Strength Without Numbers: The Political Influence of European Farmers
This dissertation addresses the puzzling persistence of farmers’ influence over politics and policymaking in Europe, despite a dramatic decline in their population and share of economic output. I redeploy theories commonly used to explain welfare state retrenchment to the domain of agricultural policy.
Farmers today account for less than 5 percent of Europe’s population, and agriculture’s contribution to GDP is under 2 percent, yet farmers have repeatedly blocked reform initiatives and extracted new commitments of support. My project describes and explains how farmers have both thwarted proposed agricultural policy spending cuts and contained proposed reforms. It also accounts for the conditions that have facilitated limited instances of reform.
I contend that contemporary farmer power is grounded in four sources: sophisticated organizations, control of the policy space, sympathetic public opinion, and the unique nature of agricultural production. These updated tools have allowed farmers to remain politically influential despite their declining numbers.
Given the resilient power of farmers, I find that reforming agricultural policy is an exercise in managing the claims of farmers. In essence, European agricultural policies are welfare for farmers. In the same way that governments seeking to retrench welfare programs must contend with program claimants, agricultural policy reformers must manage the interests of farmers. A common outcome across reforms is that farmers defend the budget. In exchange for preserving the budget, farmers often accept administrative policy change. Because reformers often use welfare state retrenchment techniques when engaging in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, these policy outcomes tend to include compensation for affected claimants, changes to rules and standards, and reforms that seek to improve efficiency and equality of current programs rather than the creation of new programs. Outcomes also depend on how farmers exercise their power. When, for example, their control of the policy space begins to slip, reformers may be able to impose stricter rules and requirements upon farmers.
Important also in accounting for the contents of the final reform are the conditions under which reform takes place. When reform coincides with other periods of major negotiation or change, like enlargement or trade talks, changes to the operation of core CAP policies become possible. When such concurrent events are absent, it becomes incredibly difficult for reformers to enact any change at all to existing policy.
The dissertation draws on a combination of qualitative and quantitative evidence collected over six multi-month fieldwork trips to Belgium, France, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, and brief sojourns to Austria and Ireland. To construct a set of structured case studies, I conducted over one hundred interviews with local, national, and European Union officials. I spoke with current and former members of parliament, government ministers, leaders of farmer organizations, and officials from the European Commission, including several former agricultural commissioners. This unusually rich set of interviews, supplemented by information from EU documents and other data sources, provides the foundation for multiple case studies of major CAP Reform. In these case studies, I systematically analyze the causal processes at work in agricultural reform efforts.
The dissertation’s argument and findings deepen the current understanding of how agricultural policy reform occurs and challenges the widely held notion that farmers are politically irrelevant. The findings of the dissertation demonstrate the efficacy of applying welfare state arguments outside of the domain of the traditional social welfare state. Finally, the dissertation has important implications beyond just agricultural policy, including policy making in the European Union, the handling of powerful groups in social welfare policy creation and reform, and the management of social class decline.