FarmPolicy

February 26, 2020

“Analysis from Brussels”- by Roger Waite- Romanian Cioloş Named as New EU Farm Commissioner-Designate

Romanian Cioloş Named as New EU Farm Commissioner-Designate

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.

Well, we now have a name for the next EU Commissioner for Agriculture & Rural Development. Or at least the Commissioner-designate. It’s the 40-year-old former Romanian Minister for Agriculture, Dacian Cioloş. I thought I’d share a few thoughts on his nomination – and what it might mean for future policy, although it is far too soon for any firm conclusions.

Surprise or not?
Perhaps I should say something first about the process for his nomination. Each of the Member States of the EU was asked to nominate a politician to be their Commissioner for the next 5 years. Commission President José Barroso (a Portuguese) tried to influence governments on whom they named in order to get a good balance of political expertise – but also a good political and gender balance. In the end, however, Barroso got a list of 25 names – and it was up to him to allocate the portfolios as he felt best. [N.B. There are only 25 names because Barroso is the Portuguese Commissioner, and the UK’s Catherine Ashton – currently the Trade Commissioner – was appointed EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Commission Vice-President by EU leaders earlier in the month.] It was up to Barroso then to decide who should get what – with some flexibility too for re-jigging the relevant portfolios.

Although Dacian Cioloş is the only trained agronomist among the group, and was named by Bucharest with a view to becoming the next Agriculture Commissioner, there seems to have been near consensus among Member States ever since his name was put forward that a Romanian could not possibly get the agriculture dossier. After all, Romania is a country more dependent on agriculture than any other in the EU – with 29.5% of the workforce employed in the sector, as opposed to the EU average of 5.6%. (The average in the 15 “old” Member States is just 3.5%.) Despite the strong, widespread opinion that any Romanian was apparently not suitable, none of the other interested parties put forward a suitable candidate. Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark all considered present or former Agriculture Ministers, but chose to nominate someone else instead. Before the November announcement, the favourites for the agriculture portfolio were the Irish former Minister of Justice (Maire Geoghegan Quinn) and the current EU Energy Commissioner & former Latvian Minister of Finance (Andris Piebalgs) – neither of whom has any agriculture experience, and neither of whom want to start getting agricultural experience, by all accounts. Although a number of commentators have suggested that Cioloş’ nomination for Agriculture is surprising, I tend to feel that Barroso was left with no other option, as no one was willing to put forward a good candidate – and that he was the only suitable candidate from among the nominees. (I should perhaps add that former French Farm Minister Michel Barnier has also been named as the new French Commissioner – but, on this one, even Paris admits that France will not be given the Agriculture Commissioner.)

Before going on, I should mention that the nomination by President Barroso is not the end of the process of appointment. All new Commissioners must now go through a formal Hearing with the relevant Committee in the European Parliament. Although MEPs have no legal powers to reject individual Commissioners – they only have a straight yes-no vote on the whole College of Commissioners – they have managed to obtain de facto power over the individual Commissioners. Five years ago, after a number of Commissioners performed poorly in their EP Hearings and MEPs started to threaten to veto the whole Commission, President Barroso agreed to replace 3 of them. (In fact, he replaced 2 of them, and shifted a third one to a different portfolio.) And so the precedent was set. New hearings were set for the new names a few weeks later – and a happy House of MEPs voted through the new College.

The EP Hearings for the new Commission College have been set for the period January 11-19, with a full Plenary vote scheduled for January 26 – so that the new College could take office from February 1. Knowing the EP enthusiasm for muscle-flexing, I’d be astonished if MEPs didn’t seek to block at least one of the new Commission nominees – but preferably 2 or 3, to get the right party political, gender and old-new member State balance. In short, Cioloş is only half way to becoming the next EU Farm Commissioner.

Who is Dacian Cioloş?
Turning then to the man himself. Born in the city of Zalau in North-West Romania on July 25, 1969, Cioloş studied horticulture & agronomy at the Agricultural University of Cluj. He then continued his agricultural studies in France in Rennes and Montpellier – emerging with a Masters degree – which included a close look at organic farms in Brittany. From there, he started a 2-year internship in the European Commission’s DG AGRI in Brussels – where he met his (French) wife. After that, he became a programme coordinator in Romania for the National Association of Agricultural Development – but also started a part-time PhD at the Ecole Superieure Agronomique in Montpellier. Two years later, he switched to working for the European Commission’s office in Bucharest – providing advice for Agriculture & Rural Development programmes. Then in 2005, he was recruited by the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture to make frequent trips to Brussels and represent the Romanian position in the so-called Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA) – the key Committee for preparing the monthly Council meetings of EU Farm Ministers. This was of course in the build up period before Romania joined the EU in January 2007. Soon after they joined, the Minister then named him “Under-Secretary of State for Agriculture responsible for EU affairs”, i.e. Junior Minister. When, 6 months later, the Minister resigned, Cioloş was then promoted to Minister, charged in particular with sorting out the administration of the various CAP payments. With well over 1 million applications for EU support, the system was struggling, it seems. Anyway, Cioloş remained Minister for 15 months until a new government was formed after the elections at the end of 2008. Since then, he has been doing a number of ad hoc jobs within the Romanian Ministry, notably chairing a Romanian working group on the future of the CAP.

