European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 21: Managing Resources

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Agriculture was long a headline issue in EU politics. It was one of the few policies listed in the Treaty of Rome, and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for decades topped the EC/EU budget. Spending on agriculture helped encourage greater production, contributing to the end of food shortages and providing essential investments in western Europe’s rural communities. But it also distorted markets, diverted resources away from other arguably more important priorities, and created tensions with the EU’s trading partners.

Attempts to reform agricultural policies were long resisted by western European farmers, but enlargement combined with the pressures of international trade regimes to force changes to CAP, which has since moved down the EU agenda. The contrasts offered by environmental policy could not be more clear. Environmental issues did not begin to appear on the European policy agenda until the late 1960s, and even then the response was not particularly strategic. It was only as public and political support for environmental management began to build in the late 1970s and early 1980s that environmental policy drew more attention, since when the focus of policy-making in the EU has shifted away from the member states. The underlying logic was twofold: different environmental standards stood as a barrier to the single market, and most environmental problems – particularly those relating to air pollution, water pollution, and the disposal of waste – are better addressed by states working together rather than in isolation. EU policy has helped transform Europe from a region that once lagged behind the United States to one that in many respects has set global standards for environmental management. On the headline problem of climate change, though, while the EU has a well-developed climate change programme, it has failed to take as much international leadership as it might.
  • Agriculture has been a far more prominent issue on the EU agenda than it is on the agendas of most economically developed states.
  • At the heart of EU activities has been the Common Agricultural Policy, which began as a system of price supports designed to prevent food shortages.
  • CAP encouraged greater production, but also swallowed large amounts of spending, skewed European and global markets, and raised the ire of environmentalists.
  • Reforms to CAP have switched the focus from quantity to quality, breaking the link between payments and the amount that farmers produce.
  • Fishing employs relatively few people in Europe, but has economic knock-on effects for coastal communities and for all EU coastal member states.
  • The Common Fisheries Policy was adopted in 1983, focusing on managing fishing fleets and catches, along with the welfare of the marine environment. But overfishing remains a problem in European waters as it does all over the world, and a more effective global regime is clearly needed.
  • The environment was a latecomer to the European policy agenda, drawing sustained political and public attention only from the late 1960s.
    EU policy focuses on sustainable development, and EU activities have focused on air and water quality, waste control, chemicals, and the protection of biodiversity.
  • EU chemicals policy has tightened up controls and management at home and has had global implications by affecting all states that seek access to the European market.
  • The EU has set itself ambitious targets on climate change, but has failed to build a global leadership position.