Hogan: losing state aid competence won’t weaken new EU agriculture chief

Tools to help farmers in difficulties are there to be utilized and it's not really a big interest to me who was in the position of administrator, said Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan. [COUNCIL]

As long as farmers facing difficulties can enjoy the derogations of state aid rules for the agriculture sector, it does not really matter which Directorate-General is in charge of these facilities, the outgoing EU farming boss Phil Hogan said in response to the latest organisational reshuffle in the Commission.

Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has decided to move the sensitive state aid competence in agriculture and fisheries from two Directorates-General – Agriculture (DG AGRI) and Maritime affairs and fisheries (DG MARE) – to Margrethe Vestager’s supporting services of DG COMP.

These rules include, for instance, the de minimis arrangements, namely the ceiling for national intervention to support farmers without the need for prior approval from the Commission, currently set at €15,000-25,000 over three years per farm holding.

De minimis are considered a useful tool allowing national authorities to react promptly and effectively in times of crisis, acting in derogation of the general state aid rules.

The decision to deprive DG AGRI of its state aid oversight came without prior notice, nor did the Commission present any formal explanations after the announcement.

EURACTIV first asked the EU executive about the reasons behind this unexpected migration and a Commission spokesperson replied it was meant to boost competition enforcement across the boards and have a unified competition approach for all sectors.

Agriculture DG loses state aid oversight to boost competition rules

In an unexpected move, Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has decided to move state aid competences in farming and fisheries from two directorates-general, Agriculture and Maritime affairs and fisheries, to DG Competition.

Following the EURACTIV report, Polish media deemed the latest development as a blow to the nominee for the top agriculture job, Janusz Wojciechowski, proposed by the ruling PiS party.

Polish MEP Jan Olbrycht, from the opposition Civic Platform party, also hinted on Twitter that this could be interpreted as a sign of von der Leyen’s distrust in the Polish candidate.

PiS lawmaker Robert Telus explained to Polish radio polskieradio24 that these are reorganisations of the administrative branches that occur when a new boss comes to town and that they do not signal any lack of confidence in Wojciechowski. But not everyone was convinced.

“I don’t understand why this competence was transferred,” commented Marek Sawicki, former Polish minister of agriculture and member of the Polish People’s Party, but added that, as a lawyer, Wojciechowski knows quite well how to deal with this issues.

Not an issue for Hogan

Asked by EURACTIV after the informal agriculture meeting in Helsinki on Tuesday (24 September), current EU agriculture Phil Hogan rejected the interpretation of Polish media: “I don’t share that analysis as it is an effort to weaken the powers of my successor.”

He recognised the existence of different competition rules in agriculture compared to other sectors, as well as derogations that apply in certain countries and not elsewhere.

“We use state aid, the de minimis and all of those instruments in order to help our farmers in difficulty but I have no difficulty whatsoever on which DG is in charge of these particular facilities,” Hogan said.

He also explained that these tools are available from time to time to help farmers cope with drought, flooding, or difficulties in the marketplace, adding that, although agriculture state aid will be consolidated together with other sectors’ support, what matters is to have the tools available to meet those problems.

“As long as those tools are available, they are there to be utilised and it’s not really a big interest to me who was in the position of administrator,” he concluded.

However, the current framework of state aid rules for agriculture and rural areas, made up by the Agricultural Block Exemption Regulation (ABER) and the EU Guidelines for State aid in the agriculture and forestry sector (GL), will expire on 31 December 2020.

The process of revision for the 2021-2027 period is currently underway and the Commission already approved in February, under the responsibility of the DG AGRI, a new de minimis regulation.

After the transfer of competence, DG COMP will be in charge of concluding the reform that could actually reshape the entire framework of state aid.

Commission gives go-ahead to Italy’s milk plan, anticipates new EU cap for state aid

Support measures to help sheep milk prices recover are not state aid, said Italy’s Minister Centinaio after a meeting with EU Commissioner Hogan, who prepared the ground for increasing the ceilings up to which agriculture state aid can be provided.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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