Europe needs a strong Common Agricultural Policy but this must reflect current realities, argues EC minister Mariann Fischer Boel.
Speaking at an informal ministerial meeting this week at Oulu, Finland, the European Commissioner responsible for Agriculture and Rural Development said it was their responsibility to male sure that agriculture was in line with societys needs and expectations.
Her speech follows the disclosure that the European Commission spent nearly €5bn more on agriculture in 2005 than it did in 2004, according to the 'Allocation of 2005 EU expenditure by Member State'.
Furthermore, over 90 per cent - €44.7 billion - of the EU's agriculture spending went to 'old' member states. In fact, every fifth euro in agricultural expenditure went to France in 2005, with 20.7 per cent. France is followed by Germany (13.5 per cent), Spain (13.3 per cent) and Italy (11.4 per cent).
Such figures suggest that the huge agricultural subsidies the EU has become infamous for remain rigidly in place, with little possibility of reduction. But while accepting that the issue remains a controversial one, Boel insisted that the CAP still plays a fundamentally important role within the union.
"We must not be blind to the fact that we may come under pressure to find savings in the CAP and that certain issues such as compulsory modulation and capping may also have to be addressed in terms of the broader, societal acceptance of our reformed CAP," she said.
"This subject will be without doubt on the table in the mid-term review of the 2007-2013 Financial Framework which the Commission has been requested to undertake in 2008/9."
Boel admitted that some view this date as the moment when the CAP should be dismantled or radically changed. But she insisted that a strong CAP was vital to Europe's well-being.
"To do this we need clear ideas about the model of agriculture that we want to promote," she said.
"The European Model of Agriculture should not be seen as something static, rigid, out of time and reality, but something which is dynamic and evolves over time."
Boel also insisted that agricultural enlargement within the EU has been a great success. The integration of the New Member States into the institutional mechanisms of the CAP and EU markets has gone smoothly. "And there is no reason why we should not continue in this way the future. But we have also to recognise that the centre of gravity of European agriculture has moved eastwards, with new challenges and aspirations.
"In particular, the importance of promoting growth and jobs in rural areas takes on new significance when we see the need for modernisation and restructuring in many parts of the enlarged Europe."
The international trading environment has also evolved. Globalisation has changed the nature of competition but also the opportunities for exports. Consumers are also developing increasingly sophisticated tastes.
"In an environment where more consumers are looking for higher quality and how their food is linked-up to the environment, animal welfare and safety, those attributes have an increasing value," said Boel.
"The current reform approach equips EU agriculture to face up to the criticisms levelled at it from within the EU and respond better to the challenges of the future trade environment."
What is important, said Boel, is that EU policies respond to current issues. She said that the European model of agriculture embodies a core set of values that reflects the diversity of European agriculture, and that this must be preserved.