Agriculture Commissioner-designate Wojciechowski stumbles at hearing

One piece of advice given to everyone who goes for a job interview is that you need to prepare. Commissioner-designate for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski seemed to have done limited preparation for his hearing in front of COMAGRI (with COMENVI as an associated committee) in the European Parliament earlier this week and failed to impress. As a result, he has been asked to respond to a fresh set of questions submitted by the Committee before it decides if it is willing to support his candidacy.

Wojciechowski has a legal background and rose to become a senior judge in Poland. He was a member of the Polish Parliament for five years elected originally for the Polish People’s Party and, subsequently, for the Law and Justice party. He served as President of the Polish Supreme Audit Office for six years. He was elected a member of the European Parliament for twelve years 2004-2016 during which time he was also a Vice-Chair of COMAGRI. Since 2016 he has been the Polish member of the European Court of Auditors, during which time he was the reporting member for a number of audit reports of relevance to the agricultural brief, on young farmers, rural development programming, animal health and most recently food safety, among others.

Wojciechowski is thus both an experienced public servant and politician. However, his imprecise answering (which he himself recognised on numerous occasions) clearly irritated members of the committee during his oral hearing. They were also in contrast to his written answers to the questions posed by the committee which were more coherent if not particularly novel or adventurous. Indeed, his written answers give full support to the current Commission’s CAP and trade policies and could well have been ghost-written by Commissioner Hogan himself. This is not necessarily intended as a criticism, but merely to underline his broad agreement with the approach taken by the Commission in its draft reform proposal.

Some minor differences in emphasis emerged in his cross-examination. I summarise below some of the key messages that can be taken from his written answers and oral answers to the committee questions (Mr Wojciechowski’s hearings page gives further information).

New Delivery Model. The Commissioner-designate supports the New Delivery Model and the approach of CAP strategic planning by Member States as “we must acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable for a Union of 27”. In response to AGRI Committee concerns that the increased flexibility for Member States could lead to the renationalisation of the CAP, his written answers underline that “safeguards have been introduced in the proposal in view of ensuring a level playing field in the implementation of the policy”. He repeated this view in his oral answers, only admitting to MEP Paolo de Castro that he was open for dialogue on this issue and (later) on the possibility of more control at the European level.

Higher climate and environmental ambition. In his written answers, Mr Wojciechowski underlined that “overall, each Member State would need to show greater ambition as regards the environment and climate” as is required under the draft Commission proposal. He favoured “a combination of compulsory conditions for all farmers in the Union, with an increased focus on voluntary environmental schemes (such as agro-environment-climate measures or future eco-schemes)” as the way to help farmers to play their part in the transition towards a climate-neutral policy in 2050.

However, in his oral answers Mr Wojciechowski came down much more heavily in favour of voluntary approaches, at one stage saying he was “not an extreme ecologist”. Thus he did not want to force farmers into the green transition, but to support them. As with raising standards for animal welfare, he was in favour of the voluntary raising of standards rather than mandatory approaches.

What came across clearly was his hostility to what he referred to variously as intensive farming or industrial farming, as contrasted to family farming and which he identified as “a clear threat to the environment”. However, the ambiguity of these terms was revealed when, in answer to a question from the MEP Asger Christensen as to why he supported small polluting agriculture but not large high-technology, environmentally-friendly farms, he confirmed that he was not opposed to large farms as such. He did support, however, the idea of making payments from Pillar 2 to livestock farmers who did not use imported soy.

Nonetheless, he was criticised by MEP Martin Häusling for failing to give specific answers as to how he proposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, to address the loss of biodiversity, to reduce pesticide use, or to support organic farming and what targets he wanted to achieve.

Governance of the new CAP. When criticism is made of the draft Commission proposals that the future governance mechanisms of the CAP are very weak and that there are limited instruments to ensure that Member States do indeed propose a higher level of environmental and climate ambition in their Strategic Plans, the Commission always points to the requirement that it must approve these plans. This key step in the planning process is about the only lever the future Commissioner will have to influence the way the CAP is implemented beyond 2020 as, having made its proposal, the final legislation is now in the hands of the co-legislators.

The Commissioner-designate committed in his written answers that “when assessing each CAP strategic plan, the Commission would approve it only if it is fit for meeting the objectives and challenges”. He noted further that “Every Member State will be encouraged to include in the CAP Strategic Plan how it plans to use the agricultural policy instruments to help meet the ambitious European targets arising from EU legislation on climate change, energy, water, air quality, biodiversity and pesticides. For example, all Member States have to cut their greenhouse gas emissions under the terms of the Effort-Sharing Regulation, which covers part of emissions from agriculture. Each Member State’s CAP Plan will have to show what contribution the CAP would make to achieving that target.”  He also promised “that the process to approve the future CAP Strategic Plans will be transparent”.

