Czech Minister: ‘More liberal, open and flexible’ CAP required

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A thorough reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is necessary to allow the EU to respond more effectively to rising food prices and internal pressures, according to Ivo Hlavac, the Czech state secretary in charge of agriculture, who spoke to EURACTIV France in an interview.

Ivo Hlavac is Czech state secretary for agriculture.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

How are the discussions with Sweden and France proceeding, seeing as the trio’s programme for their presidencies will be presented at the end of June? 

Regarding the trio’s priorities, we signed the first version between our Europe ministers in May in Paris. I believe that we will succeed in presenting the final version by the end of June. 

And I think that the three countries are quite happy with this document, despite the fact that a lot of people were worried about the difficulties in bringing together France on one side, Sweden on the other side and the Czech Republic as a bridge between them. 

Even for a very sensitive issue like agriculture, I think that the version which is on the table is very good and will be a success for these presidencies. 

So it was not that difficult to bring together the different points of view regarding agriculture in the end? 

One may be surprised but I think that there were none of the difficulties one would expect because the priorities are clear. 

First of all, the ‘health check’ has to be finished by the end of this year and we will support the French Presidency in this ambition. Despite the fact that Sweden, France and the Czech Republic have different views about particular issues related to this health check, we want to make a common effort to finalise it by the end of this year. And we believe that this health check is necessary to make the CAP more liberalised, more open and more flexible. 

Secondly, all three member states share the idea that debate on the CAP will start in 2009, of course linked with the budgetary review. 

At the beginning of the Czech Presidency, concerning the CAP, the debate should not be about figures, but about expectations, structure and challenges Europe is faced with in the agriculture area: rising prices of food, the WTO agenda and internal market pressures. So it will first be a debate on structural expectations, and only then about figures. 

Of course, concerning the future of the CAP, we have a different opinion. France is more conservative about it and wants to maintain the budget as it is, with a few structural changes. The Czech Republic would rather cut the budget, especially in the first pillar, that is, direct payments to farmers. 

But rather than cutting the overall budget, we would like to shift money from the first pillar to the second pillar (to strengthen money for rural development). And Sweden, as I know, is either for cutting the overall budget, either for cutting direct payments. 

So I think that compromise is necessary and I believe that we will seek a reasonable reform of CAP, which gives us the opportunity to produce European food and be able to be competitive not only in the internal market but on the global stage. 

So you are quite happy with the proposals made by the Commission in May for the health check? 

Generally, yes. We have at least two good reasons to support this material. First of all, it makes the CAP more flexible, the decoupled aid scheme is continuing and that is a crucial point for us. Secondly, we are strictly against all the quota regimes included in the CAP. The Commission plans to suppress milk quotas by 2015. We support this progressive approach. Meanwhile, we will ‘fight’ the Commission in order to increase milk quotas, not only by 1% per year, but rather 2%. 

I think that it will be the same for almost all new member states. These references are not adapted today, we could produce much more milk but we are blocked by quotas and threatened by the penalty if we override them. That is why we will ask the Commission and our partners in the EU to increase quotas. 

There is just one thing we are not satisfied with: the ‘capping’ for big farms. The problem is more historically based and structural. In the Czech Republic and in almost all new member states, during communism we went through the process of collectivisation of rural areas. That’s why the average farm in the Czech Republic is about 150 hectares, average EU farms are about 65 and in France about seven or nine. 

So the differences among some member states are clear and huge. Applying the same instrument, like capping for big farms, will have a different impact on agriculture in every state. That is why we will try to negotiate to persuade the Commission and our partners that this instrument is very unequal. 

Do you believe negotiations on the health check will be finalised by the end of the year? 

Yes, I believe that the Commission and the French EU Presidency will work very hard and will be able to find a consensus which is acceptable for all member states. 

However we want the Commission to take our arguments into account. 

In the context of the global food crisis, what should be, according to you, the priorities of the CAP reform? 

The next debate on the CAP will be about European production, its quality, and about ways to protect internal market, not in terms of creating new barriers but in terms of security of this market. 

The Czech Republic really believes that it is necessary to open the market to finalise the WTO agenda. On the other side, we will be the first to call for very deep control of food quality. It is essential in a single market to give clear guarantees to consumers and of course to protect our farmers, who are threatened by poor quality products from third countries. 

What approach do you intend to follow on biofuels? What do you think of the 10% target proposed by the Commission in January? 

I think the European debate is moving between two extremes. In 2005, everybody spoke about biofuels as a way to save agriculture and to face environmental challenges. Then, in 2007, everybody became very cautious and reluctant to spell out the word ‘biofuels’ publicly. 

Now, I think we should find a position in the middle. Of course, biofuels will be part of the European energy mix. For sure, biofuels will increase the pressure on food prices, but not only in the single European market. This pressure will be global since the US also produces biofuels, as well as Brazil and some third countries. 

We should seek a reasonable way to handle biofuels. We are not satisfied with the EU mandatory targets of 10% biofuels by 2010 or 20% renewables by 2020. 

If on one side we call for more flexibility on markets for farmers, then we should not bind these farmers to a certain amount of biofuels production or whatever. The EU must be more reasonable. 

The Czech Republic, in the energy area, is in favour of nuclear energy, for example. It is a reasonable position on a global scale. Renewables work locally, but are not a solution for global energy problems and for sure, it is not the best solution to protect the environment. 

The Czech Republic will not challenge the 10% target for biofuels and the 20% target for renewables, but we do not think it is a reasonable policy. 

Concerning the Lisbon treaty, strong opposition to parliamentary ratification was prevalent in the Czech Republic. Now the Constitutional Court is handling the case. Do you think that the ratification will happen before the end of the year? 

For sure, we will go for the parliamentary procedure. As our prime minister announced, we are going to ask the Constitutional Court to confirm that the text is not in contradiction with our constitution and that the parliamentary procedure is constitutional. 

I believe that it is only a matter of formal procedure, the same procedure as Germany will undertake. And we will finish it by the end of this year for sure. 

However, I cannot say what the result will be, because I am not a constitutional judge. 

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