Europe’s agricultural policies must be reset
Decarbonising agriculture and reducing its impact on the environment is not only a legitimate societal expectation, but a moral duty – however, the European Commission’s ideologically driven, fragmented approach falls short of the mark, writes Dacian Cioloş.
Dacian Cioloş is a Romanian MEP for Renew Europe. He sits on the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, and was formerly EU Agriculture Commissioner (2010-2014), Prime Minister (2015-2017) and Minister of Agriculture in Romania (2007-2008).
Uncertainty has become the new normal for the European agri-food sector.
This negatively affects not only farmers and consumers, but also the capacity of the European Union to remain competitive on the global market. The COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war against Ukraine, climate change and extreme weather phenomena have caused major disruptions to agri-food chains.
These crises have also shown that there is no EU strategic autonomy without food security and a strong European farming sector and that food security goes beyond agriculture and food production, having an impact on several areas, not only on primary producers, but also on the wider economy.
It concerns not only nutrition but also health and environment, trade, development and humanitarian issues, even to the very essence of the European social fabric. Food security is more than a matter of quantity produced. Affordability remains a major problem, even for some social categories in the EU.
A precarious method
Against this complicated background, the EU continues to uphold the transition to a greener agricultural system, which helps manage natural resources, maintaining biodiversity and fighting climate change.
Decarbonising agriculture and reducing its impact on the environment, ensuring healthy food, is not only a legitimate societal expectation, but a moral duty.
However, these aims affect primarily industrial agriculture, on which a large part of the European agri-food system is based, one built and subsidised over decades, in which farmers were encouraged to produce intensively, sometimes with pressure on natural resources, at low cost. In short, a profound change and a terribly difficult transition.
Under these circumstances, in promoting the climate and environment legislation that affects agriculture, the European Commission picked the wrong method. A salami-slicing tactic, pushing for ideologically established targets, lacking solid impact assessments, or in some cases, with no impact assessment at all.
The current Commission took fragmented decisions, with no clear direction for this process and ducked away from the political consequences of the changes proposed.
It also tried to do this outside the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the master framework of European farming, diminishing its political and financial relevance. This only increased the suspicion of farmers across Europe, that feared that something is being done against them.
To make the current discussion even more complex, lab-grown meat and insects for human consumption have been added to the political agenda, thus opening Pandora’s box. If, in normal times, these issues might have been less disruptive, in the current context they are highly political topics, calling into question the system that allows novel foods on the market and their social acceptability.
This method has hit a wall: European elections are coming in 2024 and extremists, populists and anti-European parties are extensively manipulating some of the Commission’s proposals.
Ukraine: New challenges, new opportunities
Political imperatives, legitimate not only in the context of the war with Russia but also for the future of the EU are now on the table. As of June 2022, Ukraine is an EU candidate country and in the near future, it will start the accession negotiations, together with the Republic of Moldova.
Politically, these negotiations cannot be postponed. It would be not only unfair, but also unwise. This means that there will be a gradual integration of Ukraine into the European single market.
It is also likely that the EU will prolong the current full liberalisation for some key agricultural products, which helps to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat and at, a later stage, will support the reconstruction of the country.
However, from a farming policy perspective, the integration of Ukraine within the EU single market is by no means business as usual. The EU accession of Ukraine – a global agricultural powerhouse – is, de facto, calling into question the future of the current financial support model of the CAP.
Ukraine is a top global producer and exporter of staple grains. The EU agri-food sector will definitely be stronger with Ukraine in it, but the hard truth is that the EU’s Common agricultural policy today is not prepared to deal with the accession of such a strong agricultural power.
To get Ukraine in, we have to rethink the entire European farming policy and we have to start now. Again, the risk is that populist and extremist movements use the difficulties outlined by farmers to fuel anti-European and anti-Ukrainian sentiments.
What way forward?
These challenges require also a fundamental reset of the way we conclude European policies.
Food and nutrition, environment and climate, agriculture and public health are strongly interlinked. They should be treated in an integrated way, putting them in coherence with trade, humanitarian aid and international cooperation.
This new approach should be reflected not only in the political priorities for the European elections in 2024, but also in the new institutional setup at the European level that will result from these elections, in the way the future European Commission will be organised, in the political decision flows in the European Parliament.
A fundamental rethink of the current model of the CAP, but also of the connected legislation will require extensive and concerted public debates, but also solid and comprehensive impact assessments taking into account economic factors, the impact on our food system, societal acceptance and expectations.
A fragmented approach would lead to ideological, socially unacceptable or simply wrong political decisions.
Over the past years, the EU managed to become much stronger from every crisis. What we need next is to move from a crisis mode to a new, forward-looking, vision for Europe’s agriculture and food system. I am confident we can do it.