Can Phil Hogan transform the CAP from beige to green?

There are few words that bring a greater sinking feeling to your heart than being asked to be involved with a committee. In one of his wiser comments, Jeremy Clarkson once said that if a committee was asked to pick a colour there could only be one result – beige. This was on the grounds that there would be so many compromises the only result could be a colour no-one really liked, but over which no-one could be offended.

As farmers continue to struggle with the reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the death by committee aspects are becoming increasingly clear. This is particularly the case with greening, which by any standards is a mess. It is poorly understood in Brussels, by Member States and certainly by farmers struggling with rules of Byzantine complexity.

It is an open secret that the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, is not impressed with the CAP he inherited from his predecessor, Dacian Ciolos. The confusion we have today stems from the compromises made to get a deal in 2013. It also reflects the over technical approach of Mr Ciolos. Now the key question is whether to live with a messy CAP through to 2020, or use the planned review in 2017 to try to get the policy working better.

The temptation is to say ‘change it’ because it has so many problems. However, the lobby organisation that represents farmers and cooperatives, COPA-COGECA, has come out against turning the 2017 review into a mini-reform. Its concern is that this would put back on the table all the issues that proved so difficult in negotiations between the European Commission, farm ministers and European parliament. Top of that list would be the budget, and while there are many problems with the new CAP, one of its saving graces is that the budget settlement was not as bad as feared. A review that became a reform would throw everything back in the air, and COPA-COGECA is concerned about the prospect of further uncertainty for farmers.

Mr Hogan is not happy with what he inherited from his predecessor, but he is a wise enough politician to know that a positive outcome cannot be guaranteed by reopening a deal. This makes simplification all the more important. If he gets this right, Mr Hogan will go down as one of the great farm commissioners. In so far as he has recognised the problem and wants to do something about it, he is off to a good start.

If a mini-reform is off the agenda for 2017 the industry needs to focus on getting what it wants from simplification. The main issue is greening, not least because it can only get worse next year when the land in environmental focus areas (EFAs) rises from five to 7%. Greening was designed to sell the CAP to taxpayers, but they do not understand what it is meant to achieve.

This is all pointing to simplification becoming the only show in town. Mr Hogan has made it clear that simplification will be an ongoing process for his term as commissioner. Without reopening the deal, he can alter the so-called delegated acts that turned the political deal reached in 2013 into legislation. However, when it comes to some areas, led by greening, the deal was so bad that it might prove impossible to fix through simplification. Mr Hogan may then have to be brave enough to go to farm ministers and MEPs and admit this, telling them that these aspects of the deal need to be changed, and it is up to them not to allow other issues onto the agenda.

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