Rural Development back on the agenda at Cork

Rural development has not enjoyed much of the European limelight in recent years. Other preoccupations, such as migration, sluggish economic progress, and now Brexit have occupied the centre stage. Within the rural policy world it has been Pillar 1 of the CAP, crisis in the dairy markets, safety nets, greening, simplification and concern about the budget that have absorbed the air time and the attention of ministers.

So there were risks in gathering 300 people in Cork twenty years after a celebrated conference that galvanised the principle that rural development (including the environment) was a Pillar of the CAP (formalised as the rural development regulation in 2000) rather than a complicated accompaniment to the agricultural support regime. Commissioner Hogan was not in a position to make any announcements about imminent policy developments and the President of Com Agri in the Parliament didn’t choose to reveal any new insights. This meant that the ideas and the impetus had to come mainly from the participants and a well organised facilitation team. The action took place in four parallel workshops, all feeding in to final conclusions and the ten point Declaration.

This unusually bottom up approach was appreciated by most of the delegates, especially as there was a concerted effort to come up with positive ways forward. Lying behind the Declaration was a shared sense that rural policy needed new vigour and a refreshed sense of direction. Otherwise there was a danger of it being relegated to a lower tier of EU priorities and the budget could decline with it, either in the course of the MFF review or subsequently. As Franz Fischler concluded in his response to the declaration, the logic of Cork 1 was ready to be taken further, moving on from a two pillar approach, where ‘rural’ rather than ‘agriculture’ should be the main driver going forward towards an integrated, single and more strategic policy framework for rural areas.

The Declaration itself asserts the case for adopting the second Pillar approach in the whole of the CAP, stating that “The architecture of the CAP must be based on a common strategic and programming framework that provides for targeting all interventions to well-defined economic, social and environmental objectives” (point 8 - Governance).

There was a confident tone in language about improved performance, smart administration – not just simplification – addressing the climate agenda, digitisation and the need for policies to be accountable, more results-focussed and fit for purpose. Rural societies are not inherently backward and provide much more for society than is generally recognised. While there were certainly calls for more and better focussed support this was accompanied by demands for rural identity to be celebrated with greater pride and stakeholders to work together more effectively to secure their place in any reconsideration of European priorities.

At the same time it is clear that the potential of rural policies is not always realised and more value could be added; for example through the wider application of performance related schemes. In several workshops it was clear that trust had been lost in parts of the policy and funding chains. Administrations have become increasingly concerned about the risk of penalties and disallowance where relatively minor infringements have occurred and farmers fear that the details of control cramp their options in unnecessary ways and expose them to penalties as well. Risk averse policies can take over in these conditions, conflicting directly with attempts to harness innovation and creative solutions to the issues faced, which often need risks to be taken. Reversing this trend will not be straightforward but the stage is set for more effort to do so. The same is true of work towards a greener rural economy, the better integration of migrants and wider social inclusion, shorter supply chains.

Solutions proposed were diverse. Hogan explicitly backed the call for the rural proofing of all EU policies. More information, training, engagement and facilitation, alongside greater awareness amongst consumers and others in value chains and recognition of the economic and health values of the environment were approaches that cropped up in nearly every workshop. Administrations are often reluctant to give these softer measures much priority, not least because the challenge of measuring results. However, the Cork discussions indicate that this culture needs to change. Land managers and small businesses are facing a transition to a different world with limited resources to appreciate all the consequences and need support and direction, irrespective of financial assistance.

How far this burst of energy and call for new directions is followed through in practice remains to be seen. It is certainly relevant to the current thinking on the future of the CAP as the Commissioner acknowledged in closing the Conference. It provides a basis from which new approaches and ideas can flow in what promises to be an interesting year ahead.


13 Sep 2016


David Baldock