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Mariann Fischer Boel
Member of the European Commission responsible for Agriculture and Rural Development
'Getting on board the EU train'
Conference on 'Agriculture and Enlargement'
Zagreb, 12 June 2009
[Prime Minister, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen],
It's a great pleasure to join you here in Zagreb.
First of all, let me thank everyone involved in making today's conference possible – especially, of course, the Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister of Croatia.
As many of you know, we have already organised three conferences of this kind before previous enlargements. As we're now at the "fourth episode" in the series, I think we can see that the others have been useful – and I certainly expect the same to be true of today's event.
So let's take the opportunity to talk to each other and learn from each other. I've brought with me a lot of colleagues from the Commission who are here to explain our experiences of enlargement and our instruments within the Common Agricultural Policy. As you know, this is a policy that evolves fairly quickly to solve new problems and meet new goals. Take advantage of my colleagues' presence while you can!
Joining the European Union is often compared to getting on board a train.
That image speaks to me very clearly, because in my job I travel a great deal. When I'm setting off on a mission, it's always nice when I'm safely on board the train or the aeroplane. But before that point, there's always preparation to be done. Packing a suitcase usually takes a bit of time, so even if you're very used to travelling, you have to organise yourself.
Well, over the last few years, lots of new Member States have organised themselves to catch the European Union train, and now they are indeed safely on board.
We should never forget the scale of this achievement.
In the great sweep of history, it has signalled a healing of deep wounds: the continent of Europe is now herself once more. For many of her people, democracy, freedom and prosperity have moved from the realm of aspiration into solid reality. In the East, we now take free elections for granted; but when these were first held, some 20 years ago, that was surely one of the greater triumphs of the 20th century.
In numerical terms, the accessions of 2004 and 2007 brought 12 new Member States – nearly as many countries as were in the European Union already!
Those 12 new countries brought with them more than 100 million new citizens.
In the agricultural sector, in spite of the all the preparations made, there were real concerns about the countries' readiness to manage the CAP and participate fully in the internal market. But although there have been difficulties here and there, overall the experience of the recent accessions has been very positive.
All of the "new" Member States are fully integrated into the single market (and are benefiting from it); they are successfully using the Common Agricultural Policy; and they are respecting the European Union's food safety standards.
If I can focus for a moment on the countries which joined in 2004:
All of this can only encourage us with regard to future enlargements of the European Union.
So let's indeed look ahead to the future.
Accession negotiations with Croatia are advanced. As we know, there are two other official candidates for membership of the European Union – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey. And we have offered a clear perspective for membership to the other countries of south-eastern Europe.
Agriculture plays a vital role in all these countries. Therefore, an important part of their preparation to join the European Union is the preparation to implement the Common Agricultural Policy.
In order to carry out that work properly, it's important to understand the nature of the task. With that in mind, I would like to return to my image of a train.
Trains stop at stations. But a lot of the time, they're on the move. This is certainly true of the Common Agricultural Policy.
A few years from now, when we come to look back on the current decade, with regard to the CAP we will without a doubt see it as a "decade of reform".
There have been ground-breaking systematic changes, like the decoupling of direct payments and the introduction of cross-compliance.
There have been ambitious sectoral reforms – for cotton, olive oil, tobacco, sugar, wine, and fruit and vegetables (it's a long list!).
The CAP Health Check has taken this work forward, with a growing emphasis on "new challenges" like climate change, water management and renewable energy.
The Health Check has also laid a path towards the future of the CAP after 2013 – a subject on which a very enthusiastic debate is already underway. (The Council held it latest major discussion on this issue just a few days ago in Brno, where we looked in particular at the purpose and distribution of direct payments to farmers.)
So, as I say, this train is often on the move. And we all know what can happen if we drive to our local station and see that the train has already moved on: we can find ourselves driving at top speed down the road - headlamps flashing, horn blowing wildly - to try to catch up with the train at its next stop!
