The national governments of the EU are mostly opposed to a proposal to redistribute farming subsidies from big to small farms, it emerged at a debate at the Brussels office of the Czech Republic on Tuesday (5 February).
According to Achim Irimescu, chairman of the special committee for agriculture during Romania’s EU presidency, 23 of the 28 EU member states want the so-called ‘capping’ to be voluntary, rather than compulsory.
Irimescu said that capping would “definitely” be voluntary.
The idea, proposed by the European Commission last year, would see farmers’ EU subsidies capped at €100,000.
Any subsidies the farmer would have received beyond that amount would be redistributed to smaller farmers in the same member state.
Additionally, the tranche of EU subsidies between €60,000 and €75,000 would be reduced by 25 percent; the tranche between €75,000 and 90,000 would be reduced by half; and the tranche between €90,000 and €100,000 would be reduced by 75 percent.
Here too, the savings would go to farmers with smaller holdings.
The capping plan is part of the commission’s proposal for the EU’s new common agricultural policy (CAP) for the next budgetary period of 2021-2027.
The new CAP will have to be approved by both the national governments and the European Parliament.
The commission’s motivation was to respond to criticism from EU citizens that the farming subsidies should be used for small-scale farmers rather than what they see as big agri-business.
But opponents of the capping measure point out that in some agriculture sectors, it is very difficult to keep a small farm economically viable, and scaling up by merging farms is inevitable.
Cold War history
In former communist countries like the Czech Republic, the size of the farms is a result of collectivisation.
“The Czech Republic has the biggest farms by far in the European Union. We can’t possibly expect a one-size fits all solution,” said Jiri Sir, who is the Czech agriculture ministry’s chief negotiator for the new CAP.
“We need the capping to be voluntary. If a member state wants to apply it, because they feel it is necessary, let’s let them do it,” added Sir.
The average area of farm holdings in the EU is around 16 hectares, but differs greatly across EU member states.
The average for the Czech Republic is 133 hectares, but for Cyprus only three.
German centre-right MEP Peter Jahr, member of the parliament’s agriculture committee, also said he supported capping “on a voluntary basis”.
Some of his colleagues have proposed amendments that scrap the measure entirely.
The commission has tried to introduce mandatory capping before, unsuccessfully.
“We have proposed it three or four times now. Each time it died a sudden death in the legislative process,” said Rudolf Moegele, deputy director general at the commission’s agriculture department.
“Of course, we have not proposed each time the same thing,” he added.
Moegele said that making capping voluntary would be “maybe not the smartest move”, because it would mean the critics of large farms receiving EU subsidies would feel they are not being heard.
“This will have impact on the way the CAP will be perceived by many people,” said the commission civil servant.
“The consequence will be that it won’t be understood. Europe will be seen as not taking [the criticism] seriously,” he noted.
But he added that it was the national governments convening in the Council of the EU, and the European Parliament, who called the shots.
“We have to simply acknowledge that the legislators take the decisions. If they believe that is should be voluntary, or not at all in the legislation, at the end of the day the commission will not have the means to change that.”