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“Analysis from Brussels”- by Roger Waite- New Protagonists for CAP Reform Taking the Stage

New Protagonists for CAP Reform Taking the Stage

By Roger WaiteRoger is editor of AGRA FACTS, the Brussels-based newsletter on EU agriculture policy, and is a Journalism Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Analysis from Brussels” is posted exclusively at FarmPolicy.com.

Having previously outlined the timetable for the next, big reform of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy [see- Towards the Next, Truly Big CAP Reform- The Timetable], a number of the major players are starting to take the stage. Firstly, with the Commission President José Barroso now near-certain to stay for another 5 years, attention is turning to the other Commissioners – and whether or not Mariann Fischer Boel will stay on as EU Agriculture Commissioner. Secondly, with “co-decision” likely to enter into force from next year, the European Parliament will play a much greater role in farm policy decision-making in the future – and the new Parliament has just elected an Italian Social Democrat, former Italian Farm Minister Paulo De Castro to the influential position of Chairman of the EP Agriculture & Rural Development Committee. The third and most important player in farm policy negotiations is the Council, i.e. the Farm Ministers from the 27 different Member States – and there, too, we have seen a number of changes in recent months, including the appointment of new German and French Ministers, who have immediately set up a joint Franco-German working party to consider the future direction of the CAP.

To recap, we will get a “Communication” from the Commission on the post-2013 CAP in July or September 2010. This will be debated for 6-9 months, before the Commission publishes it legislative proposals for reform in July 2011 (with the overall package of proposals for the EU Budget from 2014 until 2019 or 2020 – the so-called “Financial Perspectives”). The decision-making process involves adjusting the Commission proposals until they have a qualified majority of support from the EU’s 27 Member States, under the weighted voting system. Unlike all previous reforms, however, where the European Parliament was merely “consulted”, i.e. the Council could ignore the EP demands, the next reform will almost certainly be decided using “co-decision”, i.e. where the Council has to negotiate with the Parliament in a 1st and 2nd Reading with an obligation to take MEP issues on board.

Fischer Boel – Will She Stay Or Will She Go?

Taking first the Commission, it seems as if Commission President José Barroso will be reappointed for another 5 years. (He has been unanimously backed by EU leaders, but MEPs have now delayed their approval of his reappointment until the autumn.) He has a major say in the appointment of the other 26 Commissioners in the next Commission College – in that he can veto candidates proposed by Member State governments, and the allocation of portfolios is up to him.

Last time around – 5 years ago – it looked as if former Dutch Farm Minister Cees Veerman was about to be appointed EU Farm Commissioner, but, with Barroso keen to appoint as many female Commissioners as possible, he persuaded Denmark to nominate its Farm Minister Mariann Fischer Boel as Commissioner – and also offered the Dutch the high profile “Competition” dossier, if they could find an appropriate female candidate [and they did in the form of Neelie Kroes]. Fischer Boel, it must be said, was a pretty unspectacular Minister of Agriculture. She had held the EU Presidency in 2002, but had done little to impress. And she was following on from Austrian Franz Fischler, arguably the best ever Farm Commissioner.

Five years on, Fischer Boel has surprised all the doubters and been a particularly good Commissioner (one of the best in the current, relatively unspectacular Commission College) – having steered through sectoral reforms for the sugar sector, wine, fruit and vegetables, as well as last November’s Health Check. In short, she is a safe pair of hands. But she recently turned 66, and has previously indicated that her intention was always to retire at the end of the year, once her mandate was over. I remember interviewing her a couple of years ago and asking her whether I should ask the question about staying on for another 5 years. She merely discouraged me from asking the question and, at the end of the meeting, gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder (as she does) and pointed at a poster on the wall in her office with an old woman in a circus outfit with the headline “Do you know when it’s time to stop?”. Despite Barroso and even the Danish government asking her to stay on, I believe it’s more likely that she will go. If you twisted my arm, I’d say about 60%-70% certain that she’s going – with a decision likely to be announced in September or October.

For the time being, there is absolutely no indication of any other names under discussion for the post. Based on past experience, we can assume that Fischer Boel’s successor will have served as Minister of Agriculture (and is maybe still in the post) and will not come from one of the “big Member States” (i.e. France, Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, or Poland). In Brussels, the only name mentioned so far in the corridors is former Dutch Minister (& academic) Cees Veerman – possibly because he came so close to getting the nomination 5 years ago. The Romanian media have debated at length the merits of their former Farm Minister Dacian Ciolos as a candidate – but his name has not be heard in Brussels. Curiously, he has been appointed Director in the Commission’s DG AGRI, and has now managed to delay taking up the post until December. Realistically, with doubts about the proper implementation of CAP funding rules in Romania still remaining – and the newest of Member States having such a massive interest in agriculture [29% of the workforce are employed in the agricultural sector, it seems!], it strikes me as highly improbable that a Romanian will get the job, however well qualified. My instincts tell me that the next Farm Commissioner should be from one of the more liberal countries, i.e. so that he/she naturally favours the ongoing evolution of farm policy – but I’m not going to stick my neck out at this stage. [I guess I’ll have to do that in the autumn.]