I don't want Croatia – or either of the other enlargement countries – to find itself in this situation.
What's necessary to avoid this? Two things:
No-one should underestimate the amount of work involved in this preparation.
Therefore, I would like to highlight two aspects of alignment with the CAP which are particularly important for any candidate country. These are:
So, in more detail: it is crucial to set up a paying agency and to implement the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS), because these are like two motors which are absolutely essential to run the CAP in any given country. Without them, payments simply cannot be made.
Let's be clear: this is not only an issue for administrators. Good management and thorough checking of EU funds are, politically, a very heavily charged issue.
The first reason is that the money helps your agricultural sector to adjust and to integrate smoothly into the CAP. Farmers are often concerned about the consequences of accession to the EU. Good use of EU money is a key to convincing the farming sector that accession holds more advantages than risks.
The second reason is that confidence that money is thoroughly checked and well spent is a very visible testimony about the preparedness of the country - a sort of litmus test of whether you are ready or not for all the complexities that EU membership brings with it.
It helps to convince current Members that you are a trustworthy partner. And it helps to get more money flowing from Brussels to the end recipient, thereby convincing sceptical farmers that there are real and tangible benefits of membership.
As for all other candidate countries, this point is certainly relevant to Croatia, the candidate country with which accession negotiations are most advanced.
The Croatian authorities have carried out some good solid work in preparing to implement the CAP. And I acknowledge that important discussions are still taking place on some aspects of this work.
However, the issues of the paying agency and IACS really can't wait. The cost of delay would be too high. I'm thinking here of the difficulty in spending all the funding allocated under SAPARD, both in Croatia and in some countries which are now Member States.
I say these things without any hesitation, because today's conference is supposed to be above all a useful conference: it should help us all to get a clear view of where we are.
On the second point of timely alignment with the acquis, it is clear that candidate countries have a number of agricultural and rural policies in place. Some of these are quite different from the approach now taken by the CAP – which has shifted its emphasis very strongly from supporting prices to supporting incomes and wider rural development.
As an example, I could mention that most support to the European Union dairy sector now comes in the form of direct payments which are decoupled from production – though we do still make some use of traditional price support tools during times of crisis.
As a Commissioner, a former agriculture minister and someone with an agricultural background, I know how difficult it can be to persuade farmers to accept new policies. Novelty is not always welcome! This means all the more that preparation must be well planned.
The Commission is here to help. Accession to the European Union is a team game. We will work together to get to a win-win result as quickly as possible, but as in all winning teams the roles are a bit different. Some simply have the tough task of running further and harder! And they will naturally be the most exhausted when the game has been won.
But I'm convinced that the result will be worth it. You can rely on my commitment to this – and Prime Minister, you have my phone number!
I really believe that the reformed CAP has so much to offer to countries which belong to the European Union.
Our system of decoupled direct payments gives farmers the freedom to respond energetically to market demand – but also gives them a reliable basic support for income.
Our system of market instruments provides a real safety net that helps to bring farmers through times of real crisis without disturbing the sound functioning of markets.
And our rural development policy – the CAP's "second pillar" – gives essential support for caring for the environment, raising competitiveness, creating new jobs in rural areas, and meeting new challenges like climate change.
The CAP has survived for so many decades as a European policy because it has evolved to meet evolving needs - and because it is not a one-size-fits-all policy. I'm convinced that it will meet the needs of candidate countries' farmers, countryside and rural communities. We need to encourage ourselves with this thought as we keep pushing hard towards accession to the European Union.
As I said earlier, the train is moving. It has unoccupied seats with names of countries clearly labelled above them. In terms of agricultural policy, as in other areas of policy, we want to bring those countries on board.
Getting on board doesn't have to involve a desperate high-speed drive to the station with a noise of squealing tyres. As many other Member States represented here would say, it's much better to plan your route to the station, set the alarm clock, pack your suitcase in an orderly fashion and get to the station comfortably and on time.
Let's make sure this is how life in the European Union begins for its future new members!