"There is more to rural areas than just farming," said Loretta Dormal-Marino, deputy director-general of the Commission's agriculture and rural development department.
Addressing a congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists on 22 April, she stressed that EU rural development policy is not just for farmers but for others too. "The policy's area of cooperation goes beyond agriculture," she said, referring to various off-farm sources of income and diverse micro-enterprises.
As the EU prepares for a major revamp of the CAP, Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş declared earlier this month: "I can't think of rural areas without agriculture, but I can't see rural areas with only agriculture either."
For this, the CAP needs to be flexible and help farmers to find their place in local, regional, national and international markets, Cioloş continued, stressing the need to support modernisation and restructuring of agriculture "but not through a single one-size-fits all model".
While the CAP is an EU policy, it is adapted by member states and regions to correspond to their needs, which is also illustrated by shared financing of the some €231 billion foreseen for the 2007-2013 period, Dormal-Marino noted.
Around €96 billion comes from the EU budget, €70 billion is national financing and some €65 billion is private expenditure.
Dormal-Marino underlined that while the EU's current rural development policy already has the toolkit to contribute to the goals of the bloc's Europe 2020 strategy, it can be made even more efficient with some changes. "We need to sharpen up the objectives of the policy and change the delivery system," she said.
Europe 2020 is the bloc's follow-up strategy to the Lisbon agenda for growth and jobs, and focuses on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
The Commission believes that a revamped rural development policy can contribute to the Europe 2020 strategy by fostering 'green' and innovative technologies, investing in skills, training and entrepreneurship and improving the competitiveness by promoting farming that uses and manages resources in a sustainable manner.
Dormal-Marino also stressed that EU policy should be reformed to help develop a low-carbon rural economy and "unlock the wider potential of rural areas".
"Future rural development needs more support for competitiveness in an environmentally sustainable way," she said, citing providing aid for investments in renewable energy, such as biogas, to help farmers produce their own energy from manure.
Means of change
The policy can be made to match the Europe 2020 agenda by fostering a competitive agricultural sector, preserving natural resources and boosting the overall development of rural areas, Dormal-Marino said.
She said the competitiveness of the EU farming sector would be improved with 'green' investments, including technology for adapting to climate change and developing renewable energies.
She envisages direct payments for land managers in return for providing public goods, such as services to support climate change mitigation and sustainable land management to preserve natural resources, including biodiversity, water and soil.
"We might need to give more freedom to member states and regional authorities to arrange this," Dormal-Marino suggested.
Of course, such simplification and flexibility would need to be accompanied by increased accountability and even better targeting of measures, she concluded.