The EU will lose about eight per cent of its current income after Brexit and is thinking about how to adjust to this loss. Given that the CAP accounts for 39 per cent of EU expenditure, it is at the forefront of concerns.
The European Commission has published a 'reflections' document on possible ways forward: EU finances
In terms of what it has to say about agriculture, it is an interesting mix of sticking to old orthodoxies and some signs of new thinking.
On the negative side, it sticks to the discredited argument that direct payments offer a form of 'income support that partially fills the gap between agricultural income and comparable income for other economic sectors.' It is a highly inefficient and poorly targeted means of delivering income support. Later down the same page, we are told that 80 per cent of support goes to 20 per cent of farms. (Actually, this is a stylised fact based on the Pareto rule: the actual figure is lower than 80 per cent).
We are also told that 'thanks to the CAP, European citizens have access to safe, affordable and high quality food.' One could argue that this is the result of technological advances and the innovations made by many farmers in response to changing patterns of consumer demand. Do the citizens of New Zealand lack access to food with these qualities despite the absence of subsidies?
The paper does admit that 'There is no consensus on the level of income support necessary when taking into account competitiveness within the sector.' This is because the policy does not have a competitiveness objective and is not designed to promote competitiveness.
Indeed, high tariff barriers allow uncompetitive practices to continue). A graph makes the claim that 'Agricultural trade balance shows a competitive sector', but makes no reference to the way in which tariffs keep out price competitive imports. Indeed, it is admitted that 'In some cases, these [CAP] payments do not contribute to the structural development of the sector but tend to increase land prices that may hinder the entry of young farmers into the market.'
There is a greater recognition of the need to deliver 'climate public goods and services', a serious omission in the current policy. There is also a recognition of the need to encourage farmers to invest in new technologies which is forming part of the UK debate on a new domestic agricultural policy.
The document envisages 'the introduction of a degree of national co-financing for direct payments in order to sustain the overall levels of current support.' This will not go down well in countries such as France which benefit from the current distribution of CAP funds.
There is also reference to reducing direct payments for large farms. It is suggested that there should be a new 'focus on farmers under special constraints, e.g., small farms, mountainous areas and sparsely populated regions.' Again, care will be needed to ensure that the chosen policy instruments do really tackle problems such as rural depopulation. For example, improving rural broadband might be a more effective way of stimulating new economic activity rather than propping up farms that lack viability.