Since every policy issue has numerous aspects, the process of selecting and highlighting a particular feature of an issue, i.e. framing, is a key process in policy debate, as stated by framing theory (Baumgartner and Mahoney 2008; Daviter 2009; Eising et al. 2015). Political actors involved in the European Union (EU) policy debates change terms of the debates and ultimately affect legislative outcomes by framing proposals strategically (Ringe 2005, 2010; Daviter 2011). Policy proposals are a result of strategic decisions based on choices of frames presented in policy debates by interest groups that deliberately highlight certain aspects of policy proposals in order to gain advantage (Klüver et al. 2015). Since the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is one of the most complex and controversial EU policies and one that comprises a significant share of the total EU budget, it is crucial to systematically study what frames the EC constructs with respect to its CAP reforms in order to legitimise its preservation.
In line with established practice, each reform of the CAP is announced by a strategic document in the form of a Communication published by the European Commission (EC), setting out the content of the reform. As the Communications represent strategic documents of the CAP, it is important to examine how they have been framed over time. Historically, the CAP has shifted its focus away from market price and production support, which resulted in trade distortions and subsequent conflicts in international trade, and controversies related to excessive budgetary spending and to societal concerns, such as environmental protection, food and public health concerns, and climate change (Garzon et al. 2006; Daugbjerg and Swinbank 2011).
Frame analysis is a useful tool for the analysis of policy proposals (Ringe 2005, 2010; Daviter 2009, 2011; Eising et al. 2015; Klüver et al. 2015)—in our case, the EC’s Communications—to answer the research question: What are the transformations of frames throughout the history of CAP reforms? Analysis of the EC’s CAP Communications over the past 26 years (from 1991 to 2017) can identify the crucial reform processes and interest group frames that have affected the CAP. We postulate that the frames of EC’s Communications on the CAP have remained the same over the years, but that most of them have undergone changes in content and priorities.
Many authors (e.g. Clock 1996; Liepins and Brandshaw 1999; Potter and Tilzey 2005; Potter 2006; Daugbjerg and Swinbank 2007; Erjavec and Erjavec 2009; Erjavec and Erjavec 2015) have applied textual analysis in examining the argumentation of the CAP. However, to our knowledge, no researchers have carried out frame analysis, in particular a historical and comparative analysis involving all basic strategic documents, to examine the (dis)continuity of the EC’s CAP Communications. This paper attempts to fill this gap by employing frame analysis of the CAP Communications from the first radical reform of the CAP in 1991 to the last Communication at the end of 2017. The study has two goals: it tries to reveal what frames the EC has used in relation to its CAP reforms and how these frames have been modified during the analysed period to legitimise the maintenance of the CAP (and its budget).
Framing in the EU policy and its legitimization
According to the pioneer of framing theory Goffman, frames are “schemata of interpretation” that enable individuals to understand certain events and “to locate, perceive, identify and label” occurrences (1974, 21-22). Gamson and Modigliani (1989) defined a frame as “a central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events” (p. 143). Robert Entman argued that “frames define problems – determine what a causal agent is doing with what costs and benefits, usually measured in terms of common cultural values; diagnose causes – identify the forces creating the problem; make moral judgements – evaluate causal agents and their effects; and suggest remedies – offer and justify treatments for the problems and predict their likely effects” (Entman 1993, 52). He added that “to frame is to select some aspect of perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (1993, 52). A frame is a kind of filter through which people perceive the world and provides the structure of a message that is intended to activate a particular interpretation of the world. For political purposes, texts, such as political documents or political speeches, reinforce a certain representation of political reality and a certain emotion towards it by choosing some key words, strategic phrases, catchphrases, slogans, and images and by leaving out other elements that might suggest a different perspective or create a different sentiment (D’Angelo 2002).
As in other political decision-making processes, framing plays an important role in EU policy debates. Ringe (2005, 2010) showed how structural factors, such as ideology, shape policy preferences to the extent that the EU legislative actors successfully link them to specific policy proposals by providing strategic frames that draw attention to certain aspects of a legislative proposal and thus shape the prevailing interpretation of its content and consequences. This interpretation affects both policy preferences at individual level and policy outcomes.
