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Mariann Fischer Boel

Member of the European Commission responsible for agriculture and rural development

Prospects for rural development policy

Conference organised by the Directorate General for Agriculture "Europe's rural areas in action: facing the challenges of tomorrow"
Limassol, Cyprus, 16 October 2008

[Ladies and gentlemen],

It’s a very great pleasure to be here today.

This is a very special occasion, to which I’ve been looking forward for some time, and I'm very grateful to all the people who have made it possible.

In my current job, I've more or less travelled the length and breadth of the European Union. I've unpacked my boots to walk through fields from the north of Finland to the south of Spain.

On those travels around rural Europe, I've seen some horror stories. I've seen exhausted farmers desperately trying to make ends meet financially with rusting farm equipment. I've seen landscapes being slowly eaten away by soil erosion. And I've seen once-proud village communities collapsing.

But I've also seen so many encouraging things. I've seen farmers getting back a spring in their step as they invest in new production techniques and make a profit in new markets. I've seen previously endangered landscapes restored to stability and beauty. And I've seen villages get a new lease of life when they find the money to introduce basic services that most of us take for granted.

This is what rural development policy is all about. It sometimes keeps me awake at night to think about what will happen if we get that policy wrong. But seeing what we can achieve with it when we get it right is one of things that get me out of bed in the morning.

Today’s conference is the “sequel” to the conference held in Salzburg in November 2003. And a lot has happened since then!

12 new Member States have come into the fold. Our rural development policy has acquired a new funding structure. We’ve developed its overall objectives, added new measures and introduced a system of strategic planning.

And over this time, many of you here have been working hard to make sure that the policy has actually delivered on the ground – strengthening our farming and forestry sectors, keeping our countryside in good shape, and helping to make life in rural areas a viable and rewarding experience.

I’m glad that we’re now taking a few days to look ahead together to the future. The workshops which have been organised all have interesting and relevant topics, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of them.

Another function of this conference is of course to launch the European Network for Rural Development.

Most of us are only too well aware that a policy runs partly on money. But it also runs on good ideas and experience. Ideas have the advantage that, if you share them around, their total value increases. They also tend to multiply. And experience helps us to grow ideas into success stories.

These facts have been well illustrated in the networking that has been such a large part of the “Leader approach” to rural development. Now we want to spread the benefits of networking more widely. I strongly believe that the European Network for Rural Development will set off chain reactions of ideas and will quickly prove its worth in the policy-making process.

The Network is all about thinking and ideas from around the European Union. But now perhaps you would like to hear some of my thinking about the future of rural development policy.

My first reflection for today is this: “Agriculture” and “rural development” have shown that they make a strong couple – and they should stay together under the same policy roof!

If we see agriculture and rural development as a “husband and wife” team, it’s true that the “man” of the household (in other words, agriculture) is still the dominant figure in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). (Of course, in saying this, I'm taking quite a conservative approach to domestic relationships!) But in any case, the wife now influences his decisions more and more, and for the last few years she’s been making her own distinct voice heard, while carrying out projects of her own.

When agricultural and rural development policy are managed together, the first acquires a broader focus than it would otherwise have, and the second keeps a focus that really does fall on the countryside – not, for example, on urban centres in regions that call themselves “rural”.

So I say again: In terms of policy, this is a very successful partnership, and it should be allowed to continue! As you can hear, I don't completely share the views of the Committee of Regions. We do have the same shopping list but we are not necessarily shopping in the same shop.

So what lies ahead for this successful partnership?

It’s clear that the key aims of rural development policy as currently laid out are still valid.

It’s as important as ever to raise the competitiveness of the farming and forestry sectors. There’s still potential to be unlocked in businesses which are not using their physical and human capital as well as they could.

It’s also as important as ever to care for the countryside. This is a clear priority for the public. And yet we’re seeing some worrying environmental indicators from some parts of Europe – related to soil erosion, for example, as I mentioned earlier.

Finally, it’s as important as ever to help the rural economy to diversify, and to raise the quality of life in rural areas.

This last objective receives less attention than the others from some Member States and regions. And people are occasionally gently amused by some of the projects that I mention which come under this heading – support for rural dating websites, for example. But things like these are genuinely important.

If people in rural areas can’t lead normal lives – if they have to drive 50 kilometres to get to a nursery school - then many of them will go and lead normal lives in the towns and cities instead. And if this process takes the population of a given rural community below a certain critical mass, the community collapses. What was once a “community” then becomes a “problem”.

On the other hand, with just a little policy help, these communities can be real economic dynamos – where people want to live, where they want to set up businesses, where they want to prosper.

Let's not forget that the European Union's Lisbon agenda for growth and jobs is there for the whole European Union – including the 50 per cent or more of its population that lives in the countryside. And from the results that I've seen delivered by a little money spent on diversification – but well spent - I can say that our rural development policy is really on the Lisbon agenda's cutting edge.

So yes, what we currently refer to as “axis 3” in our rural development policy will continue to be important.

