Clara Aguilera: Rural defender
As the EU fights climate change, farmers are often blamed for the environmental effects of their activities. Clara Aguilera explains that instead of making cuts to the CAP budget, the EU must provide more support to farmers or risk seeing most of Europe’s agricultural areas dwindle in the coming decades.
With the creation of the RUMRA and Smart Villages Intergroup, how do you hope to improve the lives of people living in rural areas?
This intergroup is not new; it already existed in the previous legislature. What we have now done is to broaden its objectives and participants with more members along with economic and social entities. Our objectives are also more ambitious, and we intend to discuss new ideas that will be passed on as political proposals to the institutions. We must strengthen political action in European rural areas from a horizontal rather than a sectoral perspective, in order to avoid depopulation and abandonment. This will contribute to greater cohesion of the territories and generate greater interest in the people of Europe as a whole.
What policies would you like the commission and the Croatian presidency to put forward to support rural, mountainous and remote areas?
We have two major issues pending, which - although they do not depend solely on this Croatian presidency - I would like to see unblocked. The first is the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), where I would like the Council to come up with an ambitious proposal without cuts to agricultural and cohesion policies. If we really want more and better Europe, we must meet the demands of citizens, with an ambitious budget and no cuts in the coming years, as the European Parliament has said. Second, we in Parliament are working on reforming the CAP. I hope that the presidency will encourage the debate in the Council so that it can be concluded this year. With regard to rural, mountainous and remote areas, I would like to see support for a European strategy against the demographic challenge. This is a package of measures designed to combat depopulation, promote connectivity and “smart villages” and to support young people in those areas. The aim should be to consolidate a Welfare State inclusive of rural areas, one that commits to bring public welfare services closer to all citizens, regardless of the size of the population, its geographical location or the age of its population, and to ensure opportunity equality.
"If we cannot obtain fair prices for farmers for their produce and a decent and adequate income with the support of the CAP and with market prices, most of Europe’s agricultural areas will disappear in the next 15 or 20 years"
Why is depopulation such a problem for Europe? From your personal experience, how has the rural exodus, particularly among young people, impacted Spain?
One objective of all the European institutions is to promote territorial cohesion and equal opportunities for all. However, belonging to a rural or urban area determines the chances of finding a job or having access to quality public health, educational or cultural services and enjoying good telecommunications. This has led to a rural exodus to urban areas, and from inland areas to coastal cities. This is a widespread problem throughout Europe, and European proposals and actions in this area must be undertaken in addition to national ones. I must also say that there are regions and countries that have taken more effective political action to prevent this, as in the case of Andalusia in Spain, where the rural population has been reasonably sustained during the last twenty years. In other Spanish regions, such as Galicia or Castilla y León, the current situation is critical.
What are the biggest challenges in tackling rural depopulation and how is it linked to territorial cohesion?
The challenges lie in job creation or quality self-employment in villages or rural areas. Other issues, such as the availability of public services, particularly internet access, the improvement of communications infrastructure and, of course, gender policies that would promote and facilitate work for women in these rural areas. All of these issues are essential when it comes to sustaining a population. In my opinion, the link between depopulation and territorial cohesion is clear; someone in Europe should not find it more difficult to access services and rights simply because of where they live, be it a large city, a village, an island or an ultra-peripheral region. To avoid the distances or difficulties pertaining to a location, there are specific policies aimed at overcoming territorial discrimination or inequality between people.
How do you think the use of digital technologies and smart villages will help to address the problem of ‘empty Spain’ and other parts of Europe facing the same challenge?
I believe that access to digital technologies and the promotion of Smart Villages is crucial for villages to be able to offer job creation or self-employment opportunities. Closing the digital divide between rural and urban areas is essential in accessing all the opportunities offered by the digital world. The ‘digital’ update is of great importance, but it must be accompanied by others - which I mentioned earlier - that are equally essential. It is absolutely vital to implement specific programmes for women in rural areas, which can enhance their visibility and the recognition of their social role in rural areas and discourage them from leaving.
"With regard to rural, mountainous and remote areas, I would like to see support for a European strategy against the demographic challenge"
What are your priorities for the 2021-2027 cap negotiations? Do you think that the reform of the cap will succeed in adopting a new environmentally sustainable model?
It is crucial to reach an agreement on improving the current needs of European agriculture and livestock farming, in order to strengthen these sectors and improve agricultural income in European regions. In particular, I will defend maintaining the current CAP budget without any cuts. We cannot ask more from farmers while reducing the agricultural policy budget. In addition, I would prefer that the debate on the European Commission’s proposal (which includes increasing the subsidiarity of Member States) avoids paving the way for a covert re-nationalisation of the CAP, where each State ends up setting out its own agricultural policy. If this happens, the different support that European farmers would receive severely distort the European internal market. With regard to the adoption of a more environmentally sustainable model, I believe that the current CAP is already changing important things, which we can continue to improve on through this reform. I believe that with the so-called ‘enhanced conditionality’ for all farmers and the new ‘eco-schemes’ - which I hope will be mandatory for States and voluntary for farmers - together with some improvements in the rural development policies of the second pillar, the role of the CAP in its environmental aspects can be substantially improved. However, I would like to point out that I am equally concerned over economic and social sustainability. If we cannot obtain fair prices for farmers for their produce and a decent and adequate income with the support of the CAP and with market prices, most of Europe’s agricultural areas will disappear in the next 15 or 20 years.
The CAP has been criticised for problems of corruption and misappropriation of funds. How should the EU and member states improve the cap?
The CAP is very bureaucratic, hence the constant demand to carry out further simplifications of its procedures and processes. It is, of course, logical that we should be exacting with the use of public resources. According to the European Court of Auditors, the error rate in CAP payments in Member States was 2.4 percent and I hope that this can be brought down to zero. News of the embezzlement of CAP funds and corruption, as published by the NY Times, has caused alarm. These journalistic accusations conflate the method of land acquisition in some Member States - an issue not regulated by the CAP - with embezzlement and corruption of CAP funds. I do not think it is a coincidence that this issue, which aims to discredit the European model of support for European agriculture, should come from a country that is attacking this policy. Starting with Spanish table olives, and is now imposing tariff s on other European agricultural foodstuff s, is this a coincidence or not? Personally, I trust the European Court of Auditors more than the statements made in the US press.
"I will defend maintaining the current CAP budget without any cuts. We cannot ask more from farmers while reducing the agricultural policy budget"
Can territorial cohesion policies address the problem of populism, where people in disadvantaged areas feel abandoned? What do you expect from the forthcoming negotiations on the multiannual financial framework?
I believe that more successful work in territorial cohesion policies would certainly help to avoid populism, but there is more to it than that. I believe that the situation for European farmers and fishermen, who are obliged to comply with the highest standards, must be improved, and they have to compete in the European internal market with imports from third countries with other rules and lower production costs, without the requirement of ‘reciprocity’ included in the treaties and agreements. In addition, they are often considered to be major contributors to climate change. Instead, what needs to happen is to implement changes in production methods that represent greater environmental sustainability. This would help prevent them from becoming sectors where populism and anti-European sentiment are growing in most European countries, including my own, Spain. Regarding the Multiannual Financial Framework, I would like to add that there are no more excuses, after the departure of the United Kingdom, for not concluding an ambitious agreement between European governments that sends a clear message of commitment to Europe. To this end, there must be no cuts and they must achieve a position closer to the proposal adopted by the European Parliament of providing more resources to the Union. We have been working towards that objective at the Spanish socialist delegation and the Social Democrat Group in the Parliament.
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