"We have to ensure 1.2 billion meals every 24 hours in Europe," [Cees Veerman, the current Dutch minister of agriculture,] said in an interview in his office here, appreciating the connection between food and the sweep of history. "We don't want to be dependent on other regions of the world for food the way we are for oil."Indeed. It's beginning to sound like every time a member of the European élite makes a principled statement, it's meant to hide the fact that he just happens to profit handsomely from the issue in question.
The historical point is well taken. Before the war, Britain depended on its colonies and the Commonwealth to provide it with a good deal of its food. After the war, devastated Europe as a whole had to import 40 percent of its foodstuffs from the United States. The CAP was created to change that situation forever, ensuring initially that the original six Common Market countries could feed themselves.
But now that Europe has experienced agricultural self-sufficiency for decades and indeed exports a great deal of its produce to other countries at highly subsidized prices, more and more voices are being raised to the effect that the CAP, which consumes 40 percent of the European Union's budget, does more harm than good.
The lavish EU subsidies are of course at the center of a trans-Atlantic trade dispute, raging in preparation for the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong in about six weeks. Peter Mandelson, the EU's top trade negotiator, has proposed substantial cuts in export subsidies and import tariffs as part of a global trade deal. But even if Mandelson's proposal gets past fierce French and other opposition, it would not eliminate the centerpiece of the CAP, which is direct payments to farmers in accordance, mainly, with the amount of land they own.
And so the debate has been intensifying over the past several months. In the spring, after a Freedom of Information Act request produced a compact disc full of previously secret data, the British press gleefully demonstrated that much of the CAP money - hundreds of thousands of pounds a year - goes to agribusinesss and royals, people like Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Westminster. Veerman himself came under scrutiny in the Netherlands not long ago when it was disclosed that he receives 170,000, or $204,000, a year in EU subsidies for farms he owns in the Netherlands and France.
"A lot of Europeans think that the CAP is something that supports small farmers, but most of the money goes to the richest people in the system," said Jack Thurston, a former adviser on agriculture to the British government, now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
The accusations continue. Poor countries, especially in Africa, complain that the EU subsidies - and American ones, as well - have had the effect of crippling their own farmers because their food exports can't compete with Europe's subsidized ones.