Of course, it will be vital in the years ahead to check just how well we have been meeting our various objectives.

Needless to say, this is not a new task: regular assessment of our successes and failures is already an essential part of our policy.

However, for the current programming period, our approach will be more systematic than in the past, and as you know, it will use a more developed range of “indicators” of success.

Member States have this year handed in their first set of annual reports, and the Commission will be analysing them in the months ahead. But we’re not yet very far into the current programming period, so the really useful reports will probably be the ones that we’ll get in 2010.

More than ever, it will be essential that we carry out the assessment process thoroughly, to see which policy measures need to be adjusted, abolished or added in future. We will need to know what has worked well, and what has worked less well.

But even at this stage, it’s clear that there are certain changes which we need to make – and quickly. I’m talking, of course, about the four developing challenges which the Commission has identified in its Health Check of the CAP. These are:

  • the need to combat and adapt to climate change;
  • the need to manage water better;
  • the need to make good use of the potential of bioenergy; and
  • the need to protect biodiversity.

Over the last year, I’ve talked about these issues again and again. I’ve done so because I want to ram home the message: We must take these challenges seriously now – otherwise we’ll be forced to take them even more seriously in the years to come.

Climate change is a threat to our world order – which is why the European Commission has proposed ways for the European Union to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20 per cent by the year 2020. European agriculture must pull its weight on the rope to make sure that we hit this target.

Also, agriculture is very exposed to the climatic change that is already on its way – or already here. We’re expecting more floods, more heatwaves and more droughts.

And of course, if I raise the subject of water supplies, this is certainly not a topic of abstract concern here in Cyprus: we’ve all been very concerned about the serious shortage.

Droughts have been becoming more severe in the European Union over the last decade and extremely rainy periods more common in the Northern parts of Europe. Overall, at least 11 per cent of the European population and 17 per cent of our territory have been affected by water scarcity at some point, and the problem appears to be spreading.

We can help farmers and other rural actors to do very practical things to face up to climate change and water scarcity, as well as the other two challenges on the list. We can help them to raise energy efficiency, use nitrogen fertiliser more efficiently, replace old irrigation systems, and to do so many other things. This can happen through rural development policy.

But I can’t wave a magic wand and make the money appear out of thin air. It must come from somewhere. This is why, within the Health Check, I’ve proposed to increase the rate of compulsory modulation and spend the money on measures to meet these developing challenges.

We must do our share of the necessary work now; otherwise, we will pile up an environmental debt which future generations may never be able to repay.

Now let me move onto the issue of what rural development policy could be like after 2013.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I express my thoughts partly in terms of questions. 2013 is still five years away, and a lot can happen in that time. So today I have to show a certain cautious humility!

My first question is: How will the balance of emphasis fall in future within the CAP as a whole – between income support and market instruments on the one hand, and on the other hand, tasks which we naturally associate with rural development policy?

My guess is that rural development will at the very least keep the share of the cake that it has now. And I personally believe it will take a larger slice. We may refer to it at the moment as the “second pillar” of the CAP, not the first pillar. But I’m not sure that the European public wants it to “play second fiddle” forever to the goals of income support and market management. Rural development policy is popular with the public; its stated aims are popular; what it achieves is popular. That fact must have some influence.

My second question is: Within rural development policy, to what extent will we want to “target” available funding?

In general, rural development policy uses a more targeted approach than our system of direct income support payments to farmers. But even so, some measures in the policy are more targeted than others. For example, agri-environment schemes are highly targeted; support for early retirement is less targeted.

More targeting means more administration, but it can deliver extra value for money if we do it well. This “if” is very important, of course!

My third question is: What balance do we want to achieve between “compensation” and “investment”?

An example of a rural development measure which works on the basis of compensation is that of payments to farmers in Less Favoured Areas. In this case, farmers are compensated for the extra cost of farming in difficult areas. But our rural development policy also contains many measures which support investments.

My final question is: How much money will we have for the CAP overall? I don’t like having to ask this question, but we can’t duck it. There will be huge pressures on the overall European Union budget for after 2013. We remember what happened last time with the 1 percent countries. Some countries will see the CAP as a prime candidate to be squeezed.

This is why it’s essential that we tell everyone what rural development policy gives us for every euro we spend on it. We need to tell it to finance ministers, to Parliamentarians, to voters.

The people of the European Union want a living countryside. Rural people want to be able to live normal lives there. Town- and city-dwellers want to be able to go there and find clean air, green grass and well-kept woodland whenever they feel the need. And yet we also demand that the countryside should be productive – that it should give us huge volumes of natural resources.

It's hardly surprising if, where there are so many demands, some of them conflicting, we need an active policy to help us to reconcile those demands – to "square the circle".

Our rural development policy has been delivering faithfully. To keep delivering, it will continue to need funding, ideas, and lots of hard work.

In terms of policy, squaring circles is not a job for amateurs, and it can't be done on the cheap. But we can do it – with adequate funding, and with the right attitude.

I am sure we can succeed if we work together and go in the same direction.

I wish you a very successful conference.

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