2007 to 2013, the auditors found that the anticipated environmental benefits could not be demonstrated for almost one-quarter of the contracts it examined.

A 2010 study by the whistleblowing website highlighted the intimate connections between the politicians who set agricultural policies and the recipients of the resulting largesse. Twelve of the Union’s 27 farm ministers at that time came from an agriculture or agribusiness background.

“The CAP’s annual 40 billion euros of direct aids are nothing more than a system for delivering taxpayer’s money directly to farm businesses, with as few strings as possible,” the study stated. “No clear objectives, no targets, no indicators of success, no policy outcomes necessary.”

The subtitle for this week’s blueprint is “Towards an economically and ecologically competitive sector”. Such corporate public relations gibberish cannot conceal how the Commission is merely tweaking a hugely expensive policy that puts the interests of the wealthy and greedy above everything else.

●First published by New Europe, 10 October 2011.

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