Contact l Sitemap

home industries issues reasearch weblog press

Home  » Industries » Food and Agriculture

EUROPE: Europe’s Vast Farm Subsidies Face Challenges

by STEPHEN CASTLE and DOREEN CARVAJALNew York Times
December 29th, 2009

The last time the European Union decided the future of its 50 billion euro agricultural aid program, in 2005, the deal was cut behind closed doors in a luxury suite at the five-star Conrad Brussels hotel.

The president of France, Jacques Chirac, and the chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder, joined forces in secret to protect the program against cuts until 2013, outmaneuvering Tony Blair, the British prime minister, who was left fuming over the generous subsidies.

Now, 2013 is closer at hand and a new round of maneuvering has begun to reshape the richest system of agricultural handouts in the world.

At stake are a host of delicate — some would argue intractable — issues that have hardened to the point where resolution will be all the more difficult: Who should receive the subsidies? What is their purpose? Is there a way to tie payments to a crackdown on fraud and corruption? Can they be more directed at small farmers instead of multinational conglomerates?

New ideas for change are springing up, while the traditional beneficiaries — France and the agrarian side of its economy are at the top of the list — are digging in. National self-interest, not surprisingly, underlies the debate.

Governments traditionally decide on a policy goal and then settle on a budget to try to achieve it. In the case of what is formally known as Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, that process seems to have been turned on its head. An enormous amount of money continues to be allocated as its goals become more diffuse and subject to dispute.

In its fifth decade, the agricultural subsidies program is a bedrock of European Union spending, now totaling 55 billion euros ($79 billion), almost half of the group’s budget.

It amounts to a huge redistribution of income to farm interests from taxpayers. But most farmers get the crumbs because payments are typically based on land size: 80 percent of beneficiaries receive about 20 percent of the payments, European Commission figures show.

Originally, the purpose of aid was clear. It was a tool for feeding a hungry continent, devastated by World War II, through the use of production incentives that grew through the 1960s. But those methods led to huge surpluses. So they were reduced and scheduled for elimination in 2013.

Meanwhile, the European Union was forced to grapple with whether it made sense to keep supporting farms that could not compete in the world economy.

Over the years, the Europeans have sought to discreetly redefine the subsidy. While the farming industry collects about 41 billion euros in direct aid, this year, 13.6 billion euros more went to rural development programs — to encourage diversification by financing projects like organic farming, renewable energy and farm tourism.

Cash has strayed to an array of projects. In Spain, for example, a gravel manufacturer received 1.1 million euros and a utility giant 466,000 euros for installing electrical connections.

The European Court of Auditors — which monitors spending — was critical of such financing in a recent report, which found that four of 10 payments sampled were “affected by errors.”

After years of such alterations, billions of euros pump haphazardly through the system at large, which last year rewarded a variety of beneficiaries beyond the simple farmer. At the head of the line were giant American and European factory farm companies, Spanish road builders, German Gummi bear manufacturers, luxury cruise ship caterers and wealthy landowners — including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Albert II of Monaco.

Despite all the logrolling and special interests, ideas are emerging about a makeover.

One is the concept of public goods — rewarding farmers who meet environmental standards and animal welfare requirements. Another is a new form of “market regulation” that releases cash to farmers when prices for products dip dangerously.

“We must stop wasteful spending and invest exclusively in programs that efficiently promote public goods, such as biodiversity and clean water,” said Valentin Zahrnt, an economist with the European Center for International Political Economy in Brussels.

But no one is sure how these new environmental buzzwords will be interpreted.

Jack Thurston, a founder of Farmsubsidy.org, which collects and publicizes data about how European farm aid is spent, says that even a seemingly positive reform to emphasize the public good may “be more subject to fraud because more of it will be discretionary and will vary by member state.”

France, in particular, is supporting the spigot approach, but it has taken stock of political realities and adopted its arguments for a generous aid program to include the new interest in improved environmental standards.

Last year, as in years past, France was the biggest beneficiary of farm subsidies, collecting more than 10 billion euros. One of the largest recipients was Groupe Doux, a chicken manufacturer that collected 62.8 million euros. Another big French beneficiary, at 38.6 million euros, was Saint Louis Sucre, a subsidiary of the Germany sugar giant Südzucker.

Südzucker, through its various subsidiaries, collected 448 million euros.

“Everyone benefits from the system,” said Bruno Le Maire, the French agriculture minister, who acted as host at a Paris conference this month that endorsed continuing the subsidies at high levels and using more of them to enhance environmental protection.

“I know a lot of farmers in France who could not live without the support,” Mr. Le Maire said. “It’s normal because we demand that the agricultural industry meet certain standards to maintain food security and rural development, which is costly. It benefits all, including the big farming interests.”

France sees the subsidies as an essential transfer of resources from urban areas to rural populations to protect its bucolic landscape, the safety of its food and a rural way of life that is a profound part of its culture.

But for others, it is not so simple. France has traditionally benefited financially from the policy because of its high number of farmers. Other nations, like Britain and the Netherlands, are big net contributors to the European budget, but collect less in farm subsidies because they have smaller, more efficient agricultural sectors.

The reform debate is much livelier this time because the former satellites of the Soviet Union that joined the European Union will have more power to demand a bigger share of aid.

Under the last deal, which was negotiated before they joined the bloc, their farmers had to settle for less than their European Union counterparts.

The restive East European nations signaled at the Paris conference that they wanted a strong program that included equitable shares for smaller nations.

For all the theorizing and long-standing efforts to improve the system, the political maneuvering over farm aid often comes down to a simple equation: who gets what. European leaders are already preparing to defend the individual national interests of their 27 countries.

“This is a straightforward battle between the losers and gainers, and it’s nothing more significant than that,” said Alan Buckwell, policy director of the Country Land and Business Association, which represents landowners in rural England and Wales. “It’s the stuff that most politics is about: how are we carving up the money?”

But Mr. Buckwell and others said that this might not be enough to win acceptance from the public. A major test of the political mood will emerge in the European Parliament next year, when it issues a report on farm aid that will shape the decision-making about spending. For the first time, the Parliament will have an equal voice with member countries in the outcome to determine the size of farm aid budget.

But instead of advancing a reform agenda, the Parliament will probably face even more pressure from local farmers to maintain the status quo.

George Lyon, a Parliament member from Scotland who will lead the drafting of the document, said the central issue was whether the Common Agricultural Policy “should continue down the path toward more of a market focus and more liberalization, or whether countries are likely to move back toward more regulation and protection.”

With its large and militant farm sector, France will seek to protect its own, even if that means aiming for a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

A battle for national interest is inevitable, Mr. Lyon said: “Self-interest always comes to the fore in these debates about money.”





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.