From a purely personal point of view, I’ve come across him a number of times – mainly at Informal Agriculture Council meetings, but I also had a one-to-one meeting with him not so long ago. At Informal meetings, where journalists tend to have access to all Ministers for a couple of hours, he was always a popular target because his French is so good [and there are no interpreters] and because he is good on policy details. In my contacts with him, however, he has given the clear indications of support for competitive, but sustainable farm structures, i.e. not wedded to the small structures so prevalent in Romania. He has pointed out that there is more to Romanian agriculture that just small farms – and that it is also in Romania’s interests to improve its efficiencies (maybe by increasing structures). But maybe that’s what he assumed I wanted to hear, as an Anglo-Saxon.

We spoke in French, but he did assure me (in French) that he also speaks English. It would be a shame if this were to become an issue, as one should recall that both Mariann Fischer Boel and Franz Fischler were not confident enough to speak publicly in English when they first took office. Unfortunately, the fact that Cioloş is seen by some as being “too French” means that speaking English will be an important pre-requisite for allaying such fears.

Unfortunately for him, Cioloş’ claims that he is not “too French” were not helped by the reaction in Paris to his nomination for the Agriculture portfolio. French President Nicolas Sarkozy singled out the appointment as “a second victory for France” (in addition to the fact that the French Commissioner Michel Barnier will be responsible for financial services). Indeed, Barnier has also made comments about how he will ensure that Cioloş is well aware of French agricultural positions.

In preparing for the Hearing in the European Parliament next month, Cioloş has now chosen his chief adviser – or Chef de Cabinet – an Austrian called Georg Haeusler from within DG AGRI, whose main claim to fame was being the personal adviser to DG AGRI Director-general Jean-Luc Demarty from 2006 to 2008. The fact that 41-year-old Haeusler – and Cioloş – is so relatively inexperienced suggests that these changes will considerably increase Jean-Luc Demarty’s influence over the whole CAP reform process. Although Demarty is French, he has been in the Commission for many years and has previously been criticised from Paris for certain positions. In practice, this greater influence of the DG will probably mean a stronger sense of continuation in the direct of policy reform, rather than a strong input from the new Commissioner.

Will he be blocked by the European Parliament?

My immediate response to his nomination was that MEPs will want to block Cioloş, as he is an easy target. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that he will be supported by COMAGRI – on the condition, of course, that he puts in a competent performance in the Hearing. We should perhaps recall that Fischer Boel was not particularly impressive in her EP Hearing, but has turned out to be a particularly skilful Commissioner who would have had unquestioned support from most quarters if she had decided to stay on for another 5 years.

Arguments Against Cioloş
Wrong nationality. Romania is too dependent on agriculture, and besides which Cioloş is too French – having lived & studied there, i.e. a Romanian with a French CV.
lacks political experience. He was only Minister for 15 months, and has spent most of his relatively short career as a civil servant; When he was Minister EU payments to Romania (for pre-accession Rural Development schemes) were frozen because of mal-administration;
lacks political support within the EP. Although he previously insisted that he was “independent”, he has now been embraced by the right of centre European People’s Party, but it remains unclear how strong this support is.

Arguments for COMAGRI supporting Cioloş
Lack of alternative – COMAGRI is pro-farmer, and the fear from blocking him is who might be offered as an alternative Commissioner. Certainly it would be no one as well-qualified & informed as Cioloş. Without any doubt, there is no other Romanian who would be acceptable for the post.
Lack of political experience – With co-decision, it could be a massive advantage for the EP, and for the COMAGRI in particular, to have an inexperienced Commissioner. He is reasonably close to COMAGRI Chairman Paolo De Castro (former Italian Minister) from their time together as Ministers – and so De Castro may have a much stronger influence over him, than over a different Commissioner.

By Roger Waite

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