Home European News How the CAP green ambitions unravelled

How the CAP green ambitions unravelled

How the CAP green ambitions unravelled

“Farmers have been heard,” David Clarinval, Belgium’s agriculture minister, said last month after EU countries gave their nod to a recent proposal by the European Commission to relax environmental conditions in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) — the EU’s billion euro agricultural subsidy.

But despite the council’s swift approval, outside on the streets of Brussels protesting farmers clashed with the police as they voiced their anger about the state of EU agricultural policy, casting doubt on whether the measures truly address their concerns.

  • ‘[Janusz] Wojciechowski is generally seen as a weak commissioner,’ said Jeroen Candel, associate professor at the University of Wageningen (Photo: European Parliament)

The proposal, which sparked widespread condemnation among Green MEPs and environmental NGOs, marks the progressive unravelling of environmental ambition for the CAP, despite mounting concerns over the industry’s destructive impact on nature. An open letter by 16 NGOs called on the commission to retract the proposal, criticising “the fake narrative that opposes the environment to agriculture” and slamming its rapid approval as “disregarding democratic principles”.

The commission has defended the proposal, saying it will serve to improve the CAP’s flexibility and simplicity. A few of the more prominent measures include the relaxation of various environmental conditions (so-called GAEC), the increase of discretion for member states to apply exemptions, and the exemption of all smaller farms under 10 hectares from controls altogether, in what commission officials insisted is a “targeted, specific amendment” that would not threaten the CAP’s environmental ambition.

But critics have slammed the move as further weakening a policy that was never sufficiently ambitious in the first place.

“In 2022, after the reform of the current CAP, we already assessed that most of the strategic plans put forward by the member states would not help the transition,” said Faustine Bas-Defossez, a campaigner from the European Environmental Bureau. “Instead of an improvement, we are going backwards, which is even more concerning,” she told the EUobserver.

Flexibility?: a race to the bottom

The current version of the CAP dates back from a proposal by commissioner Phil Hogan in 2018, and was subsequently negotiated by the Von der Leyen Commission in 2021.

The original proposal was already promised as improving efficiency and flexibility, introducing the CAP Strategic Plans (CSPs), which gave member states considerably more autonomy in designing the subsidy schemes.

These plans were subsequently assessed against the CAP’s various objectives by the commission. The reform also included “enhanced conditionality”, which used the GAECS to ensure a higher minimum environmental standard, and a fixed percentage of the budget going to additional voluntary “eco-schemes,” providing incentives for farmers to transition to environmentally-friendly practices.

But instead of fostering ambition, the increased flexibility of the CSPs seems to have backfired.

“Initially we thought that this was the way forward,” said Bas-Defossez about the more tailored approach of the CSP’s. “But flexibility has been used as a race to the bottom, not a race to the top,” she concluded, pointing out that member states on average did not increase their spending towards climate and environmental objectives under the new CAP.

A 2023 study commissioned by the European Parliament drew similar conclusions, finding that the CSPs prioritise economic objectives over environmental ones, and that despite the plans often mentioning the Green Deal objectives, such “references were non-binding and the contributions not consistently specific.”


The commission’s failure to create binding targets linking the CAP to the Green Deal during the reform negotiations, was particularly striking given the general momentum for ambitious climate policy at the time.

But according to Harriet Bradley, an expert on the CAP from the IEEP, this can be explained by the EU’s so-called ‘agri-exceptionalist’ governance: “Agricultural decision-making is in its own special kind of box. It’s not bound by a requirement for policy coherence with other areas of policy”.

She noted how the commission stuck to the Hogan proposal, instead of integrating it with the Green Deal. “They tried to say that it was compatible with the Green Deal, though actually a lot of the reasons why didn’t make it into the final agreement,” Bradley added.

Jeroen Candel, associate professor of food and agricultural policy at the University of Wageningen, also pointed out how the mismatch between the EU’s legislative terms and CAP reform limited the possibility of change.

“You have agriculture commissioners who can exert a lot of influence if their term matches a reform effort. But Wojciechowski only became commissioner after the proposals had already been made,” Candel explained.

“Wojciechowski is generally seen as a weak commissioner,” he added, pointing out that Timmermans, the main advocate for agricultural reform, left the commission last year.

This combination of a lack of binding targets, increased decentralisation and limited support in the commission has left the CAP’s environmental measures particularly vulnerable as the successive crises of the pandemic, inflation, and the war in Ukraine rocked the agricultural sector.

The concerns over inflation and food security in the wake of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine provided rightwing opponents of the green transition with seemingly strong arguments, observed Candel.

“But this does not correspond with reality. Europe is self-reliant in most crops, except for animal feed. So the suggestion that we would run out of food made no sense. Delaying the transition to sustainability is a much greater threat to our food security,” argued Candel, pointing out the impact of climate destabilisation on agricultural yields.


Still, as farmers have continued their protests and with the European elections looming, member states have been eager to support the relaxation of measures put forward by EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Call for extra flexibility and pushbacks against key green policies in the European Parliament have been led by von der Leyen’s centre-right European People’s Party which is portraying itself as a defender of farmers’ interests.

Commenting about the agreement in the Council, an EU diplomat told the EUobserver that the proposal was “a good compromise”. “The worries over a regulatory race to the bottom exist, but we’re responding to a direct emergency for farmers,” the diplomat said, adding that regulation should not make farmer’s lives impossible.

Speaking in the parliament earlier this month, commissioner Wojciechowski claimed that given the crises facing farmers, the focus should be on incentives instead of environmental conditions.

“I’m deeply convinced that the environmental impact and consequences will be better achieved if we have incentives and encourage farmers rather than penalise them,” the Polish commissioner said, citing the voluntary eco-schemes as an example.

But as the CAP’s basic structures remain unchanged, like the highly uneven area-based direct payment subsidies, it is doubtful to what extent derogating environmental conditions and increasing voluntary incentives will respond to most farmers’ needs.

“These current changes to the cap have been rushed through and only discussed with a small number of farming groups and only reflecting certain farming voices,” said Bradley, noting that protesting farmers were mostly concerned with low prices.

“What we need is for farmers to get a fairer price from the market for their goods. Just focussing on incentives is a very expensive way of dealing with the problem,” she argued, adding that the quality of eco-schemes varies greatly. “Often the ones that are the most ambitious and demanding actually have the lowest budgets.”

Moreover, some argue that the CAP is itself essentially an incentive. “It’s not a regulation forcing farmers to do one thing or another, it comes with money. These are subsidies, with certain conditions attached to them. That’s already an incentive,” Bas-Defossez said.

In the end, it will be the farmers themselves that will suffer the most from a failure to encourage the transition to sustainable agriculture, Bas-Defossez warned.

“If we don’t have basic agro-economic practices that are respected across the EU, we can simply expect the already dramatic situation in terms of climate resilience to get worse,” she said, citing reports that estimated extreme weather events in Greece caused its agriculture to lose up to 15 percent of its yield.

“These short-term quick fixes won’t solve anything, but will just make everything worse,” she added.


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