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The Masks of the Political God by Luca Ozzano

How Ideas Shape Agricultural Policy Trajectories: A Comparative Analysis of Developments in Direct Aids to Farmers in the EU and the US

European Union
Public Policy
Policy Change
Gerry Alons
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Gerry Alons
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

During recent decision making on farm policy in the EU and the US, both governments were confronted with increasing criticism on existing policies. The legitimacy of the agricultural support policies were questioned due to their environmental side effects and unequal distribution of support, benefiting large farms over smaller ones. In addition, the direct payments schemes in both the EU and the US were under fire for paying farmers for ‘doing nothing’, while in a period of high food prices farmers should not need such payments.
It is interesting to see that whereas the EU in its most recent Common Agricultural Policy reform in 2013 decided to retain the direct payments but increase their environmental conditionality, the US in 2014 decided to discontinue direct payments all together and turn crop insurance into a central pillar of its farm safety net instead. How can it be explained that, confronted with similar pressure, the EU and US opted for such different policy solutions?
This paper will argue that in order to understand the different trajectories in agricultural policy in the EU in the US, it is not sufficient to look at variation and changes in material factors and interests only. Instead we have to focus on how these interact with developments in policy ideas. In order to do so, this paper will integrate insights from Historical Institutionalism (HI) and Discursive Institutionalism (DI) in one single explanatory approach. The HI concepts of layering, conversion and displacement point at the type of ideas (cognitive and normative) that are relevant in different processes of policy change, while DI shows how these concepts of policy change entail ideational discursive processes and provides the means to analyze them. While interest-based analyses explain why policy reform was necessary, a focus on changes in dominant ideas and discourse will provide deeper insights in why policy change took one direction rather than another, showing which ideas became dominant and through which ideational entrepreneurs and venues they promoted institutional change.

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