The "years of ice” (2000-2010) of the CAP and in DG AGRI

The second half of the last decade was marked by the worst farm incomes crisis in the history of the CAP and by a severe crisis in the milk market. This period corresponds to the “health check” of the CAP, a significant step towards a market-oriented agriculture (and farmers) even if it maintained a safety net of limited public intervention in the event of serious crises.

The Union, rightly in my opinion, promoted a market oriented agriculture but failed to accompany its reduced intervention in agricultural markets with increased support for the establishment of new structures in which farmers and their professional organisations are called upon to play a more active role in order "to not replace the order by lawlessness", as the European Commission requested in 1990.

Why did this happen? There is no a simple answer and it is worth recalling the historical context.

Under the chairmanship of Jacques Delors, the European Commission played a major role. It was a ‘golden age’ for this institution, with major successes such as the single market and economic and monetary union, leading later to the euro. However, its increasing role was not accompanied by a qualitative and quantitative growth in personnel or an improvement in control mechanisms.

Such a strong and active (and sometimes also a little bit arrogant) Commission was likely to prove disturbing, particularly to some big Member States. In addition, the European Parliament wanted to assert its power and strengthen its institutional role, which could be done more easily at the expense of the European Commission, rather than the Council of Ministers.

The offensive against the Commission had several consequences:

•    The Commission President, Jacques Santer, had to resign, which represented a major institutional victory for the European Parliament;
•    Within the Parliament, the COCOBU (Committee on Budgetary Control) reinforced its power, to the detriment of the sectoral committees such as the COMAGRI (Agricultural Committee) and even BUDG (Committee on Budgets);
•    Much stricter (and rigid) control procedures were introduced inside the Commission. On the one hand, the decision process is more secure; on the other, it is also less reactive. The control Unit was reinforced at the expense of the operational ones.
•    Mobility has become compulsory for civil servants. Organised in a bureaucratic way, it has resulted in a loss of historical memory and technical capacity within the Commission services, limiting its capacity to be a driving and dynamic source of initiatives.

There was also, undoubtedly, a “human” impact.

In the case of the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) Jean-Luc Demarty was “the right man in the right place”, first as Director for Budget, then Deputy Director-General and later as Director General. The result was a strong culture of integrity and respect for procedures, which today remains one of the strengths of this Directorate-General.

However, this also implied that DG AGRI became more "risk allergic" and less innovative. For instance, during the 2009 milk crisis, the 300 million euros that could be released to help the sector were distributed, e.g. between farmers as a supplement of a few cents per litre of quota. It was simple and ‘effective’ from the budgetary management point of view, although not very helpful in resolving the dairy market crisis.

In the fruit and vegetables sector, producer organisations and their operational programmes did not fit easily into this rigid mould. This is why, for instance, in the reform of the fruit and vegetable sector adopted in 2006, one of the options discussed internally was to transfer the scheme to rural development, which in the end was rejected by Commissioner Fischer Boel.

What is more, the producer organisations’ operational programmes included measures that were also eligible under the rural development regulation. This represented an additional risk, a possible double funding of the same action under both pillars of the CAP. Despite provisions in Council Regulations allowing for this flexibility, the Commission pushed, wherever possible, for an approach of exclusion (if an action is eligible under one pillar, it cannot be eligible under the other) rather than for consistency, coherence and synergy.

The example of fruit and vegetables was not only “not to be followed”, but the support measure for producer groups in the Rural Development Regulation (a traditional measure since the discussions that followed the Mansholt plan) was disallowed in the old Member States.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The dairy crisis contributed to putting things in place. One of the “new” initiatives envisaged extend the producer group support measure to the old Member States. Commissioner Fischer Boel, at the end of her mandate, was fully aware of the deep water we were in and stated that we must look for new mechanisms to manage crises, among which should be easier for farmers can help themselves.