Unlike other regions of the world, the policy framework in Europe is in principle favourable to extensive livestock farming. EU policies recognise the multiple values of pastoralism and its contributions in terms of cultural heritage, environmental management and territorial cohesion. Recognising that these public goods are not sustainable without remuneration, the EU supports pastoralists with direct and indirect measures, including subsidies. These are considered as forms of compensation and reward for producers operating in Less Favoured Areas and High Nature Value settings. However, over recent decades, the number of extensive livestock farms has declined sharply, generational renewal amongst pastoralists is scanty and mountainous, island, and inner territories all over Europe are undergoing processes of socio-economic and agro-ecological desertification. The outcomes of the CAP political and financial commitment in pastoral contexts are hence quite disappointing. Translating good intentions and societal appreciation into effective social facilities and economic returns appears to be a major challenge for policy makers and administrators across Europe. On the one hand, the European Green Deal and its ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy show high levels of ambition in reorienting agriculture and enhancing the transition to more sustainable food systems in Europe. On the other hand, the long-awaited reform of the Common Agricultural Policy has not addressed its fundamental inconsistencies in technical, administrative and political terms. In a policy framework also influenced by broader trade and political agreements, CAP measures are more likely to support intensification of livestock production, than to favour extensive pastoral systems. The EU institutional architecture and policy domain represent important drivers of uncertainty for European pastoralists, who must continually navigate through multiple, fragmented and sometimes conflicting measures, rules and requirements that seem ill-suited to their operating principles, strategies and needs. The writing of this paper was funded through a European Research Council Advanced Grant to PASTRES (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins), Grant number 740342.