The halt in greening European farming – and the Greek pat on the back

The calculation was easy: throughout Europ/ the EU “27”, just over 2.2% of the population are farmers – and growing food accounts for just 1,4% of total GDP. For the better part of the Sixties and through to the Nineties, their interests were as close to the heart of the European edifice as possible, with the CAP at its core. The CAP absorbed a sizeable portion of the total EU budget; it also pushed free-market-oriented Brussels towards a protectionist corner in matters of trade in agricultural products.

As environmental sensibilities took front-stage position in European politics, with political parties in many (if not in most…) EU Member States falling over one another to get the stamp of greening, the political capital to be reaped by turning the CAP to an environment-friendly direction became all too obvious The Brussels reflex to take the high moral ground gave the greening of agriculture a quasi-missionary colour. Keeping land fallow “par ordre du mufti” so that images of pristine landscapes survive in Europe was one further front; setting strict deadlines for the termination of pesticide use and fertilizer excess took also a moral tint.

The use of technology and the shift to ever-newer cultivation methods bridged the gap caused in farming efficiency – after all, European farming does not operate in a void; the global agricultural trade sets the pace and the gradual deconstruction of the protectionist set-up of the CAP had its cost in farming competitivity.

In countries where a higher percentage of the population is engaged in farming such as Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, or where such percentage is low but the economic performance of the agriculture sector is extremely high as in the Netherlands (2.5% of the population is engaged in farming 66% of the land, producing some 100 bn euros worth, that is more than 10% of the country’s GDP), pressures were mounting for quite some time to put a stop in the greening single-mindedness of the CAP. Along, that is with its ever-more complex and restrictive rules (“we are working far more in filling forms or producing reports than in tilling the land or caring for livestock” is a complaint heard ever so often in agri-roundtables).

Then came along the energy crisis and the significant cost increase in agricultural inputs, which made for farmers’ unrest in major countries. France with a tradition of taking to the streets, Germany discovering the attractiveness of protest – the stage was set for the recent show of anger and recrimination and claims for CAP change.

In a country like Greece, with some 10% of the population engaged in small-holding farming and with quite strong ties of city-dwellers to the countryside, this trend accelerated for three reasons: environmental awareness is still rather low; a tradition of protest still runs high; negotiating sweet deals for special segments of farming with Brussels has run out of speed some time ago. Add to this the ravages brought about by the climate crisis (and the limits in compensation for loss of productive capacity) and a cocktail of anger, powerlessness and sense of abandonment comes to the fore. Not nice.

With elections for the European Parliament looming in five months time, the political mix is getting too potent to be ignored. So, while the sanctity of the CAP and of its greening core stand still intact, the recent weeks of farmers’ mobilisations across Europe brought about meetings of EU worthies with the likes of Copa-Cogeca or Boerenbond formers’ organizations; push-back on fallow-land requirements or on the farming trade with Mercosur countries (or even with Ukraine). While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted on “reaching climate neutrality by 2050”, she also mentioned the need to “defend the legitimate interests of farmers in trade negotiations” and termed “administrative burden a matter close to [my] heart”. Plus, a pat on the back for farmers (“they have shown remarkable resilience in the face of recent crisis”).

Back to Greece: an array of minor support measures to compensate for ever higher energy prices, with a push towards renewables, plus special schemes for making good some part of the damage of last year’s natural disaster. Plus, here to, a pat on the back; plus promises for further support sometime after the 2024 summer – safely after the European Parliament elections, that is.