Common Agricultural Policy post-2020: interview with Thomas Norrby

Overview of the future of the CAP:

The European Commission's plans for the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are ambitious to make the EU's agricultural policy more agile regarding current and future challenges. At the same time, however, it should continue to back European farmers and answer their needs. The Commission’s proposal for the next CAP, presented in 2018, aims to have a more intuitive and innovative policy that encourages a sustainable, prosperous and competitive agricultural sector. Given the current state of play of the CAP reform discussions in the European Parliament and Council as well as of the ongoing MFF negotiations, the new rules and the CAP Strategic Plans will not enter into force as of 1 January 2021. Instead, negotiators from the Council and the Parliament have informally developed a common understanding on an interim two-year period where current CAP rules will apply before the next EU farming subsidies programme starts. This means that eventually, the coming into force of the post-2020 CAP will be pushed back to 2023. 

In their first physical meeting since the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, on the 20th of July, all EU agriculture ministers advanced negotiations on the reform of the CAP post 2020. They discussed the green architecture foreseen in the reform package and in particular the possibility of having a minimum budget for eco-schemes. The eco-schemes, a new element of the CAP reform, aim at further incentivising farmers to adopt climate and environment-friendly practices, also through direct payments. For the period 2021-27, the European Commission proposes that the common agricultural policy (CAP) be built around nine key objectives. Focused on social, environmental and economic goals, these objectives will be the basis upon which EU countries design their CAP strategic plans.

The objectives are: 

• to ensure a fair income to farmers; 

• to increase competitiveness;

• to rebalance the power in the food chain;

• climate change action;

• environmental care;

• to preserve landscapes and biodiversity;

•to support generational renewal;

• vibrant rural areas;

• to protect food and health quality. 

During the plenary session of October 20th, 21st, and 22nd, the European Parliament defined the architecture and the main lines of CAP reform it intends to see implemented from 2023 onwards and which it will defend during the negotiations that will begin in November with the Council, in the presence of the Commission (Trilogues). Voting on the other sessions will take place in the following days. The European Parliament, as the bearer of a European and common ambition for the Common Agricultural Policy, has chosen, in all responsibility, to move away from the reform proposal presented in 2018 by the European Commission. Farm Europe, who warned since the Commission proposal about the risks of a denationalisation, welcomes the fact that the European parliament has rectified the direction, by underlying the “C” in the CAP. Faced with a proposal that would split the CAP into 27 national policies, with a higher risk of market distortions, by cutting the relationship between Europe and the final beneficiary of this policy and by placing on the Member States’ shoulders the essential responsibilities, the European Parliament voted by a very large majority (more than 2/3) in favour of:

• a policy with common agricultural, environmental and social ambitions for all the territories of the European Union,

• a policy to reconcile the economy and the environment, for European agriculture and for our rural areas,

• a policy that is transparent in the management of European funds and capable of demonstrating its effectiveness and measuring the results it generates,

• a policy that does not confuse necessary flexibility with renationalisation,

• lastly, a policy endorsing the European social acquis.

The MEPs propose a rebalancing of the priorities and tools of both the 1st and 2nd pillars around a search for dual economic and environmental performance. This is an essential first step in order to start negotiations in Trilogues, as soon as the Council of Agriculture Ministers, too, will be in a position to do so with a general approach bearing a European ambition and moving away from the initial reactions of seeking maximum flexibilities to the detriment of the common good that only a European dimension can ensure.

To discuss the future of the CAP, we have sat down together with Thomas Norrby from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences based in Uppsala. Thomas works at the Department of Urban and Country as a state consultant and teacher to establish and run various forms of collaborations between rural actors and our students and researchers. As a partner in GO-GRASS, Thomas was very kind to share his thoughts on the next CAP and we were able to pick his brains on what it actually means for rural development


Will the new CAP really be simplified?

