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September 15, 2009

In the Spotlight – EU Agriculture Commissioner

The announcement this weekend by European Union’s Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel that she is standing down has sparked intense speculation on her potential replacement.

The announcement this weekend by European Union’s Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel that she is standing down has sparked intense speculation on her potential replacement.

The white-haired 66-year-old Dane has been something of a surprise star in the current crop of rather uninspiring Commissioners: she has handled a tough brief with efficiency and diplomacy. She has steered sugar, dairy, fruit and vegetable reform through the EU’s decision-making maze, and kept Europe from veering towards food market protectionism during the recession.

With Fischer Boel announcing that she felt too old to take on another five-year term, political manoeuvres have started in earnest to fill this key EU post, managing around 40% of Brussels’ spending.

First out of the trap has been Romania, a new EU entrant ambitiously pushing the candidature of former agriculture minister Dacian Ciolos.

Now, given that Romania is still on probation from the European Commission regarding its patchy attempts to rein in corruption, one might think allowing a creature of Bucharest to control EU food spending would be a tad risky. But no: Romania is claiming that arch-exponent of Brussels real politik, the French government, has stepped in to bolster Romania’s bid. Foreign Minister Cristian Diaconescu said this week: “A range of EU member states have a consistent position of backing Romania. French Minister of European Affairs Pierre Lellouche said this publicly, in the name of France.”

Diaconescu may have been speaking out of turn, but the prospect of an eastern European government holding this job with the support of France should cause real concern amongst EU food companies favouring free trade, lower subsidies and less red tape.

Because of the job’s importance, large countries (such as Britain, Germany, Italy, and France) have traditionally not supplied agriculture commissioners. Instead smaller countries have snapped up the role (one member state currently nominates one commissioner each).

With Romania having a large agricultural sector and traditional and cultural diplomatic ties with France, the likelihood of a Bucharest-nominated agriculture commissioner pushing for more protectionism, subsidies and price controls would be high.

This would risk making Europe’s food production more expensive and inefficient and may stymie anticipated attempts to finish the World Trade Organisation Doha Development Round next year.

So liberalising countries such as Britain and the Netherlands will doubtless oppose this move.

As a result, talk of a renomination of former Dutch minister Cees Veerman has gathered attention, especially as he was a key contester for the job five years ago, when he lost out to the departing Fischer Boel.

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