When policy-makers launch a legislative initiative that affects the policy concerns of interest groups, they have an incentive to shape the outcome of the policy debate in their favour (Klüver et al. 2015). This applies to any policy, especially of the CAP, which affects many people and provides relatively large financial resources (Erjavec and Erjavec 2015). The way interest groups frame a debate has an impact on the policy options considered by decision makers and on the final outcome of a legislative debate (Mahoney and Baumgartner 2008; Baumgartner et al. 2009; Klüver et al. 2015). Since many citizen groups do not have massive lobbying budgets, framing is their only available tool. Based on a novel dataset on framing strategies of more than 3000 interest groups in 44 EU policy debates included in the policy proposals adopted by the EC, Klüver et al. (2015) shed light on the determinants of frame selection in the policy formulation phase when the EC drafts its policy proposals; they showed that frame selection systematically varies across interest group type and institutional venues. Using the contextual approach to EU legislative lobbying and analysing a set of 125 legislative proposals submitted by the EC between 2008 and 2010, Klüver, Braun and Beyers (2015, 54) demonstrated “the inherently multi-faceted nature of interest representation and that the policy and institutional context significantly affects the role interest groups play in the EU”. Eising et al. (2015) analysed not only variation across and within policy areas, but also across the EU and national levels, as well as across four member states (MS). They found that both contexts and strategies have a significant influence on the number and type of frames in EU policy debates and that the more actors become involved in the policy debates, the more frame competition intensifies.
We have not found any study in the existing literature on how frames have changed historically or on the use of framing to legitimise an established policy such as the CAP. Namely, legitimization is a principal and intrinsic goal sought by political actors, whose aim is to maintain their hegemonic power through different means, and, in particular, by emphasising certain meanings (Capone 2010; Reyes 2011). It deserves special attention in political analysis because it is from this speech that political actors justify their political agenda in order to influence the direction of policy (Reyes 2011). Therefore, this study examines changing frames as a means of legitimising the CAP.
CAP reforms (1992–2017)
The CAP was introduced in 1962 to translate the objectives defined in the Treaty of Rome (1957) into policy terms. Since then, it has undergone several reforms. In the initial period (1962–1992), it was founded on market price and production support in the form of import duties, export subsidies, and internal market support measures, using the last two to remove surplus products from the domestic market (Garzon 2006).
Production-coupled support (1992–2003)
The second period, marked by the introduction of direct support (1992–2003), was announced by the Communication “The Development and Future of the CAP” (European Commission 1991). Known as the “MacSharry reform”, it introduced the first significant policy changes towards constraining trade distortions and curbing the growth of the CAP’s budgetary costs (Tracy 1993; Moyer and Josling 2002; Garzon 2006). The reform was a result of extensive negotiations in the GATT Uruguay Round of multi-lateral trade negotiations, in which trading partners, primarily the USA, exerted extreme pressure on the EC to liberalise agri-food trade, demanding a significant decrease in tariffs and abolishment of export subsidies (Josling et al. 1996; Swinbank 1999). The proposal for significant CAP reform was presented by the Commissioner for Agriculture Ray MacSharry to the Council of Ministers, accompanied by strong criticism from conservative Member states (MS) and fierce protests by farmers’ organisations throughout Europe (Fennell, 2002). This first significant CAP reform reduced market-price support and introduced “compensatory (coupled) payments”, specifically for the production of grain, oilseeds, beef, and small ruminants, which were determined according to past production and market-price support levels (Josling et al. 1996; Grant 1997).
The next Communication “Agenda 2000: For a stronger and wider Union” (European Commission 1997) initiated the next step of the reform process, usually described as a continuation of the MacSharry reform. The main decision-making process took place in the Council of Ministers and the European Council (Garzon 2006). The conflict among MS revolved mainly around the distribution of resources and further liberalisation of the market, especially on dairy (Lynggaard and Nedergaard 2009). The reform altered intervention prices for some key products, such as grains, lowering them to world market-price levels, and widened the scope of direct support accordingly, as well as upgraded the structural measures, integrating them into the CAP Rural development policy (Buckwell and Tangermann 1999; Swinbank 1999; Moyer and Josling 2002; Daugbjerg and Swinbank 2004; Garzon 2006; Erjavec and Lovec 2017).
Historical decoupled support (2003–2020)
Historical decoupled support
The second observed period started with the “Fischler reform” in 2003, which was introduced by the Communication “Mid-Term Review of the Common Agricultural Policy” (European Commission 2002) attempting to introduce “new content” into an essentially unchanged (Erjavec and Erjavec, 2009) policy, while continuing its liberalisation (Garzon 2006; Swinnen 2008). The process of reform took place in light of expectations of further pressure on trade negotiations (WTO Doha Round), the EU’s enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe, and growing budgetary concerns of pro-reform MS (UK, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark) (Potter and Tilzey 2005; Potter 2006). Additionally, societal pressures increased to integrate new elements into agricultural policy, such as strengthening environmental aspects and providing a higher degree of food safety (due to food scandals). A key actor was Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler, who introduced a relatively radical proposal that entailed decoupling direct payments and further market liberalisation while maintaining the agricultural budget (Swinnen 2008).
