Can we withdraw the CAP? How the EU works



Fátima is Ecosia's Video Editorial Lead. She thinks in many Sprachen.

Last week, the European Parliament (EP) voted for a reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that offers no improvement to its prior version.

The new proposal continues to prioritize the interests of the industrial agricultural lobby and turns a deaf ear to the reality of climate science.

Ecosia joined the call of climate activists for the European Union to withdraw this CAP reform. But what exactly would that entail and is this actually realistic?

The short answer is yes — in theory.

But whether this actually happens or not could depend on how much pressure EU citizens exert on the European Commission (EC). Perhaps even more importantly, we need to call out our national governments, the 27 member states of the EU.

Why the CAP reform continues to hurt the environment

The CAP reform still doesn’t get rid of its most problematic mechanism: direct payments made to farmers are based not on environmental standards in their production methods, but according to their area of operation and production capacity. This benefits factory farms and harms smaller, ecological farms.

The CAP makes up about 40% of the EU’s total budget, which is why it is of utmost importance that its policies align with the EU’s general goals set out in the European Green Deal. These mainly consist in making the EU a carbon neutral continent by 2050 and to do so on the principle of climate justice.

The latest “reform” makes this virtually impossible. It does not set a minimum emission reduction target for the European agricultural sector, nor does it provide an actual plan (or enough money) to switch the continent’s farming sector to regenerative agriculture.

Instead, environmental targets are set in loosely defined “eco-schemes”, which are not mandatory and give member states a lot of room for interpretation on how, if at all, to incentivize or fund regenerative practices in their farming sectors.

If anything, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy erodes the possibility of common action on a shared crisis that has no national solution.

However, not everything is lost yet. Why? Let’s have a quick look at how the EU makes laws.

How the EU makes laws

Law-making in the EU generally involves three institutions:

  • The European Parliament, which represents the citizens of the member states and is elected every 5 years (the last election was in May 2019). Members of the EP (MEPs) are grouped by political families. There are no official coalitions, but the groups can form different majorities to support/reject specific proposals, such as the CAP.
  • The Council, which represents the governments of the member states. Depending on the subject matter, it will involve ministers of different thematic areas (e.g. in the case of the CAP negotiations, it was mainly the ministers of agriculture or an equivalent).
  • The European Commission, which represents the interests of the EU as a whole. Its current president is Ursula von der Leyen. There is one commissioner per member state, with Janusz Wojciechowski from Poland in charge of matters on Agriculture.

Simply put, European law is made through a process that involves these three institutions.

Usually, it all starts with the EC proposing to make a new law, such as the reforming of the CAP, which is then forwarded to the EP and the Council.

These two can propose changes, with the EP involving NGOs and corporate lobbies in their readings, which are open for the public to follow online. Meanwhile, the Council negotiates behind closed doors (which means we can't know what individual member states push for).

Only when the EP and the Council agree on a common wording of the proposal, is it voted upon in the EP. If it passes — as happened last week with the CAP reform — it then goes back to the Commission, where the so-called ‘trialogue’ negotiations start to turn the proposal into law.

And here’s how the EC could still undo the mess.

Can the European Commission actually withdraw this CAP reform?

A look at the relevant article in the Treaty of Lisbon (aka the EU’s “constitution”, or rather, book of rules) shows that, at this stage, the EC still has the power to withdraw or significantly alter the proposal.*

It is this article that Ecosia, Fridays for Future and many other environmental groups and activists are referring to when they say that the Commission should withdraw the CAP.

Another option is that the Commission sends the draft back for a second “reading” to the EP and the Council after aligning it with emission reduction targets defined in the EU’s Green Deal. At the very least, there is still room for using clearer words when it comes to setting minimum standards for how the (small) budget left for regenerative practices should be spent, specifically with regard to the eco-schemes.

The pressure should also be on national governments

There is a general misconception among citizens that the EU can simply enforce its decisions on member states. The reality is that much of EU law still depends on the member states themselves.

As we’ve seen, the Council makes amendments to the EC’s proposed laws behind closed doors. So, while Emmanuel Macron, for example, might tell you on French news that the EU simply enforced certain rules on him, the reality is that we don’t know what his position was in the negotiations, because they’re secret.

And while many details of the CAP are still up for discussion during the “trialogue”, the reality is that those negotiations, too, are very intransparent as they also happen behind closed doors.

Member states have an additional advantage in the negotiation as they rely on the support of their national administration to defend their interests: in the case of the CAP, the law proposal was already forwarded to the Council in 2018, way before the current EP and EC came into power after the EU elections in May 2019.

With the CAP making up almost half of the EU budget, the EP was under much pressure to come up with a position as fast as possible.

One can argue how much freedom member states should have to apply EU law or, conversely, how much power the EU should have to overrule the member states. But one thing cannot be argued against — the climate crisis needs a common response. If Spain applies regenerative practices but Poland or Italy don’t, the overall impact will be rather small.

This reform to the CAP has loosened the power of the EU to impose environmental standards even further. As it is now, this CAP makes it dangerously easy for each of the 27 member states to go down their own path in an area where coordinated action is urgently needed.

How can you help withdraw the CAP?

First of all, sign this open letter created by Fridays for Future that calls on the EC to withdraw their failed plan.

If you can, share it on your social media accounts and don’t forget to tag Frans Timmermans. He’s the Vice President of the Commission and is tasked with making the European Green Deal a reality. Let him know that we are all watching the EU’s next moves on the topic.

The second best option is to push the Commission to at the very least set binding emission reduction targets to the CAP. This would make it more difficult for environmental goals to be watered down even more during those opaque trialogue negotiations.

Hold your government accountable, too

Another way to make pressure is to call out the current party or coalition of political parties governing in your country to support the withdrawal of this CAP.

The Council represents the interests of the national governments. They, too, had a say in allowing this reform to go through. Clearly, they were not representing the interests of their citizens, but those of the corporate agricultural sector.

EU politics might seem distant and because of its complexity we sometimes feel disempowered.  

But the reality is that, if you understand the power structures between the EU institutions and the member states, something as simple as making some noise on social media can have a great impact.

* As Marco Contiero at Greenpeace pointed out to me, Art. 293 (2) “of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union states that the European Commission can 'alter' the proposal at any time during the procedures leading to the adoption of EU legislative acts. The Court of Justice of the EU has interpreted this right (C-409/2013) as the power of the Commission to amend or withdraw a legislative proposal before the first reading procedure is finalised, thus before the Council formally adopts its political agreement on a Commission proposal, following the first reading adoption by the European Parliament.*

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