January 4, 2018
French politicians and farmers are not happy about the EU’s plans to revamp the flagship, €58 billion-per-year Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) by putting member states and regions in charge of allocating aid disbursements. Currently, France is the largest recipient of CAP payments, receiving 17% of all expenditures, and campaigners have claimed that a reduction in central funding from Brussels could put the livelihoods of more than half of all French farmers at risk. In common with France’s position on other EU agricultural matters – such as its opposition to the Commission’s proposal to relicense glyphosate – the country’s farmers and politicians have been viewing the planned reform of the CAP from a purely nationalist perspective, choosing to ignore a range of compelling reasons why it needs to change.
It is not hard to see why France might be uneasy about any reform of the CAP that could ultimately lead to a fall in funding or a disadvantageous change in the way in which payments are distributed. The controversial policy, which eats up nearly 40% of the EU’s entire annual budget and goes to 7% of Europe’s population, currently works disproportionally in France’s favour, ploughing billions of euros into the country’s agricultural sector every year. Between 2007 and 2013, France’s farming sector and rural areas benefitted from CAP payments to the tune of more than €70 billion. Over the period leading up to 2020, the country will receive a further €63 billion as a result of the policy. Self-interest dictates that France will inevitably be less than enthusiastic about any policy shift that might challenge the status quo, and that its politicians and farmers will try their damnedest to resist change.
Yet there are solid arguments in favour of reforming the CAP – not least, its massive expense, its history of pay-outs to landowning aristocrats, and its failure to show real benefits for the environment and rural development. On top of that, rising costs for equally important such as defence, security, and migration and the fact that Brexit is poised to blow a €10 billion hole in the EU’s annual budget means that reform of the CAP is more important than ever. This is why the Commission is proposing capping individual payments at €300,000 per farm and encourage small scale farming instead.
France, however, appears more worried about ensuring its farmers continue to receive what many argue are unfair subsidies than to guarantee that the EU has adequate funds in place to tackle all of its priorities. Government officials have been couching this in terms of “solidarity,” with French agricultural ministry representative Frédéric Lambert recently arguing that “The CAP must remain a European tool.” Other stakeholders have claimed that any nationalisation of agriculture policy could create large discrepancies in competitiveness between the EU’s richer and poorer nations. Yet the real reason for the country’s vehement opposition to CAP reform could not be clearer.
France has form when it comes to such matters, having recently taken a similarly nationalist approach to the relicensing of glyphosate in the EU. In an effort to appease influential green activists who argue the compound causes cancer in humans, Paris this month voted down a proposal to extend use of the herbicide for another five years, despite the fact there is no credible evidence to suggest that it poses a health risk. Glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in the commonly used herbicide Roundup, has repeatedly been found to be safe by globally-respected regulatory organisations including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the European Chemicals Agency. Rather than base its decision-making process on the work of such institutions, however, the French government chose to cast its vote on the future of glyphosate in the EU having seemingly only considered a largely discredited report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which labelled the herbicide as a “probable carcinogen”.
Ignoring the overwhelming consensus of expert opinion, France’s no vote on glyphosate was cast with politics rather than science in mind, not to mention the fact that a number French firms stand to benefit if the compound is outlawed. At the same time, according to a French study, banning the molecule would cost the French grains sector €1.1 billion, and €900 million for wine makers across the country – so much for protecting French farmers.
France’s position on reforming the bloated and inefficient CAP and its ongoing opposition to the use of a herbicide that has time and again been proved to be safe demonstrate how easily factional and national interests can derail efforts to formulate policy that provides overall benefits to a majority of EU citizens. France, in particular, appears willing to totally disregard the common good when its own political or economic interests are threatened, arguing that any nationalisation of the CAP will reduce the “common” dimension of the policy – all while seemingly unaware of the irony of positing such a suggestion while making its own vested interests a priority when voting on EU agricultural matters.
While arguably being one of the worst offenders among member state governments when it comes to voting on EU policy with self-interest first and foremost in mind, Paris is far from unique in doing so. This means that as 2018 begins, European lawmakers will face further showdowns in the coming months, that could be far greater than those caused by the farcical glyphosate row last year. And the potential harm to the legitimacy of EU policymaking, and the need to reconcile these policies with national priorities, could not be greater.