Farming: An EU success story

Written by Jerzy Plewa on 12 December 2017 in Opinion

The communication on future food and farming indicates the way forward for EU farming, says Jerzy Plewa.

Farming | Photo credit: Press Association

Last month, the Commission presented its vision on how to enable Europe’s farming sector to continue to provide benefits for EU citizens while keeping EU rural areas attractive as living spaces.

Talking about EU food and farming means talking about a success story.

The EU has developed into a key player on world agricultural markets, and today is an ‘agri-food superpower’. 2016 was a record year, with agri-food exports worth €131bn.


This strong performance in international trade has continued in 2017. EU agriculture and the wider rural communities, in which farmers are key players, are a fundamental pillar of this success. 

Agriculture provides high-quality inputs to the EU’s food industry and contributes to food security for over 500 million European citizens. 

Our farmers are also the principal stewards of the natural environment, as they care for the natural resources on 48 per cent of the EU’s land (with foresters a further 36 per cent).

The EU’s rural areas are home to 55 per cent of its citizens while serving as major bases for employment, recreation and tourism.

For more than 50 years, the common agricultural policy (CAP) has provided the framework for successful adaptations of our farming sector and rural areas to changing circumstances.

By embracing market orientation, it provides the very basis for the success of our agri-food sector; increasingly paying attention to environmental concerns, incentivising beneficial practices both on mandatory and voluntary terms; and enabling agriculture to keep its place throughout Europe, contributing to the economic and sociocultural life of our rural areas. With challenges ahead, these achievements cannot be taken for granted.

Since the last reform of the CAP in 2013, the context in which agricultural production takes places has undergone important changes. The debate on the future governance of the EU, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, new EU policy priorities (migration) and commitments at international level (on climate change and the UN Sustainable Development Goals) have all raised important questions around the future of the EU farming and food sector.

EU agriculture itself faces several challenges: the recent crisis of agricultural markets posed questions about the sector’s resilience, pressure on natural resources and climate change continue to increase in importance, while action is needed to enable rural areas throughout the EU to be living spaces of tomorrow. 

At the same time, there are opportunities not to be missed: a knowledge-based EU agricultural sector offers solutions in terms of competitiveness, sustainability and simplification and agriculture has a role to play in addressing the challenges ahead, e.g. by providing environmental public goods and services.

This has led to long-term reflections on how to keep the CAP fi t for purpose. How can the policy help EU agriculture flourish? How can the policy become simpler and reduce the administrative burden for farmers and administrations? How can it be made more effective while increasing responsibility for member states?

Following a year of intensive consultations with stakeholders and citizens, the communication on the future of food and farming provides broad policy orientation and guidance to steer the debate on what the CAP should look like in future, without prejudging the next multi-annual financial framework (MFF).

For the CAP to meet Europe’s challenges successfully and to contribute to the Commission’s political priorities (such as boosting employment, growth and investment; harnessing the potential of bio-economy, the circular economy and the energy union) as well as to the SDGs, it will need to: foster a smart and resilient agricultural sector; bolster environmental care and climate action and to contribute to the environmental and climate objectives of the EU; and strengthen the socio-economic fabric of rural areas.

The communication focuses on more ambitious delivery on environment and climate by moving towards smart farming (training, advice and innovation) combined with substantial improvements in the policy design.

The current green architecture would be replaced by a streamlined system of conditionality complemented by voluntary instruments implying more possibilities for member states for targeted action. It also seeks to establish a knowledge-based EU agriculture. Agriculture needs research and innovation not only in laboratories but on the ground. 

For the CAP, this would imply a general strengthening of farm advice, but also enhancing synergies with research and innovation policy. This will address concerns about access to technology for small and medium sized farms and to provide incentives for precision farming.

Europe’s farmers also need a more targeted and fairer support system. Direct payments remain an essential part of the CAP with a view to ensuring farm income; however, to resolve perceived ‘unfairness’, several avenues to be further explored are proposed (e.g. compulsory reduction of support for larger farms through a compulsory ‘capping of direct payments’ and/or reduced levels of aid to farms above a certain size).

The proposal seeks to introduce greater flexibility, simplification and performance-orientation. In line with the logic of the Commission’s ‘budget focused on results’ approach, the CAP should be more result-driven with increased subsidiarity, giving member states a much greater role in rolling out the schemes, pursuing targets and help reduce the EU-related administrative burden for beneficiaries.

The future CAP could focus on the objectives and expected results, while leaving room for member states and regions to address their specificities.

Over the coming months, work on the concrete objectives, architecture and design of the future policy (e.g. impact assessment exploring different options) will advance in parallel with preparation of the next MFF expected in May 2018. 

The legislative proposals of the different sectorial policies, including the CAP, are also expected around that time. The exchanges with citizens, stakeholders, Parliament and member states on the ideas laid out in the communication will be important in developing our proposals. I look forward to those exchanges.


About the author

Jerzy Plewa is Director-General of the European Commission’s DG agriculture and rural development

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