The Brady Bunch where middle child Jan Brady decides she's sick of being overshadowed by her pretty, popular older sister Marcia and resolutely decides her problems will be solved by wearing a bizarre black wig at a friends birthday party. So she trots confidently down the stairs in her new 'do, announcing, "Look everyone, it's the new Jan Brady". But the wig looks so incongruous on her petite frame that the partygoers just look confused.
I started thinking about this scene (mocked hilariously in the Brady Bunch movie of the 1990's) as I sat in the European Commission press conference today unveiling its ideas for 'the new common agricultural policy (CAP)'. Agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos insisted that the function of CAP would have to be widened beyond just the simple mission of producing food and instead take on a climate change and biodiversity mission in order to gain legitimacy with the non-farming public. But as I listened to the raft of green measures that may be incorporated into the policy, I wondered if the CAP wasn't going to end up looking a little bit like poor Jan Brady, a 14 year old girl standing in the middle of the birthday party wearing a wig clearly designed for a 60 year old woman.
The CAP has long been the most loathed and disparaged of the EU's various components. When speaking with a British eurosceptic about the EU, it usually doesn't take long for the c-word to come pouring out of their mouth disdainfully as the ultimate embodiment of why the EU is an Orwellian plot to enforce French domination over the world. It might seem bizarre that the EU's agricultural policy is such a huge and controversial issue, but the fact is it doesn't get much bigger than the CAP when it comes to EU policy. One only needed to look today at the packed press room, the encampment of TV satellite trucks or the demonstrators dressed as cows in front of the Berlaymont doors today to see this is a big deal.
The CAP takes up fully half of the EU's budget. It provides direct subsidy payments to European farmers and provides price support mechanisms for their crops - including guaranteed minimum prices, import tariffs and quotas. Historically the policy has been seen to benefit France and Southern European countries to the detriment of Northern European countries. Margaret Thatcher used this disadvantage to demand a rebate for the UK from its contributions to the EU in 1984. The reasoning is that France, as an agricultural country, gets more back from its EU budget contributions than the UK, which is one of the most urban countries in the EU. In 2004, for instance, France received more than twice as much CAP funds than as the UK. Of course, this is a disadvantage also shared by other non-agricultural EU states, but none of them has had an iron lady come roaring into Brussels brandishing a broadsword on their behalf.
But it isn't just the British that loathe the CAP. Developing countries have criticised it as a form of protectionism that hurts poor farmers elsewhere in the world. The CAP has also been accused of creating artificially high food prices. And one of the biggest objections to CAP has been that it gives large farms an unfair advantage because even profitable farms can claim an unending amount of subsidies that they don't actually need. From an environmental perspective, many say this has prompted an expansion of industrial agricultural production and an increase of environmentally damaging farming techniques.
Over the years it's become clear that the CAP has become for the public the most unpopular aspect of the EU, an institution which is not very popular these days in the first place. And though CAP reform has been tried before but never really happened, this time things are quite different. This is the first attempt at CAP reform since the 12 new Eastern European member states joined in 2004 and 2007. This means that the hardcore CAP defenders – France, Germany, Spain and Italy – can now be outvoted by the new member states who have seen the policy as being unfair to them. Add to this the fact that the Agriculture Commissioner this time around is Romanian (during the previous reform effort the commissioner was German), and it looks like the stars are aligning for real change.
Green revolution, or green tape?
But what kind of change will this be? During today's press conference Ciolos was adamant in his insistence that the CAP needs to regain legitimacy with the public if it is to continue, and that legitimacy can be attained if it is expanded to have environmental goals. So today's communication proposes that the direct payments now be tied to environmental criteria. Farmers would have to demonstrate that they are employing green techniques like crop rotation, permanent pasture, green cover and ecological set-aside in order to receive funds. Efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and promote biodiversity would also be incorporated into the system. Ciolos said in order for the CAP to be credible, direct payments can't just be given away for nothing, with no extra policy goal. If farmers are going to get free money, the money needs to be used to motivate, or force, the farmers to make choices that benefit the EU as a whole.
Ciolos got a very mixed response when he intoriduced the commission's ideas to the European Parliament this afternoon. Already it is clear that MEPs are going to split on geographic lines rather than party lines on this vote. After all, this is not a Socialist/Conservative issue but rather a North/South issue. Several MEPs were very critical of the idea of introducing green criteria into CAP. Irish Centre-right MEP Mairead McGuinness delivered a strong rebuke of the idea, question how, after the UN has just recently delivered a report warning about global food shortages, the EU can be considering tinkering with the CAP and making life more difficult for farmers. "The only thing worse than red tape in my view is green tape," she said. "And this green tape will strangle farmers in their daily business." "We should not apologize for our CAP, we should be demanding funding for it," she continued. But McGuiness of course has her reasons for defending CAP so forcefully. Irish farmers have benefitted disproportionately from the scheme. But McGuiness wasn't the only MEP who seemed offended at the idea that this policy, which they see as having been a huge success in managing Europe's agriculture and putting food on people's tables, has been so maligned that it needs a layer of costly "greenwash" spread over it to be palatable to EU citizens.
In the end, are these green measures going to be a good fit for a policy that, at its core, was designed to ensure Europeans have enough food to eat? Given that these payments to farmers are so unpopular with vast swathes of the European public, is introducing green measures into the requirements for receiving them going to fix that perception? And even if it did, would it do so to the detriment of Europe's food supply? These are the questions the EU institutions will be grappling with over the coming months.