Bureaucracy, greed and vanity threaten EU plan to help world’s poorest farmers

The European Commission has published its plans to divert up to a billion euros from CAP underspends to a new fund to help farmers in the developing world to increase productivity in the face of the world food crisis. Higher food prices have meant lower CAP expenditure on market measures such as intervention, storage and export refunds and the Commission has suggested redirecting parts of these savings to agricultural production in the third world. Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Development Commissioner Louis Michel and Farms Commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel have all spoken enthusiastically about the idea, but there are growing rumblings of opposition, from both the Council and the Parliament, both of which will have to approve the plan if it is to become a reality.

Today’s Commission press release states:

“The fund would be worth €1 billion and would operate for two years, 2008 and 2009. This money would be in addition to existing development funds and would be taken from unused money from the European Union’s agricultural budget. It would be provided to developing countries which are most in need, based on a set of objective criteria. The facility would give priority to supply-side measures, improving access to farm inputs such as fertilisers and seed, possibly through credit, and to safety net measures aimed at improving productive capacity in agriculture. The support would be paid via international organisations, including regional organisations.”

Last week European Voice reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her farms minister Horst Seehofer were voicing concerns about the plan. Some have said that Merkel’s concerns relate to the the principle of spending EU money (much of which is contributed by German taxpayers) on purposes other than those originally budgeted.

Seehofer, whose ministry frequently appears to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the German farm unions, would probably rather keep the money in the farm budget, as would a number of farm ministers from the CEEC member states who made a statement demanding that any underspend in the CAP budget be used to top-up farm subsidies in their countries. To her credit, Commission Fischer Boel has roundly rebuffed these demands.

Meanwhile, it seems that vanity is to be clouding the judgment of some MEPs. Jutta Haug, the German social democrat MEP, who is responsible for drafting the Parliament’s position on the 2009 Budget, said it was important that the EU claimed credit for any additional funding. “We’re the biggest aid donor but we don’t have the visibility”, she said, according to European Voice. The Commission proposal gives examples on how it would want to channel the money through the international agencies with the greatest expertise in the field:

“Assistance channelled through International Organisations could for instance apply to FAO (emergency input delivery programme), IFAD (e.g. rural finance), UNICEF (child nutrition, nutritional safety nets), WFP (humanitarian food assistance, transitional safety nets), the ICRC (food assistance) and the World Bank (market-based risk management, safety nets).”

Ms Haug’s notion that getting good PR is more important than feeding the world’s hungry shows just how out of touch some MEPs can be. Surely the most important consideration is how to get the job done, not who gets the credit.

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