European Parliament Ag Committee Headed by Paolo De Castro

While the Commission is still working on its next Commissioner, the European Parliament has this month established its Agriculture Committee for the next 5 years – following June’s elections. The first thing to say is that this EP will be more important than ever before in CAP legislation. Under the Lisbon Treaty, which should come into force from the start of next year (if the Irish population backs it in a second referendum in early October), EU Farm Ministers in the Council will be obliged to negotiate with MEPs during the end-game phase of talks because the legislative process for CAP rules will now involve “co-decision”. Until now, the system of “consultation” has merely meant that the Council must wait for the EP opinion, but can simply ignore all EP recommendations.

While this will of course make life much more difficult for the Council – and the process of legislation-making will be 18-24 months, rather than 9-15 months – it will also make life much more difficult for the Parliament. Until now, under “consultation”, MEPs from farming constituencies have merrily been able to advocate unrealistic, but popular demands in farm policy debates, i.e. without having to worry how they might be financed. From now on, however, that will not be possible. And we wait to see with interest not only how this change of responsibility will affect the level of debate within the Agriculture Committee, but also how such views will fit in with the Budget Committee, for example – recalling of course that all positions have to be agreed in the full EP Plenary.

In that sense, it is worth recalling that the European Parliament is unlike almost any other Parliament in the world in that voting sometimes divides down Party lines (and there are now 6 big Party groups), but it also sometimes divides along national lines. [In my experience, farm policy initiatives tend to be voted along national lines.] Anyway, looking at past battles in the US Congress, we may now face additional divisions based on Committee loyalties, i.e. Ag Committee vs Budget or Environment or Development Aid Committee.

In this context, the EP has formally agreed all members of the new EP Ag Committee – under the Chairmanship of a newly elected MEP – Paolo De Castro. In the 30-year history of the EP, he is also only the second ever Socialist/Social-Democrat to head the Committee, as the farmer vote in most Member States has always tended to be Christian Democrat. However, 51-year-old De Castro is particularly well-qualified to take on the job. [And maybe more experienced than the next Farm Commissioner!] Having become Professor of Agricultural Economics at the respected Bologna University, De Castro served as an economics adviser to Prime Minister Romano Prodi from 1996-1998 before becoming Italian Agriculture Minister (1998-2000). After Prodi was made Commission President (1999-2004), he also served as an external adviser on agricultural issues for most of 2000. After more academic experience, De Castro was elected to the Italian Parliament in 2006 and again served as Minister of Agriculture from May 2006 until October 2008, when Silvio Berlusconi defeated Prodi in the general election.

With many senior MEPs having retired (or not been re-elected) – such as Neil Parish, Lutz Goepel and Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf – the EP Agriculture Committee is relatively inexperienced, but has a number of colourful and potentially politically influential characters. Among them are José Bové – radical French farmer famed for having gone to prison for vandalising a MacDonalds restaurant as part of a protest. He is now a Vice- Chairman of the Committee! Other potential stars include former Portuguese Farm Minister Luis Capoulas Santos, former Irish TV presenter Mairead McGuinness, and former Scottish NFU President George Lyon.

New French Minister Underlines Franco-German Coalition

So while the main protagonists in the post-2013 CAP debate are taking office in the European Parliament and the European Commission and will be there for the next 5 years, the carousel of EU Farm Ministers continues to turn. I will just draw attention to 2 significant changes of late – in the two Member States that have traditionally dominated the CAP – Germany and France.

In Germany, a Bavarian woman Ilse Aigner took over last autumn as farm Minister from a Bavarian man (Horst Seehofer – who became prime minister of the regional government of Bavaria/Bayern). First impressions of the 44-year-old indicate that she is competent, but has a tendency of following her regional boss (Seehofer) more than her real boss (Angela Merkel), for example on GMOs. She is likely to take a more independent position towards the end of the year, if Merkel’s Christian Democrats win the September 27 German elections as current opinion polls indicate. Nevertheless, she will face the very difficult choice on future farm policy priorities as the strong Bavarian farm lobby (with its small farm structures & highly conservative attitudes) tends to contrast with the larger, more competitive attitudes seen elsewhere in the country.

In France, too, there has been a recent change as stalwart Michel Barnier was elected to the European Parliament. (In fact, he is expected to be the next French Commissioner – not for agriculture – and sees 5 months in the EP as a good stepping stone.) Barnier’s replacement as French Farm Minister, appointed in June, is Bruno Le Maire, 40-year-old former Minister for EU Affairs, who rose through the ranks of the French conservative party machinery as an adviser to former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Curiously French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the opportunity to rename the job title to Minister for Food, Agriculture & Fisheries – the first time “food” has been acknowledged. (It remains unclear whether or not this might be significant in policy terms.) With predecessor Barnier having acknowledged the pressure for changing the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy after 2013 [see- France Embraces CAP Reform], it is clear that Paris has already woken up to the challenge of justifying CAP subsidies in the future. What is particularly interesting though, is Sarkozy’s decision to appoint as Farm Minister a fluent German speaker, whose main role as Minister for EU Affairs was to bring Paris & Berlin closer together. Sure enough, within a month of taking office, Le Maire has made clear that the French and German government will form a joint working party to look at the future of the CAP. Although the Franco-German alliance on the CAP is not what it used to be (when there were only 6 or even 9 Member States), it is a combination which will still have enormous influence over any future debate. In combination with Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, Austria, Finland and maybe Portugal, Spain, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Greece and Italy, such an alliance will play a key role in the forthcoming negotiations.

By Roger Waite