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“The political future of Europe and the importance of the EU for agriculture in Germany” – speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the opening of the north Hesse agricultural week in Baunatal

09.01.2017

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

Agriculture and the future – these terms don’t really seem to go together for many people. It’s wonderful that you’re intent upon setting the record straight today for the many sceptics out there. I’m quite often invited to talk about topics such as “Europe in the crisis” or – even more dramatically – “Europe on the brink” these days.

And I’m all the more delighted that we want to talk again about the future of Europe here in Baunatal today. We want to look ahead and not so much ponder whether we have a common future, but what shape this future should take. And, of course, we also want to ask ourselves what the future of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy could look like.

I could ask you a much more specific question though, namely what does the future hold for you, esteemed farmers, in the EU? And – far more importantly – what do we want it to look like? As someone who hails from the country, I am aware of your concerns. I grew up in a family that had two cows and two pigs, a large kitchen garden, several meadows and a few fields for crops, potatoes and turnips. That was over thirty years ago. Nothing remains from that time.

And from my visits to agricultural businesses and practical training with dairy farmers, I am well aware of your frustration with excessive red tape, apparently unrealistic requirements and your concerns about who will take on your farms when you retire. I also know that you are devoted to your work and that you invest a great deal of time, energy and money in a profession that is a calling and which makes demands of the whole family – 365 days a year.

The EU’s decisions have a direct and immediate impact upon you. For you, Brussels is at the heart of all this. The EU is not in good shape at the present, however. Or perhaps, since we’re at an agricultural fair today, I should rather put it like this: the wheelbarrow is stuck deep in the mud right now!

There is no doubt that Europe is facing major challenges – I need only mention the issue of refugees and migration, the countless crises and conflicts in our neighbourhood, Islamist terror at the heart of Europe, economic and social upheavals above all in the south of our continent, and the imminent departure of the UK from the EU.

So, what now, Europe? Do we all sink into depression now? Do we each issue our own predictions of doom and gloom about the impending collapse of the EU?

On the contrary! We politicians can actually learn something quite decisive from farmers such as yourselves for how to deal with these cumulative challenges – namely cohesion and solidarity.

Each and every farmer knows that when the wheelbarrow gets stuck deep in the mud, then you won’t get all that far by yourself. What you need to do is link arms, grab hold of the barrow and get the wheels turning again by joining forces. And this team spirit that works so magnificently in agriculture is what we need in the current times of crisis also in European policy.

I’ll readily admit that the question as to the future of Europe is currently a bona fide one million euro question. Europe is at a crossroads – between being a continent where national egoism is rearing its head once again, and a continent that stands together in a spirit of solidarity and acts in concert politically.

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that when it comes to the road Europe will take in the coming years – nothing is automatic in either direction. Now it is up to us all to get Europe back on track again!

And you can also do your part to help pull the European wheelbarrow out of the mud. After all, German agriculture in particular is especially dependent upon a stable and effective European Union from which it has benefited so very much in decades past. It is therefore especially in your interests that the EU bounces back quickly.

We should avoid making one mistake in these times of crisis, however. We must not call all of the achievements of European integration into question now simply because the current challenges are so massive.

After all, the fact remains that the European Union has brought us peace, freedom and prosperity during the last few decades. It is the framework for democracy and the rule of law on our continent. This is not something for us to merely take for granted in a world in which there are currently forty armed conflicts that claim more than 170,000 lives each year.

We must never forget in all this that our united Europe was and remains the logical response to the “catastrophe of nationalism”, as François Mitterrand once put it. And now retreating into national shells is suddenly supposed to be the solution to all of our problems? I think that’s a fatal illusion.

After all, the seeds sown by our European founding fathers have borne fruit. The European Union has achieved much in its history that was barely imaginable for previous generations – some of you may perhaps still recall different times. We all enjoy the benefits of European integration on a daily basis, and often without being aware of the fact – with the free movement of goods and services, our single currency, the freedom to work or study in another EU country – and, in your specific case, the farm subsidies from the EU budget.

However, despite these indisputable achievements of European integration, many citizens, and also politicians, are calling the European project into serious question and raising doubts as to the point and value of Europe.

Why is this so? I don’t know what your take is on this, but a growing number of people in our increasingly globalised world appear to feel ever-more homeless. Many people have the impression that everything that was part and parcel of their lives for years no longer applies or is being called into question. Against the backdrop of rapid globalisation and digitisation, many people, particularly in rural areas, are afraid of being left behind by runaway progress. Others worry that their children and grandchildren will not be better, but worse off than them in a few years’ time.