  We should discuss the CAP in a more in general on one hand, and on the other, how it lands in each EU country because it’s different in how each Member State approaches it. We can be critical, but rather than being pessimistic; I would rather say that I am hopeful but have some reservations about how this is going to work. The term ‘simplification’ is a slippery word and so far, it has mostly led only to more problems on the farm level and on the project level, because we have simplified it for the administrations but not for the project owners and that has been obvious for many years now. We have done many evaluations of the previous periods and made many suggestions on how to change and go in another direction and have another way of thinking, because if one simplifies the framework, one still remains within the same framework. And this affects, above all, small project owners and deters many people from applying because it is too expensive to engage in the project. However, we should also recognise that we are spending the money, so that means there are sufficient number of project applications.

Simplification, in my understanding, has only made things more complicated so far. And we can also see in many cases that among the applicants for the project we have many academics, which means one has to have an academic understanding in order to apply, which is not a very democratic way to do things. However, some of the successful simplifications also exists: for example, lump sum payments under LEADER that have worked. (Note: The Leader programme is one of the Community Initiatives (established in 1991) with a specific focus on rural innovation and the task to improve quality of life at local level through a bottom-up approach. Leader has become a constituent part of Rural Development Policies.)

Does the new delivery method really address local challenges or does it risk ‘nationalising’ the CAP? 

It is really important that we have national policies for rural developments. The CAP is only a limited amount of money compared it to the total amount of money that goes into transfers from national budgets. Regional development money and CAP money is important, especially for agriculture, but if you look at rural development in a broader context, we need national policy programmes where CAP can fit in. It shouldn’t be the other way around- it should not be that a national approach is formed because of having a certain CAP. We need national policy programmes where that CAP, the regional fund, the social fund, the fisheries fund, and cohesion fund can all fit in. In the case of Sweden, we did not have a political programme for rural development until 2018. There were a lot of different actions but not a concise programme. That decision came from the parliamentary committee where we tried to identify major barriers for developments. So we really need national policy programmes and it is important that we have nationalisation to a certain extend. It is very important that we don’t have this supranational push downwards – it should all be applied in a sensible way into the national approach.

Each country’s problems should be identified separately and addressed accordingly. For example, in Sweden we have a very strong trust of authorities and vice versa and when we get the EU programmes, something is lost in translation because there is no trust between bureaucrats and entrepreneurs. We have people afraid at every level about losing project money, causing fear to be a very big tool in the administration of EU projects.

What impact will Brexit have on the new CAP budget? 

A reflection – I held a lecture yesterday on EU programmes and rural development. And for the first time it was clear to me that UK was grey on the map instead of blue. It is going to have a huge impact on budget but there is also this feeling of loss. The UK will be on the same level as Norway has been all the time, but it feel like the family isn’t complete anymore. I have fears for the reason behind Brexit! Why do we have this sense of not belonging, why do we have this sense of rural and urban divide? Why do we have people moving to urban areas from rural areas believing that urban centres have been strengthened by EU policy? Which, by the way, is extremely true. If you look at the Cohesion Policy, and the programmes that were executed last period – only 30% have landed in rural areas and in Sweden only 20%. The takeaway from this is that the money doesn’t trickle down, therefore, in the end that does not bring cohesion.  So the reason behind Brexit is more worrying for us Europeans than the Brexit itself. 

What role for technology in the new CAP? How will it be financed? 

