Frustrated time and again, the Czech Farmers Association (Association of Private Farming of the Czech Republic – APF CR) has finally quit COPA. In this op-ed, Jaroslav Šebek, Jan Štefl and Jan Staněk argue that COPA is failing to listen to its members. For them, COPA’s handling of the capping of direct payments was the last straw.
The European agricultural organization COPA could be expected to act at EU level in its key positions on the new draft of the Common Agricultural Policy towards greater support for family farms, which guarantee the continued viability and development of rural areas.
Unfortunately, on behalf of the Association of Private Farming of the Czech Republic (APF CR) we have to say that this is not the case.
However, it was mainly a contemptuous approach and a reluctance to discuss jointly the risky trends in Czech (and potentially European) agriculture and rural areas, which caused APF CR to withdraw from this European platform of non-governmental agricultural organizations after sixteen years.
Unnecessary problems for ordinary farmers
As a full member of this organization, we have been asking for two years for the opportunity to have a direct discussion with their leadership to explain and reconsider opinions, especially on the issue of capping of direct payments and other related measures within the newly proposed grant policy, where COPA priorities are in many cases completely opposite to what is supported by the APF CR and the European Commission.
In our view, these attitudes were adopted almost automatically by COPA without wider consideration and deeper discussion.
At the same time, the APF CR has repeatedly warned that unless a limitation of direct payments is introduced as a mandatory parameter throughout the EU, some countries whose governments do not want to apply this measure will continue to direct a substantial part of their subsidies to the largest agribusinesses without any limitation.
This would, of course, bring more unnecessary problems for ordinary farmers in defending the meaningfulness of agrarian support.
Family farms are a solution
If the current COPA positions are finally enforced in this way, ordinary family farmers will lose the most in the end.
There is a danger that instead of achieving the necessary changes, such as directing payments to smaller and medium-sized entities, the dangerous trend of farm buy-outs by various financial groups and the growth of unnatural concentration of agricultural enterprises will continue (not only in the Czech Republic).
However, according to APF CR, it is clear that traditional family farms are a solution to real rural development, increased food security and, in particular, to the environmental challenges that agriculture as a whole is facing today.
The prevailing negative societal consequences resulting from unlimited support, including cases of misuse of taxpayers’ money and support of the oligarchisation of the agricultural sector, and subsequently the growing political influence of various financial interests that have nothing to do with traditional farming, are unfortunately a reality of today. This has also become a difficult problem for all European political structures in recent years.
Despite this fact, COPA unfortunately continues to refuse to discuss the need to redirect subsidies directly at European level.
Instead of its effort leading to the desired convergence of national agricultural policies between the various Member States, the position of this organization is going to develop even greater differences between these states.
We are afraid that in such an environment it will be even harder to negotiate and promote common European goals.
The bureaucracy that suffocates agricultural business will logically grow even more massively to meet these goals, which would be especially the case of smaller family farms without major administrative or legal background.
This bureaucracy has recently been most closely connected with the application of objectives aimed at the care of natural resources.
Negative environmental changes are increasingly associated by scientists and public with agriculture management of large units and farming corporations, where personal interest, common sense and the irreplaceable knowledge of the locality, where the farmer lives, can no longer manifest themselves.
By not perceiving these risks and, on the contrary, opposing the necessary structural (and in our view inevitable) changes in agricultural subsidies, COPA is losing the confidence of our professional organization of private farmers for proper and responsible representation in agricultural policy at European level.
As a result, such a policy will primarily serve a marginal number of the largest agricultural companies or their owners, and the vast majority of agricultural entities, whether natural or legal persons, will play a secondary role (and not only in the Czech Republic).
However, subsidizing corporate farms hundreds of thousands of euros per year with no ties to the place where the farmer lives and does business, falls short of taxpayers’ expectations regarding support of traditional agricultural models, including family farms with many important socio-economic benefits.
However, the reluctance and subsequently the questionable statements and actions of COPA officials themselves also contributed significantly to the termination of our membership.
Despite our repeated proposals to discuss with the leadership of this organization the impact on the reality of the Czech countryside of the priorities under the new Common Agricultural Policy of the EU post 2023, accompanied by invitations to visit Czech family farms, COPA representatives did not find their way to the Czech Republic.
The final straw was a letter sent to the Czech Republic in July of the last year addressed to Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, in which COPA openly lobbied the Czech government to reject the capping of payments and thus basically supported the maintenance of the current model of agricultural subsidy distribution.
This was however a very controversial step, as COPA representatives stated in another letter sent to APF CR that “COPA’s positions are based exclusively on the views of our members and their approval.”
However, our organisation certainly did not give its consent to the above-mentioned appeal to the Czech government on behalf of COPA. This is therefore clear evidence that COPA did not act fairly and in the interests of all its members, but succumbed to the lobbying of only selected organisations that have an eminent interest in preserving the current subsidy distribution mechanism.
Moreover, our repeated requests for an explanation of this action by COPA have gone unheeded.
The inconsistent and passive approach of COPA, together with its false statements, contributed to the fact that APF CR preferred to terminate its long-standing membership in this organization.
Although the activities of our Association have traditionally been characterized by an effort at understanding, reasonable compromise, or interest in cooperation, it no longer makes sense to remain in an organization that is incapable of substantive discussions with its members and responds only with diplomatic platitudes without any real interest in solving the problems that have arisen.
Based on the above, and in line with the previous positions of the Council and the General Assembly of our organisation, we have therefore assessed that, pending a change of approach and adjustment of the priorities of COPA, defending the legitimate interests of Czech private farmers through other channels will be more meaningful and probably more effective.
APF CR is the largest non-governmental organisation in the Czech Republic that genuinely promotes the interests of family farms, which account for about 80% of all domestic agricultural entities.
This also means that, following the termination of membership of APF CR in COPA, this organisation no longer officially represents the majority of Czech farmers at European level.
Mgr. Ing. Jaroslav Šebek is President of the Association of Private Farming of the Czech Republic (APF CR). Ing. Jan Štefl and Ing. Jan Staněk are Vice-Chairmen of APF CR.
This article was originally published on APF CR’s website on April 22, 2021. English translation by APF CR.
The article has been edited for clarity.