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Andris Piebalgs for Agriculture Commissioner?

With the CAP among the EU’s oldest and biggest policies, it’s something of a surprise that no country has nominated an ‘agriculture specialist’ for the commission. This makes for a challenge to select an able successor to Mariann Fischer Boel, who came to the post having served as Farms Minister in Denmark as well as having farming background herself. In Brussels it seems as if the front-runner is the current Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs of Latvia.

Expert knowledge of the CAP is seen as essential for a succesful Agriculture Commissioner. This is why the job has often gone to ex-Farms Ministers like Fischer Boel and her Austrian predecessor Franz Fischler. It is regarded as important that the Commissioner can out-gun the Council and the Parliament with his or her technical knowledge, particularly necessary to seal the deal in late-night summit negotiations. The battle for the future of the CAP is often fought in a guerilla warfare of jargon-laden detail and complexity.

The Parliament has already appointed Paolo De Castro as chair of its Agriculture Committee. He’s a former Italian Minister for Agriculture and was previously an agricultural economist. But with no member state putting forward a commission nominee with an agricultural background (with the possible exception of the fading French-backed candidacy of Mary Coughlan of the Republic of Ireland), it looks as if it will have to be a ‘fresh face’.

And the face that fits could well be that of the Latvian Andris Piebalgs. First of all, he’s from a small country (this is traditionally a requirement for the agriculture job). Second, he is from a ‘new member state’ – who justifiably consider they get a bad deal from the CAP – and this may be a conciliatory first move in the process of addressing their grievances. Latvia is the country that has the lowest average rates of direct payments per hectare, around 78 euros per hectare. Piebalgs is regarded as having done well in his current portfolio, despite having no background in the energy policy field. He was responsible for conducting Latvia’s EU accession negotiations and so is likely to retain a recollection of the basic outlines of the CAP.

In the absence of a nominee who comes with existing detailed knowledge of the CAP, Commission President José Manuel Barroso would be wise to go for someone who knows Brussels and who has a reputation as a quick study. As things stand, Piebalgs is the candidate that anyone else who wants the plum post of Agriculture Commissioner will have to beat.

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