The most interesting new feature of the current programme that we are in is EIP - the European Innovation Partnership for Agriculture. That has brought about a very interesting innovation system – and the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems (AKIS) has become a renewed because we worked on it already in the 70s but its been renewed now which is great. To be fossil free by 2030 we need so may new changes and those changes are not only technical but very systemic. So the innovation systems have to include technology and people and social systems – it isn’t technology in agriculture which will help us, it’s not natural science that will help us, but social innovation. LEADER in itself was social innovation – how to join public private partnerships and if we apply that to innovation – that’s what I am trying to do in my area here in Uppsala, we are trying to create a social innovation platform with existing innovation system promoters are supporting social innovation as well as technical innovation, because we know that natural science will not take us there. We already know all the answers in natural science but that has not carried across to applications. So there is some kind of gap in understanding in uptake and making it actually applicable. That is also a problem with our universities- they are too inward thinking and it’s a system for itself and it’s a good system, we need people from the outside observing and analysing, but we need universities to contribute and become more engaged universities- really create interaction and engagement , thus engaging stakeholders, thus creating research questions which are based in reality and not only on your desktop. In innovation we talk about agile programming and agile process facilitation and development. And we need to have both long and short process cycles, and not only long cycles where it takes 3 years for someone to say something. Universities are key in one aspect but they need to find new methods to be more interactive and more engaged in societal development on all levels. We could contribute to rural development if we had more small projects. If we look at LEADER, we could really point out how the small projects, and I mean, really really small projects, those are the ones that made the biggest impact.

Does the new CAP address the main challenges farmers face? What priorities still need to be addressed?

It certainly addresses the major aspects. We need to find ways to protect our soil- we cannot exploit our soil the way we are doing it now. This point is a bit difficult because this is in the national programmes. National governments decide whether municipalities can exploit their land or not, so this issue needs to be addressed on a national level. Another issue that is addressed- we have a generational shift and we need to think how young people can be included more and this is addressed in the new CAP quite clearly.

Then, how do we get consumers to invest in agriculture? I would have liked to see more programmes on community supported agriculture. In Sweden, we have this positive example of local food nodes – we have more than 500,000 people participating and I think that’s incredible! It’s 5% of total population in Sweden. These people are the members of local food nodes buying and selling via Facebook. I started my local food node in May,2020 and in 3 days I had 300 people in the group. One week later we had more than 1300 people in it, and today we are 2000 people. And this exists in our small community of 7000 people. What we do is this: every second Thursday we put out a small announcement from the small producers in the area and they do it themselves, and then people go on Facebook and buy different amounts of the produce and then it is delivered a week later. And this is amazing because we have 5000 plus people doing this in over 220 Facebook groups in Sweden. It emanated from France and then Finland, and then was taken up here in Sweden. This shows that there is a will and interest from consumers to contribute to local food markets and especially now during COVID-19 times, we need that sense of connection.

But an overarching problem is how do we balance our energy and food production on long term with no fossil fuel. And we are not sure if enough resources are put on that. We have to have clear programmes on biodiversity and balance the food production at the same time, so it’s very hard to look after ongoing business and implement change at the same time, because whoever does it, is always up to critique.

How to ensure the CAP can support competition? What can the EU learn from its competitors? 

The best way onward is not competition but cooperation. We need to find better bonds between urban and rural and this is more important than competing. Adding value and adding to the story of food in general is essential. We need to contribute to changing the concept of food having to be cheap. That said, that’s a privilege for people that can actually buy more expensive food- and it also differs in European countries to what extent we really need to have cheap foods available for the bulk of the population. Cheap food will never give us a sustainable food system so it’s a contradiction in terms, which, I am not sure, how it can be handled. I think it’s better to handle and set up the rules for what is accepted and what is not - what kind of production is accepted, rather than asking farmers to produce cheap food. If competition equals cheap then, I think that’s losing the battle already. It’s rather that we need to set up the boundaries for a wise food system rather a cheap food system. So that is the pathway to being able to compete: first, making sure we do not accept food which lacks nutrition which is produced in a way that depletes the soil and hurts the planet. For example in Sweden, on the one hand we have the CAP that demands how things can be produced while on the other hand, the schools are buying the cheapest food available, which is produced in a way that does not comply with the rules and regulations which apply to our agriculture. So the systems are not coherent and that cannot be changed within the CAP only- that has to be changed in other programmes. So in that sense, the only way onward is to make coherent policies.

We thank Thomas for this interesting talk and hope for the best outcome for the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy.


European Commission: Key policy objectives of the future CAP