5 March: The circus comes to town

The world’s largest food and farm show, France’s Salon d’Agriculture, is taking place in Paris this week.

Europe’s new agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos cut the ribbon — a first for an EU commissioner — after President Nicolas Sarkozy broke with tradition and skipped the opening ceremony. The French premier will wrap up proceedings on Sunday instead.

The event comes after a year in which French farming has suffered its worst crisis in decades. According to Reuters, it is a “chance for Europe’s top agricultural producer to convince the visiting public and foreign officials it is worth safeguarding a sector undermined by declining revenues.”

Target number one is Commissioner Ciolos.

As the Financial Times put it, “the invitation comes as Europe begins a thorny debate over financing the CAP … France wants to lead the debate [and] believes it has an opportunity to push its view, and the invitation of Mr Ciolos is a sign of its confidence.”

Seizing his opportunity, French farming minister Bruno Le Maire reiterated his proposals — such as bolstering prices for farmers — at a joint press conference with Ciolos. “It is unacceptable that farmers have to sell their products below their cost price,” Le Maire said.

Ciolos was more equivocal. “I think it’s important to find the middle way. I don’t like extremes,” he said. Instead, he said he’d look to combine both market forces and support mechanisms for farmers.

Yet the commissioner fell short of making firm commitments, saying it’s too early to discuss specific measures. When can we expect to see any? By the end of the year, Ciolos said.

The FT also noted that “the proposals have quite sensibly shifted the early debate on the CAP away from the controversial issue of funding to the question of what its priorities should be.”

Ciolos echoed this sentiment. “What is important is not simply the budget … but how European agriculture as a whole can survive,” he told reporters.

Still, as the FT reminds us, if EU member states “agree to regulation à la francaise, they will have agreed implicitly to a big budget, as the measures would demand significant funding.”

Le Maire wasn’t the only farm minister getting face time with Ciolos this week. The commissioner pressed the flesh with Hilary Benn of the UK, his German counterpart Ilse Aigner, Spain’s farm minister Elena Espinosa, and Brendan Smith of Ireland.

According to the German food ministry, Ciolos and Aigner had “an open and intensive exchange of views” in Berlin. Ciolos said afterwards: “We need an open debate in the general public. We will listen very carefully in the weeks and months to come. It is no coincidence that I have chosen Berlin as the first stop in this consultation progress.”

This week also saw the publication of three papers.

First, agriculture ministers and policy-makers from the 30 OECD countries, as well as several observer countries (such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Russia), which together account for a huge proportion of the world’s production and consumption of food and agricultural products, met in Paris.

According to communique released after the meeting, the participants concluded that agriculture has an important role to play in the process of “green growth”.

They also discussed food security at length, called for frameworks to enable food and agricultural markets to function “efficiently, effectively, transparently, and fairly”, and proposed an analysis of the “functioning of markets and the extent to which the changing physical and market environment is generating new or increased risk and volatility affecting the agriculture and food system.”

Later in the week, the European Commission unveiled a long-awaited economic roadmap for Europe. The EU’s new strategy for sustainable growth and jobs — “Europe 2020” — replaces the Lisbon Agenda and puts innovation and green growth at the heart of its blueprint for competitiveness.

Yet agriculture was conspicuous by its absence from the text. According to AGRA FACTS (sub. req’d), commission officials said later that “even though agriculture is not mentioned so clearly, it is clear that agricultural policy is central to these issues”.

But conservation group WWF isn’t so sure. They say the strategy shows “little ambition” and “fails to give any clear direction on some of the biggest policy overhauls coming up in the next few years, including agriculture, fisheries and rural development, which are barely mentioned in the document”.

Finally, the Centre of European Policy Studies, a think tank, this week published a paper arguing that the EU budget should shift funds from the CAP to energy and climate change to reflect the bloc’s changing priorities. The paper says “tying up 40 percent of funds in the CAP restricts the manoeuvre of the budget” and that increased CAP co-financing would give the EU budget more flexibility.

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