IT HAS brought us wine lakes and butter mountains, costs more than EUR40bn (pounds 26bn) a year and inflates food costs for consumers in Europe by an estimated 44 per cent.
The Common Agricultural Policy takes up almost half of the EU's annual budget and, for many, is synonymous with everything that is wrong with Brussels. But if Franz Fischler, the burly EU agriculture commissioner, has his way, today will mark the start of the biggest shake-up in 45 years for Europe's farmers, spelling the beginning of the end for the CAP as we know it.
An ambitious reform programme to be outlined this afternoon acknowledges, for the first time, the reality behind Europe's farm policy: that it has a disastrous impact on the environment, that it enriches the millionaire corn barons while doing little for struggling smallholders, and that it condemns Third World farmers to poverty by excluding their produce from EU markets.
According to drafts of Mr Fischler's proposals, a series of sweeping changes are in store. Out will go incentives for producing ever more food, and in will come more payments for organic and environmentally friendly farming. Huge subsidies for millionaire landowners will become a thing of the past. And the CAP will evolve to be less of an agricultural policy and more of a broader approach to the countryside.
That, at least, is the plan. But an estimated 7 million farmers rely on the CAP, and throughout its life those who make money out of it have fought hard to protect their privileges.
Forged amid post-war austerity, the CAP was designed to encourage the cultivation of ever greater quantities of food by supporting prices (through intervention in the markets) and by slapping tariffs on imports. By the mid-1970s those infamous beef mountains and wine lakes had captured the headlines. Not only was production too high, but prices were inflated well above world levels, making exports impossible. The solution was a curb on production through quotas controlling how much milk or sugar went on the market. Then, during the 1980s, came the innovation that provoked a new wave of ridicule: set aside, under which farmers were paid not to farm.
Today's strategy paper is not the first reform. In 1992 set aside was increased and the millions of pounds spent on guaranteeing prices was slashed. To offset the loss of income, farmers were given direct payments based on what they produced.
In Berlin in 1999, Mr Fischler won agreement for a fund to finance schemes that protect the environment, pay close attention to food quality or improve animal welfare.
All this has had some effect. At present 70 per cent of the CAP budget goes on direct payments to farmers of cereals, other arable crops, sheep and beef, and 10 per cent to rural development, leaving price support a much-reduced element. The number of environmentally friendly farms rose from 9,521 in 1988 to 28,868 in 1993 and to 124,462 in 2000.
But political changes have overtaken the slow juggernaut of CAP reform. In Germany, the EU's biggest paymaster, there is a determination to stop writing blank cheques for the continent's farmers. Post-war Bonn may have been content to fund Gallic agriculture, but modern-day Berlin is certainly not.
Germany's anxiety is heightened by the EU's imminent enlargement, with 10 countries hoping to join in 2004 - including Poland, where more than 25 per cent of the population have some role in agriculture. Change must be agreed now, argue German officials, before the new nations too get hooked on subsidies.
Meanwhile food scares, such as mad cow disease in Britain, have put food safety near the top of the agenda as the environment and Third World access to EU food markets have become big issues. With battle joined over a new world trade round, there is mounting pressure to liberalise.
Paul Brenton, a …