And then there are also very specific problems. Social upheavals have intensified in the EU. A deep social crisis has followed hot on the heels of the economic and financial crisis. Youth unemployment is shockingly high, and not only in Greece and Spain.

Unfortunately, many people no longer see the EU of today as a guarantee of freedom and prosperity, but rather as the root cause of all our problems. Today, many people see the EU as a mighty and opaque structure that only produces crises and distributes millions of euros in subsidies, but which no longer has any tangible results or solutions to offer.

As you can see, the EU is currently under enormous public pressure to deliver results at long last. And this pressure – as you all know far too well – also has a bearing on the Common Agricultural Policy. Agriculture was the first policy area to be fully communitarised.

However, the requirements for a viable agricultural policy are now very different compared with the early days of the 1950s and 1960s.

Agriculture continues to play very different roles in the 28 member states. While it is a significant economic factor and employer in a number of European countries and regions, it has virtually no bearing in economic terms in other parts of the continent. This makes it all the more difficult to find a common denominator within the EU. And lack of consensus remains the biggest obstacle to reform.

Moreover, many critics consider today’s agricultural policy to be far too complicated, inefficient and not terribly sustainable – and the wider population has long since ceased to comprehend what is going on here at all.

In times of financial austerity, more and more people are asking themselves what the actual benefit is for the community when around forty per cent of the EU budget – or some 56 billion euros annually – goes to support the agricultural sector.

And that is despite the fact that agriculture accounts for only around five per cent of the EU’s economic output and seven per cent of its jobs. At the same time, other sectors are facing a chronic lack of financial support.

I certainly appreciate these critical questions – which should also not be simply brushed aside. Politicians, and you as affected farmers, must – for better or for worse – face up to this public pressure to deliver results. Each policy needs public acceptance in order to stand a good chance of survival in the future – this is also true of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The EU has assumed ever more tasks over the years – particularly in recent times, its political priorities have increasingly shifted to the important areas of refugees and migration, growth and employment and domestic and international security.

Europe must approach all of these tasks with great resolve. The member states have an obligation here in the first instance, and also the European Union. In order to do this, however, these tasks must have sufficient financial support in the EU’s multiannual financial framework. This is currently not the case.

Experience shows that it is generally easy for us in the EU to agree on political priorities. It is much more difficult, however, to reach consensus on which areas should take more of a back seat in their place. The EU has also not proven to be very good at questioning existing spending.

Brexit is forcing us to take this necessary step, however. With the departure of the UK – which is currently the second-largest net contributor to the EU – the EU budget will, over night, have a shortfall of around 13 billion euros per year, which, as you can imagine, no other member state will be willing to take on at the drop of a hat.

The fact is that it will not be possible for everything to stay as it is. This will necessarily entail heated debates about the distribution of funds. We not only have to decide where we want our political priorities to lie in the future, but we must also urgently clarify the areas where we intend to spend less money.

I can make one prediction now though:

After Brexit, and at the latest during the next round of negotiations on the EU’s multiannual financial framework for the period after 2020, all expenditures will be subject to a hard-nosed review – and the Common Agricultural Policy will not be spared, of course.

And the questions asked will be extremely probing. How can the funds from the EU budget be used in an even more targeted fashion to ensure that they deliver tangible results to the benefit of all citizens? How can we ensure that the EU makes even greater long-term investments in the future of Europe, rather than simply subsidising its past? Do we perhaps need the member states to cofinance agricultural policy? And what could that mean for federal Germany and for the Federation and the Länder?

The European agricultural community must be prepared for these difficult debates – with convincing arguments, and also with a healthy amount of willingness to reform and innovate. Of course I know that quite a few of you are tired of these incessant reforms. But the worst thing now would be if you withdrew because you feel disappointed or even angry. This debate will take place. There is no doubt about that. But I want to conduct it with you – not against you.

First of all, we have to make the tangible benefits of a modern, sustainable agricultural policy far clearer to the general public. The appetite for this is actually pretty healthy.

Many consumers now have greater awareness of sustainability. Organic and regional products are the latest trend – and, by the way, I am also a big fan of them!

This is the approach we need to take. After all, we are talking about the living conditions on our doorsteps and about our food. And these things affect us all. I am sure all of you know the old country lore “what the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat”. Fortunately, ever-more consumers now see this in precisely the same way.

And this has nothing to do with the absurd phoney debate about whether a vegan schnitzel has the right to be called a schnitzel or not. I was quite surprised by our Minister for Agriculture’s pronouncements on this issue. This is, essentially, about something different:

Today, ever more consumers want to know precisely where their food comes from and what it contains. But are they also prepared to pay a little more for it?