These are strong and welcome commitments. Wojciechowski repeated this commitment in his oral answers, saying “I can promise one thing: the very important step is the approval of the national strategic plan. I will do everything possible to make the common agricultural policy more environmentally friendly, more friendly for the climate“. That he recognises the crucial role of this process is an important statement.

Redistribution. This was the issue on which the Commissioner-designate was most passionate in his oral answers, clearly stating his preference to target CAP payments on small and middle-sized farms. In addition to quoting the usual figures on the unequal distribution of Pillar 1 direct payments, he also suggested that a large share of Pillar 2 funds go to a small group of large farms and called for this distribution to be made “more democratic”. He was clear in both his written and oral answers that he favoured “mandatory rules at EU level to redistribute direct support and make it degressive to the benefit of smaller family farms”.

However, when challenged by MEP Peter Jahr whether he agreed with the AGRI Committee’s compromise amendment on capping and degressivity (which strengthens elements of the Commission’s proposal by limiting deductions for labour costs, confining the deduction to salaried labour and making this optional for Member States, but weakens other elements by eliminating degressivity below €100,000) he failed to engage with the specifics of the question.

Market management. AGRI Committee members raised questions about the management of price volatility and influencing the level of prices received by farmers particularly through improving farmer bargaining power. The Commissioner-designate stuck closely to the Commission script here. On rebalancing power within the food chain, in his written answers he promised to ensure that implementation of the Unfair Trading Practices (UTP) Directive is a success. He noted that the role of producer groups had been extended in the Omnibus Regulation and saw his role here as “explaining to producers the advantages of cooperation and raising awareness of the possibilities and incentives the EU legal framework provides”. He also committed to ensuring that the market transparency system recently introduced by legislation will be an effective one. In an oral answer to MEP Anne Sander he said it would be an important part of his mission to strengthen systems of market support but without being specific on what he had in mind. Nor had he specific ideas on how to improve the take-up of risk management instruments funded under Pillar 2.

Trade and market access. Both written and oral questions underlined the AGRI Committee members’ interest in the impact of increased market access under trade agreements on EU agriculture. In his written answer, he again stuck closely to the Commission view that on balance “the EU agri-food sector benefits from the opportunities that international trade brings” while pointing out that the Commission has protected sensitive sectors in its agreements to date. He insisted, as Commissioner Hogan has frequently reiterated, that all agri-food imports into the EU must meet EU food safety and product standards. On process standards (which include social, animal welfare and environmental standards), he referred in his written answers to the commitment from Commission President-elect von der Leyen that every trade agreement would contain a chapter on trade and sustainable development, pointing out that “trade agreements …. provide new platforms for dialogue with third countries on strengthening the protection of the environment and fighting climate change together”.

When pressed by MEP Ivan David in the oral session on how to address the adverse effects of trade agreements on certain farm sectors, Wojciechowski pointed to his willingness to use market support instruments as had been marshalled to help farmers adversely affected by the Russian ban. David in turn wanted to know what could be done other than supporting farmers after they had incurred losses. In any case, the trade dossier will now be the responsibility of the current Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan in the new Commission and Wojciechowski’s reasonable response was that he would work closely with the Commissioner-designate for Trade on these issues.

Conclusions

The Commissioner-designate for Agriculture gave a stumbling performance in his oral hearing. The Committee has now called him back for a further round of questions before deciding whether to confirm his candidacy or not. Mr Wojciechowski seemed woefully ill-prepared and out of his depth in answering questions from MEPs that should have come as no surprise to anyone following the Committee’s deliberations on the CAP reform proposals.

Nonetheless, his written answers, while extremely cautious and lacking anything in the way of new initiatives or ambitious goals (at one stage in the oral hearing, he remarked somewhat ruefully that it is the fate of every Agriculture Commissioner to implement the reforms that had been decided by their predecessors), have the rudiments of a more coherent platform.

He needs to be much more specific and clear about the goals he wants to achieve and the way he proposes to achieve them. He should forget his ‘big idea’ of a long term vision for agriculture to 2050 (which would quickly be overtaken by events). Instead, he needs to set out the concrete steps that must be taken in his term of office to meet the challenges set out in von der Leyen’s Political Guidelines if he is to win the Committee’s approval the second time around.

This post was written by Alan Matthews.

Update 3 Oct 2019. The text was corrected to make clear that Mr Wojciechowski expressly referred in his oral answers to his future role in approval of national strategic plans to ensure a high level of environmental and climate ambition.

Picture credit: European Parliament

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