Re-education for Commission officials

On a visit to China a few years ago I met an elderly professor who had been sent with his students to the countryside during the Maoist period for ‘re-education’ by the peasants. He struck a deal with the local peasants that allowed them to work on their books two days a week. Now farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, a large-scale farmer with her husband in Denmark, has decided that Commission officials in DG Agri need re-education. She considers that they are too detached from farmers and don’t understand their problems.

The so-called Harvest Experience programme means that all agriculture staff will be sent to stay on farms from 2010. One goal is to encourage Commission officials to use simpler language.

It will be interesting to see where the farmer hosts are found from. I suspect that many of them will be drawn from farmer organisations and will have an axe to grind.

Historically, DG VI as it once was had a reputation of being particularly close to farmers. Its head official was always drawn from France and was usually close to large-scale French grain interests. Many of the officials were French and those Brits who worked there were usually Francophiles. One compensation was that it was said to have the best canteen in the Commission.

The Kinnock reforms ended the French domination at top level. Mind you, a lot of nonsense still comes out of DG Agri. A British academic was telling me about a talk given to students by one of its officials. He claimed that the livelihood of one person in five in Europe depended on the CAP. He worked this out by adding up those working in farming, those in food processing and those in input industries.

It was pointed out to him that it would be possible to have a healthy and competitive food sector in Europe without subsidy and protection.

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4 Replies to “Re-education for Commission officials”

  1. DG Agri and most national agriculture ministries are textbook examples of what political scientists call ‘producer capture’. I can only expect this inititative to reinforce the tendency.

    Perhaps DG Agri should come up with a more balanced approach and also send its officials off to work with conservationists to count the decreasing numbers of farmland birds, to spend some time with developing country farmers who are shut out of EU markets or have their own markets flooded by cheap subsidised EU exports. One perspective of the CAP that DG Agri officials will never fully grasp is that of taxpayers. As employees of the Commission, they receive their salaries tax free.

  2. Sorry, but I could not disagree more with Jack, and Wyn’s anecdote seems a bit pre-McSharry.

    Jack’s criticism is absolutely relevant for most national agriculture ministers. The French one is a typical example of a captured institution, which has long forgotten the concept of general interest. But look at the recent CAP history. Council decisions have always been the outcome of a Nash equilibrium, i.e. the demonstration that the sum of individual interests almost never leads to the general interest. The Parliament has no technical expertise, its votes are unpredictable and often scary (more subsidies to cotton, tobacco, etc.), suggesting that when the EP will have co-decision on the CAP we could end up with something as bad as a US Congress designed Farm Bill (well, at least the US has the Congressional Research Service !).

    Facing this, the Commission has appeared as a vector of the common interest for almost 20 years. OK, there are areas where DG Agri protects its own interests (I suspect this is why rural development remains so agriculture-oriented for example). So do DG Trade, DG Regio, perhaps in an even more questionable way (why so much insistance for defending structural funds in spite of their poor record ?). But eventually, the dialectic between DGs is such that the Commission’s proposals for CAP reforms since 1992 could pass for textbook cases of social welfare maximization under the political constraint of a dysfunctional Council and in spite of the unfriendly fire of expertise-deficient MEPs.

    I have heard top civil servants from the French ministry of agriculture refer to DG Agri as ‘the ennemy’. When you are hated by these guys, by British tabloids and by farmers unions, that means you are doing an excellent job.

    PS: By the way, I am not applying for a job at DG agri and I only get my research money from DG RTD.

  3. Jean-Christophe, I agree that most national agriculture ministries are worse, but my experience over the past few years of DG Agri is that it sees farmers as its principal constituency and fully buys into the notion of European agriculture as fundamentally uncompetitive and therefore reliant on a permanent structure of financial aid (this is the core finding of Scenar 2020 study).

    On a day-to-day level, farm unions always the first to get leaks from DG Agri and are much more in touch with what’s happening than other representative organisations that are not ‘in the loop’. Sure, farm unions spend a lot more money on lobbying than other groups can afford but it is reflective of the general posture of DG Agri as an institution whose principal function is to serve farmers not the common interest.

    The only two radical reform moments (under MacSharry and Fischler) were devised by small coteries of advisers very close to the Commissioner. Reform plans were by necessity kept from the mainstream DG Agri staffers as it was feared they would have tried to sabotage the reforms if they had known what was brewing. I think that tells its own story.

  4. The talk I referred to by a DG Agri official was given very recently. It does seem to have been a poor performance all round and I suspect that the DG does not (understandably) send its best staff on this sort of mission.

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