Our objective must therefore be to promote a sustainable, regionally focused and resource-friendly agricultural sector. This is the only way for the production of food to meet the requirements for a healthy, balanced and high-quality diet. This is about species-appropriate animal husbandry, protecting the soils, waters and preserving species diversity. This is good news in two different ways – it is good news for agricultural companies, and also for mankind and nature.

And what role can the EU play in all of this? As one of the world’s leading prosperous regions, the EU should also aspire to play a leading role globally in the area of agricultural and food policy. We must make much more resolute progress in the fields of sustainability, climate and environmental protection, animal welfare and healthy eating. In so doing, we can set new standards that are respected elsewhere in the world, and which will hopefully also be emulated in the medium term.

Free trade agreements give us the opportunity to define global standards that are geared to European principles and values. Such agreements are therefore instruments that we can use to shape globalisation actively. We should not pass up this opportunity in the agricultural sector.

But free trade agreements are also the subject of public criticism, which is something we have witnessed in the case of TTIP and CETA. For many citizens, only fair trade is free trade. The trade agreements with African countries are unfair in the eyes of many experts, however.

European products, including food, are flooding African markets and threatening the development of an independent and competitive agricultural sector in the region. With 65 million refugees around the world, people need economic and social prospects in their countries of origin. This is also in our interests as we all want to fight the causes of refugee movements and not the refugees.

We are currently undergoing a period of major structural upheavals – and the agricultural sector cannot remain on the sidelines here. Sustainability simply needs change.

Without the willingness to reconsider gridlocked positions and to recalibrate the agricultural sector, it will be difficult in the political debates and decisions of the coming years to avoid going to rack and ruin and being overrun by a tide of massive criticism.

The year 2017 marks the beginning of the further reform debates to be held in the coming years. The European Commission is scheduled to present its plans for reforming the Common Agricultural Policy in the summer of 2017. It will be clear where we are headed at the latest by the time negotiations on the next EU financial framework from 2020 have got under way.

Allow me to mention three points where I see a particular need for reform.

Firstly, we need to greatly simplify the complicated funding legislation in the agricultural sector. As part of the midterm review of the multiannual financial framework, talks are currently taking place at EU level on how the four basic regulations underpinning the Common Agricultural Policy and the additional regulations on specific areas can be revised.

Our aim must be to formulate the Common Agricultural Policy’s legal principles in a way that makes them more efficient and practicable and keeps the administrative burden on farmers and the national authorities as low as possible. The overall objective should be to achieve a modern, transparent and lasting funding framework that makes farmers’ lives easier and abolishes unnecessary red tape.

Secondly, I would like to encourage us to develop the Common Agricultural Policy step by step into a Common Sustainability Policy for Agriculture and Food.

It is obvious that a financing system based on the tried-and-tested principle of “funding per hectare” is no longer appropriate or feasible. Most of the direct payments are still paid to farmers without their having to meet any special conditions. Only around 30 per cent of agricultural assistance is tied to meeting concrete environmental and climate conditions.

In my opinion, we need to take this greening policy further and to make agricultural support far more dependent on meeting climate, environmental protection and animal welfare conditions.

A reformed financing concept based on the principle of “public-sector money only for public-sector tasks” will be far more readily accepted by the public, as it will be easier for members of the public to see the tangible benefits of agricultural support.

Thirdly, it would be worthwhile thinking about merging the EU rural development funds into a single joint funding programme. Apart from experts, who can explain the difference between the ERDF and EAFRD funds? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the CAP only dealt with the agricultural sector in the future and everything else were combined in a special regions’ programme? That is a question I would like to raise here.

I know that what I have said today may not have been easy for you to hear. I am aware of the difficult economic environment still facing the German agricultural sector.

And I am also aware that reforms in agricultural companies always involve expensive investments and significant financial outlay.

Perhaps I am an optimist by profession. However, I still believe in the EU’s promise of prosperity, even if it has been on somewhat shaky ground recently. And I also believe that a place for European agriculture will be ensured in the future. However, this will not simply happen of its own accord. It can only happen with your active support.

I would be happy if I have achieved one thing today, namely to have shown you that while the Common Agricultural Policy may be one of the oldest communitarised policy areas, it can still be a project for the future of the EU if you are prepared to adopt new courses and if you find convincing answers to the questions many members of the public have.

Let us prove together that agriculture and the future can in fact go together hand in hand!

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