Emmanuel Macron breaks French taboo on farm subsidies
France’s president has crossed the manure-lined Rubicon.
In a shift liable to ignite a civil war in French politics, Emmanuel Macron is breaking with France’s traditionally ironclad defense of farmers’ subsidies.
If one thing was ever considered certain in negotiations over the EU budget every seven years, it was that France would prove to be the most defiant bulwark against more liberal Northern and Eastern European economies that regard farm subsidies as an unjustifiably lavish relic of another era.
But now even France is signaling that the Common Agricultural Policy is not the sacred cow it once was, and that a sweeping new approach is required. Britain’s departure from the EU is set to blow a €12 billion annual hole in the 2021-2027 budget cycle — a funding shortfall that is forcing a significant strategic reconsideration of the bloc’s spending.
With defense, security, migration and digital technology emerging as clear strategic priorities for Brussels, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the sacrosanct status afforded to farmers, particularly the bigger landowners. Under the current budget, a massive €58 billion a year, or some 40 percent of the EU budget, goes to CAP payments, but 80 percent of that money heads to only 20 percent of farms.
French President Emmanuel Macron visits a farm in Chateauponsac in Haute-Vienne | Pascal Lachenaud/AFP via Getty Images
According to a December letter seen by POLITICO and first reported by Contexte news website, Paris is urging Brussels to prioritize defense and education while undertaking a “deep reform of the oldest policies (the Common Agricultural Policy — CAP — and cohesion policy)” in order to “better meet the challenges to which these policies must respond, for the sake of looking for efficiency and to add value at the European level.”
To the last euro
The language of the letter — accepting the need for wholesale change — is dramatically different from Fortress France’s normally unyielding statements on preserving the status quo in farm funding. A Commission proposal on the budget is expected in May, and France would ordinarily be expected to be portraying the CAP as an inviolable red line.
Look back seven years, for example, and then-President Nicolas Sarkozy was vowing to protect the size of France’s CAP pot “down to the last euro” when confronted with EU Commissioner for Budget Janusz Lewandowski’s plans to cut agricultural subsidies. “No one should imagine that we’ll allow the destruction of the Common Agricultural Policy. My capacity to accept a compromise on this red line is zero — plus zero,” he said at the time.
Given France’s history in the formation of EU farm policy, Paris’s change of tone is remarkable. Post-war French politicians almost single-handedly created the CAP in 1962 after demanding a system of direct money transfers for their farmers in exchange for agreeing to a common European marketplace. The country also remains the largest net beneficiary of the policy, receiving some €9 billion a year from Brussels.
Paris’ message did not drop out of the blue. In a wide-ranging speech on his policy priorities in September, Macron questioned whether the CAP was working for either farmers or consumers and said that the country should be allowed to ask itself questions about the regime “without taboos.”
Paris’ latest statement, drafted by the Secretariat-General of European Affairs, does not explicitly endorse budget cuts, but many in Brussels are reading between the lines. European Commissioner for Budget Günther Oettinger, for example, told POLITICO that he welcomes Macron’s willingness to tackle CAP funding.
European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources Guenther Oettinger | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images
“For the first time to announce: ‘Yes, we know we need some cuts, we have to accept some cuts,’ I think is a good signal,” he said, when asked about Macron’s position on agriculture.
“I think for his own credibility it’s important not just to say: ‘Here [it] is unfair … and we have to do more,’ but to say: ‘Here we are ready to come to a compromise’ and not to expect every euro, every cent for the rural areas and for the agricultural sector.”
Squandering France’s jewels
French MEP Michel Dantin, who belongs to the center-right European Peoples’ Party grouping, also saw the letter and — in a sign of the political storm into which the French government may be heading — called it “insane.”
“If the government chooses to bury forever the illusions of those who still think that France should be a farming country, as well as the primary and traditional defender of the CAP — that government is not mine,” he told POLITICO, adding that the policy is a jewel in France’s hands.
One EU diplomat dismissed the interpretation that Macron was signaling a willingness to see a reduction in CAP spending, however. “There’s no reduction of the CAP in that document, not even an implicit one,” he said. “The CAP is a true added value for Europe. What we say is that the CAP needs to be reformed. We’re not going to oppose farmers and researchers and young people.”
France’s finance ministry said it was not aware of the document.
If France’s 40-year-old president is ditching convention, however, he’s doing so with impeccable political timing. Most farm policy experts acknowledge that it is almost certain that farm funding is set to fall — and fighting the trend would mean wasting time on a losing battle.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker came close to admitting that farm funds would fall at a conference Monday, when he said he did not support “bloody” cuts that would wreak havoc on the farm industry.
While he promised to keep the blood loss to a minimum, he did not deny that some degree of surgery could prove necessary.