From the 20th until the 23rd of September, the European Council for Rural Law (CEDR) organised its 29th Congress in Lille (North of France). The congress was organised by the French Association for Rural Law (AFDR) and put emphasis on competition and competitive markets in agriculture.
The CEDR Congress takes places every two years and gathers participants within but also beyond Europe (such as Japan, the US and Argentina). The format of the congress includes three commissions where national representatives (called rapporteurs) present their reports on specific and critical issues arising since the previous congress.
During this congress, I was the general rapporteur, ie the chair, of Commission III on ‘Significant Current Developments in Rural Law’. My role was to synthesise the reports submitted by each national rapporteur and engage with them. At the end of the congress, recommendations (commonly agreed within the participants of Commission III) were formulated, which will be sent to DG-Agri. I am also in the process of finalising the general report for Commission III that will be published in the Congress proceedings.
Before the work in individual Commissions started, there was a series of interesting lectures and debates on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its future, in particular from Jerzy Plewa, the Director-General of the Agriculture and Rural Development Directorate-general (DG-Agri), Ricard Ramon i Sumoy, deputy head of the Policy Perspectives Unit of DG-Agri, and a representative from COPA-COGECA.
During Commission III, the passion and motivation of the national rapporteurs and participants came out strongly. Interesting and fruitful dialogues took place on significant rural and agricultural changes at national level. They led to constructive debates to move the discussion forward on the future of agriculture, the CAP and its challenges. On the whole, a positive outlook on the state of rural law and policy was taken by the rapporteurs on difficult but critical issues and the future of the CAP.
A significant aspect that came out quite strongly throughout the presentations and discussions during Commission III is the contrasting perspectives between rural practitioners and academics, and DG-Agri.
First, many participants in Commission III highlighted the importance of food per se as well as its relationship with agriculture and the CAP. However, the idea of moving to a European common policy on agriculture, food and environmental protection (away from a policy purely centred on agriculture) was abruptly dismissed by DG-Agri. This perspective is also quite different from the UK view that a future ‘agricultural policy’ should encompass agriculture, rural development, food and environmental protection.
Second, and again in relation to the social and societal aspects of agriculture, rapporteurs highlighted the critical role played by consumers and the public more generally in the food supply chain and agriculture. They noted that increasingly consumers carefully look at food traceability and labelling. The public also seeks food quality indicators by scrutinizing EU logos that show the origin and quality of foods, such as the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) logos. In contrast, the key representatives from DG-Agri interestingly appeared to overlook the public/consumer aspect of agriculture and the CAP in their speeches.
Third, different interpretations were given as to the roles of pillar 1 and pillar 2 of the CAP. For DG-Agri, pillar 1 is sectoral whereas pillar 2 is regional. Direct payments are the main instrument to maintain and support farmer’s income and reduce market risks such as price volatility. More transfer towards the second pillar would be a loss to the ‘C’, ie the unity and commonality, of the CAP. It would create too much subsidiarity in the CAP and this, in the long run, could be detrimental to agriculture because national laws would have too much power over the EU. Further, increased co-financing is considered to be too risky. In stark contrast, national representatives called for increased subsidiarity and for the EU institutions to further take into account regional and local conditions and needs whilst promoting agriculture and rural vitality.
Overall, what was put forward by DG-Agri failed to call for radical and inspired reforms.
Further, the UK leaving the EU did not attract much attention throughout the congress. Brexit and its impacts were evidently brought up by several national rapporteurs in relation to the loss of national exports to the UK and its economic consequences on the farming industry. Brexit was only mentioned in passing by DG-Agri in relation to the CAP budget.
Finally, three main conclusions were reached by Commission III, which I will mention here:
- First, a cohesive approach to agriculture and the CAP from farm to fork is to be embraced. In particular, further integration of the environment in agriculture is needed to improve the greening and sustainability of the CAP.
- Second, the role of science and technologies was identified as both a driver for and barrier to change. Topics like digitalisation, access to broadband, big data (including data sharing, liability and ownership aspects), livestock breeding (and animal welfare), antibiotics and veterinary feed, pesticides and herbicides were critically discussed. The issues of cost to access the technologies and whether these technologies truly help with democratisation were particularly identified as requiring further investigations and research.
- The difficult question of access to land was the third conclusion reached. On this point, disparate developments can be noticed in the EU. In Spain and Germany, land abandonment is increasingly becoming problematic whereas, in France and Poland, the legislator has intervened to prevent land grabbing, where the law precludes the acquisition of farmland by foreigners.