Correspondent in Brussels

How far will the unraveling of the greening of the new common agricultural policy go? While peasant anger is still brewing in Europe, the European Commission presented a new round of proposals on Friday.

Unlike the temporary or safeguard measures announced a few weeks ago, these new proposals are intended to fundamentally modify the current CAP. If the Member States and the European Parliament give the green light, they would apply from 2025, with retroactive effect from January 1, 2024. The Europeans want to give guarantees to the agricultural sector, less than three months before the European elections.

Ursula von der Leyen may well emphasize that they do not reduce “the overall level of environmental ambition”, these proposals still mark a radical change in philosophy. Because, from now on, the European executive prefers to encourage rather than put pressure and punish the agricultural sector. Several BCAEs, or good agricultural and environmental conditions, hated by the farming world, are thus abandoned or relaxed. Starting with GAEC 8, relating to the fallowing obligation, synonymous with decline for many farmers. Suspended in 2023 due to the war in Ukraine, partially reinstated in 2024, this rule provides for leaving at least 4% of arable land fallow. This time, the Commission is proposing to completely remove this obligation, without financial penalty. Better yet, operators who decide to continue to comply would receive a bonus. “In practice, this would mean that farmers would be encouraged to maintain non-productive areas, but without fearing a loss of income if they are not able to do so,” explained Ursula von der Leyen during an exchange on Friday telephone call with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Brussels is also tackling the crop rotation obligation (GAEC 7), replaced by a simple “diversification” of crops. “The flexibility to carry out crop diversification instead of simple crop rotation will make it easier for farmers affected by regular droughts or excessive rainfall to comply with this requirement,” the Commission reasons.

As for the ban on bare soil intended to limit soil erosion (GAEC 6), the timetables would no longer be rigid. Member states could “define them flexibly taking into account regional differences,” said Polish Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski. In addition to these specific changes, it is proposed that “Member States may exempt certain crops, soil types or agricultural systems from compliance with requirements on tillage, soil cover and crop rotation/diversification” (respectively GAEC 5, 6 and 7), further specifies the European executive.

As it had already announced, the Commission also confirmed on Friday that “farms of less than 10 hectares” – which represent two thirds of CAP beneficiaries – will be exempt from controls and penalties in the event of non-compliance with the rules of conditionality. This was a request from France and Poland which have many small farms.

Furthermore, discussions on fair remuneration for farmers have been launched. Thus, an “observatory of production costs, margins and commercial practices” to increase market transparency will be created by the summer. A revision of the directive on unfair commercial practices is also envisaged to bring fairness to the balance of power between farmers and buyers. These are longer-term projects, on the menu for the next mandate.

These measures will be discussed by the Twenty-Seven at the end of next week in Brussels, during the summit on March 21 and 22. The goal is to go quickly. Brussels is aiming for final adoption in Parliament at the latest during the plenary at the end of April, the last of the mandate before the European elections.

If the initial objective was to reduce the administrative burden on the agricultural sector, many see these measures as a new blow to the EU’s “green deal”, after the retreat on pesticides. “The Commission’s proposal, if it goes through to the end, is a threat to the greening of the CAP but also to the CAP itself. Its simplification should not be an unraveling. By rolling back common rules, this proposal calls into question the legitimacy of the CAP as the Union’s first budget,” warns Macronist MEP and President of the Environment Commission, Pascal Canfin. “Blindly abandoning environmental measures will not appease farmers who are suffering from unfair prices and the climate emergency, with long-term sustainability needs,” says Anu Suono of WWF. For the Polish Commissioner of Agriculture, these criticisms are unnecessary. He says he is convinced that “we obtain more results with encouragement and bonuses than with constraints”.