Mr Michel Barnier
Member of the European Commission with responsibility for regional policy and reform of the institutions
Rural development in an enlarged Europe
European conference on rural development
Salzburg, 13 November 2003.
We have Franz Fischler and the Directorate-General for Agriculture to thank for bringing us all together on this occasion. This would not be possible, of course, without all of you, since you are the actors at political, professional, administrative and voluntary sector level for rural development. With the help of the common agricultural policy, it is you who develop traditional quality products, it is you who preserve the educational, cultural and natural environment and the services that farmers and their families need and it is you who strengthen and diversify the rural economy. In short, you are the main hope for areas that feel that they are in decline or even abandoned altogether.
You are here, therefore, to reflect on the future of policy in this field, to tell us where it should be maintained and where it needs adapting or reforming.
I can assure you that we will take on board your ideas. Especially so since Franz Fischler and myself are now considering ways of simplifying and decentralising the policy, in particular, on how to improve its financial instruments and regulations. If we are to continue our work in a spirit of good cooperation, we need to draw more clearly the distinction between, on the one hand, what agriculture-based rural development involves (and so has to be managed alongside the common agricultural policy) and, on the other hand, what the economic and technological development in the countryside involves (and so needs to be managed under regional policy).
The major debate that I launched in 2002 on future cohesion policy in the Community is now reaching the critical stage. With Franz's support and that of Anna Diamantopoulou, we propose to reform the policy along three lines:
Financial support for projects for rural diversification will thus be available under each of these headings. And account will naturally be taken of the long-term natural handicaps that hamper areas with low population densities, the mountain regions and islands. In my view, ways must be found to ensure sufficient funding for areas with a long-term natural handicap where costs are higher, which, as our studies confirm, is often the result of low population density. A further question is that of whether we should introduce higher Community cofinancing rates as a way of encouraging projects in difficult conditions, as the European Parliament has called for.
The tackling of rural issues must also be seen in a broader perspective and made central to the European project, since this is not just a challenge for farmers alone. The future of the countryside or its decline affects us all.
Lastly, we shall put have arguments of our own to put forward, to show you why there will be an even greater need for the cohesion policy in the future.
With the accession of ten new countries, the Union's population will increase on 1 May 2004 by 20%, its land area by 23% but its wealth by only 4%. The number of farms will rise by 74% and the number of farmers by 56%!
And it is precisely then, when the inequalities and divisions are even greater than they are today, that we shall hear experts, professors and even political leaders say that the cohesion policy is antiquated and out-of-date by virtue of its age.
I do not agree, of course. Solidarity is not an old-fashioned idea in the Union. In addition, I do not believe that efforts to improve European competitiveness can succeed without the regions. They have to be partners, not just onlookers. European growth will not be built on a deserted countryside and social divisions in the cities.
If you believe the same, then you need to say so clearly here today, and say it again tomorrow to your ministers and members of parliament. That way you can help us to ensure that the policy ambitions and resources truly match up to the needs of the new reunited Europe.
The time to speak up has arrived.
I would now like to share one other strong belief of mine with you.
I have just spent 18 months as one of the labourers on the draft constitution for Europe, which is now being considered by our respective governments.
This text (“imperfect but more than could be hoped for”) confirms the values and goals that unite us, including the goal of economic, social and territorial cohesion. It provides us with the tools to make our Union work, not just like a supermarket or an international forum, but as an interdependent community and a future political power.
Should this text be weakened or picked apart by the inclusion of vested national interests, then let us be under no illusion here, the first victims of such a move would be the Community's solidarity policies, and with them a certain vision of what Europe is all about. There would be nothing to stop these policies from being renationalised or gradually dismantled.
On the other hand, if - as the hard-working Italian Presidency wishes - the balance and policy proposals of the text are retained, then we will be able to operate an economic, social and cultural model for a Community of 25 or 27 (a much harder task than for a Community of 15), central to which will be the rural model from which our European identity is forged.
I am, of course, sharing these two beliefs with you in my role as a Member of the European Commission. But they are also the beliefs of an elected representative, who for more than 20 years represented a mountain region of Savoy very similar to this Austrian region of Salzburg. The local people there, just as here, want to move with the times without losing touch with where they came from.
Thank you for your kind attention and I wish you well in your work.