Sustainaible development and EU policies:
Karl Falkenberg’s proposals
Frédéric Courleux, advisor of Momagri
Following the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 193 United Na-tions members in September 2015, European Commission President Juncker has appointed Karl Falkenberg, the former Director-General for Environment at the Commission, to propose a strate-gy to better reconcile EU policies and sustainable development. Gathered in a document of about 30 pages published in July 2016, Falkenberg’s proposals should contribute to an upcoming Com-mission’s communication to be released in the fall of 2016. Beyond the proposals to rebuild Eu-rope on its founding principles––social market enconomy, solidarity and transparence––and to give substance to the triptych of sustainable development, the document provides new insights on finance, agriculture and the European trade policy. While the proposals regarding finance reg-ulation and changes in the WTO doctrine are indeed bold, we regret that the goal to give renewed momentum to EU policies gets far less attention on agricultural issues. Here’s an in-depth look.
« Sustainability Now ! »1 is the title of this strategic policy document released by the Commission’s internal think tank and signed by Karl Falkenberg, Senior Advisor for Sustainable Development to the European Commis-sion President. Building on the 2030 Agenda international commitments and its 17 SDGs, it is no more and no less than redesigning a policy project for a Europe currently beset by crisis and marked by a “growing disenchantment of European citizens against the building of Europe.”
In this unusual self-critical exercice, the European policy difficulties are reviewed in a broader con-text of economic, social and environmental crises in a world in search of an effective governance system to revive solidarity, and meet the challenges related to the depletion of natural resources. Often referring to quotations from President Juncker and from historical figures in the building of Europe––Monnet and Brandt––or from Pope Francis, the tone of the paper is resolutely political and universalist in its call to jump to action and determination in order to drive the required trans-formations to prevent the “de-cohesion” of our societies and “the collapse of civilization” (p.5).
Among the changes to put into practice and give substance to the sustainable development eco-nomic, social and environmental triptych, we particularly note the charge against the concept of resilience. In fact, Karl Falkenberg insists on the spirit of resignation that would mark the substitu-tion of resilience in sustainable development. While a society’s resilience is its ability to recover its initial state, without seeking “to avoid crises but only by reducing their consequences”, a sustainable society must seek to prevent crises by learning from past errors and anticipating upcoming threats.
Such opinion is of course well received in the agricultural community, even if Falkenberg takes the example of financial crises to reflect his preference for the term of sustainable development against that of resilience, which is especially popular at the OECD2. The trend of financialization of the economy, whose symptoms are short-termism, instability and disconnection with the real economy needs, is severely critized. Quoting a former World Bank director, financial engineering might be the “root of at least 2% of yearly losses in economic growth”. Referring to the limitations to the current action of banks in terms of injections of liquidity, the proposals for financial regula-tion are striving to be bold, especially with the implementation of a tax on European financial trans-actions, the intensification of the European monetary union or the supervision of financial dealings on “natural commodities” by financial operators.
Among the “hot issues” on which the Commission must focus its efforts, we find agriculture whose problems are outlined on more than six pages––a significant portion of the document that gives a feeling of ambiguity. On one hand, it calls for “re-basing the CAP on its primary functions: increas-ing farmers’ revenues and providing quality food to European citizens.” On the other, the negative aspects of European agriculture––“excessive specialization”, livestock farming “industrialization” and “rural exodus”––are underscored without reconciling them to the CAP various reforms that have been noticeable for the past two decades by the keywords: decoupling and deregulation. By doing so, the recommendations in terms of CAP reform are falling short of the position of sever-ance displayed elsewhere. Following-up on previous reforms, this would involve strengthening the 2nd pillar and its tools to foster the sustainability of farms “instead of direct subsidies linked to acre-ages”.
Evidently marked by his previous functions, Karl Falkenberg vividly covers the payment of ecosys-tem services, the agro-ecology, the use of pesticides or the development of short circuits as central challenges for more sustainable agriculture. One cannot deny these elements, but we must re-member that if farmers seek to secure their farms by minimizing the risks linked to plant and insect diseases or by looking for alternative marketing techniques, it is also a reaction to a CAP that no longer stabilizes their economic environment.
Consequently, before launching into a CAP reform under the auspsices of sustainable develop-ment, it would seem important to take stock of the previous reorganizations on this basis. There are many examples showing that decoupling and environmental preservation do not mix well. Starting with the first per-hectare support that spurred plowing grazeland and destroying hedge-rows, and to the dismantling of milk quotas that curbed the geographic concentration of production (solid and liquid manure must be considered as wealth for those who promote a circular economy, the problem lies with its surplus!), the examples are quite abundant to show that the greening of the CAP is only “greenwashing”, and that environmental NGOs are in the end the fall guys of the anti-CAP.
Two aspects are strangely missing from the debate that Karl Falkenberg rightfully seeks to renew: food aid and biofuels. For the first, we note that supplying cafeterias with local and organic prod-ucts is held up as an example in the document. Why then, while he advocates breaking from the “in-elevator” approaches and fully linking the economic, social and environmental aspects, would it be unthinkable that the European Union would seek to develop a genuine food policy coordinated with the agricultural policy, similarly to that implemented in the United States and in Brazil to take just two examples? And this all the more so since the author mentions the issue of basic universal income among the new important debates.
The same applies to biofuels. They remain outside the scope of thinking, while the document gives a significant place to the circular economy, access to renewable energy or the end of fossile fuel use in 2050. Biofuel production, whose first development dates back to the brownfield site measures in the CAP of the 1990s, must again become an issue at the core of CAP discussions, just as renewable energy due to its contribution in stabilizing structurally volatile agricultural markets, and by making incorporation mandates more flexible.
We also regret that the strategic scope of agriculture and agricultural policy changes in other major nations were not part of the argument, while it is true that the author did warn that he was mainly covering the “internal” scope of EU policies. Yet, we note that Karl Falkenberg proposes stimulating food for thought on the European Union trade policy and more broadly on the current WTO doc-trine. In fact, he recommends that “the Commission must initiate the debate on sustainable trad-ing at the WTO [...] For years, trade negotiations have been conducted simultaneously with other international negotiations, especially regarding climate change and sustainable development. With the 2030 Agenda, it is now time to consider trading policies in conjunction with other major interna-tional challenges”.
As a matter of fact, today everything happens as if trade openness must take precedence over international initiatives. It is especially the case for climate change; the COP21 did not break from the established hierarchy: a country could not justify to increase taxes on imports from nations that do not respect the same level of environmental objectives. This is also the case for food security in view of the difficulties of G33 nations to gain acknowledgement of their public stocking policies. Does this augur well for the “repolitization” of the EU trade policy, as stated by President Juncker in his speech at the International Labor Organization this past June3?
Whether it is a trial balloon for a future new European strategy or a new matter of much ado about nothing, it is too soon to learn the scope of this thinly-veiled self-criticism, which proposes to re-launch the construction of Europe by implicating it in the Sustainable Development Goals. A genu-ine CAP reform that breaks from decoupling and deregualtion, and that lays the groundwork for a new world governance system for agriculture and food, as advocated by Momagri, would be fully incorporated in this strategy of re-enchantment for the European project, which must not be among the announced victims of the “desperately correct” to paraphrase Roger-Pol Droit4, or even of the ambient declinism.
1 The entire publication is available from
2 “OECD Ministerial Conference on agriculture: The Château de la Muette remains deaf to the global agricultural crisis”, Momagri editorial board,
3 Juncker: Social dialogue should return to centre of economic development
4 L’espoir a-t-il un avenir ? Roger-Pol Droit, Monique Atlan, Flammarion, 2016.