The reform replaced coupled support with direct payments based on historical rights and decoupled from current production. The interests of farmers’ groups, which were strongly involved in the debate at both the national and multi-national level (Garzon 2006), were taken into account by implementing historical payments (retention of the extent of payments on the farm). Apart from historical schemes, the EU (MS) could also apply regional and hybrid schemes (static or dynamic). Payments were henceforth conditional upon cross-compliance—following a number of regulations and keeping land in “good agricultural and environmental condition”. Through the mechanism of “modulation”, part of the largest individual payments was transferred to Pillar II (Erjavec and Lovec 2017). An important element of the reform was the strengthening of rural development policy as a legally and policy consistent, independent part of CAP (Pillar II) with its own system of strategic planning and set of measures.
In 2008, with the CAP “Health check” (Daugbjerg and Swinbank 2011), based on the Communication “Preparing for the ‘Health Check’ of the CAP reform” (European Commission 2007), the Council of the European Union went a step further along the lines of the Fischler reform by agreeing to abandon milk quotas in 2015, continuing to decouple support, increasing the scope of modulation (including through “degressive capping”), and strengthening member states’ flexibility in policy implementation (Daugbjerg and Swinbank 2011). The main actors were the same as in the previous period, although due to only minor changes in agricultural policy there were no sharp confrontations between them (Daugbjerg and Swinbank 2011).
New societal concerns
After 2010, the new debate on CAP reform started, during which environmental (greening) concerns were given more attention, at least declaratively (European Commission 2010). Since there was no radical change in the agricultural policy, it is considered to be more a continuation of the change initiated in 2002 than a genuine reform (Swinnen 2018). The period began with the Communication “The CAP towards 2020: Meeting the food, natural resources and territorial challenges of the future” (European Commission 2010), followed by the 2013 agreement on the “Greening” of the CAP, which, apart from further liberalising some elements of the policy, attempted to re-orient it towards new, mostly environmental objectives. The decision-making process was characterised by an increased number of involved interest groups (new networks of environmental NGOs) and changes in the adoption process—the Lisbon Treaty had given the European parliament (EP) the status of full co-legislator in the co-decision procedure (Erjavec and Erjavec 2015).
Before the formal legislative process, a wide public debate was launched. In addition to many farmer interest groups, it also included a number of environmental groups. Their expectations regarding the outcome of the negotiations were not fulfilled, as the final round of negotiation in the Council and the EP rather weakened the concept of reform (Erjavec and Erjavec 2015). In the field of market measures, the reform removed sugar quotas and strengthened the safety net logic in the management of markets and crises (Swinnen 2018). It shifted existing Pillar I direct support towards per-area payments, with increasing convergence both between and within MS. A “green component” was introduced into the direct payment schemes, accounting for 30% of the payment and conditional upon certain environmental actions. MS were able to implement simplified schemes and flexible options, which included switching part of the funds between Pillars I and II, granting more flexibility to MS with below-average payment levels.
At the time of writing of this paper, EU institutions and interest groups are at the end of negotiations on a new CAP reform to determine the policy after 2021, introduced by the EC Communication “The Future of Food and Farming” (European Commission 2017a). The key proposals maintain the basic principles of the CAP while strengthening the societal concerns introduced by a previous strategy highlighting the environment, but also introducing new topic like food health issue. There is again a special focus on the environment, including the proposal to incorporate more result-oriented measures. The fundamental change proposed by the EC is the introduction of CAP Strategic plans, in which MS will have to justify and define the specific needs, objectives, and measures of their respective agricultural policies on the basis of strategic guidelines provided by the common legislative framework (Mathews, 2018). The Communication thus proposes to devolve more decision-making power to the MS level, presumably yielding a CAP that is better suited to local conditions.
The new agricultural policy is shaped by the same actors as in the adoption of policies for the period 2014–2020. Due to increased support in the public debate, the influence of the environmental organisations, which are drawing attention to accountability-related deficiencies of the proposal, has increased (Erjavec et al. 2018). Even more than in the previous reform processes, the role of the European parliament is strengthening. In addition to the Committee for agriculture, the Committee for the environment has been given formal competences regarding the CAP, reflecting the rising societal concerns for agricultural policy (Erjavec et al. 2018).
The five frames of CAP reform
Five frames might be identified from the highlights of the CAP reforms (Daugbjerg and Swinbank 2007; Henning, 2009; Cunha and Swinbank 2011; Swinnen 2018). In all reforms, the foreign trade frame, which was pushed by multi-national trade negotiations (GATT/WTO) and especially the USA in the 1990s, might be identified. Farmer groups influenced the CAP reforms by lobbying at the national and multi-national levels, using farmers’ economic interest frames. The European Council was primarily focused on the distribution of financial resources according to MS priorities and constructed a budgetary frame. The environmental NGO network was focused on the societal concerns frame, especially on the environment, food safety, and quality. The policy mechanisms frame was highlighted by the Commission through its right to propose legal changes. This frame is primarily designed in the EU decision-making process that includes the Council of European Union (agricultural ministers) and also the European parliament after 2010. The question arises how these frames were reflected in the EC’s Communications throughout the history of CAP reforms and how the EC used them to legitimise the CAP.