Suggestions to re-open the European Commission’s proposed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) could be just enough to save the Polish Commissioner-designate after an overall poor performance in front of the European Parliament.
Wojciechowski spent most of his two-and-a-half-hour hearing on the ropes, taking successive blows from relentless MEPs who went ballistic when the Pole replied “I’m open to discussions” as a mantra to every technical question.
The Polish Commission nominee focused his entire opening speech on his alleged long-term vision to make his point that there is a future for European agriculture.
“My first act will be to prepare a special report about the current situation of EU agriculture, to better define what we are and where we are going,” Wojciechowski said in his opening remarks.
EU lawmakers wanted reassurance on concrete topics like the spectre of CAP renationalisation or how to support farmers in greening their agriculture practices. But all they received in return were vague answers which lacked the detail they were looking for.
The Polish candidate even openly admitted he was unable to give a full answer on the topical subject of new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs). When a journalist asked his take on pesticide reduction, Wojciechowski answered that he will study such detailed questions if he becomes Commissioner.
On food security, he only said that the sector needs more support. When asked about Mercosur and other trade agreements, he replied with clichés and empty formulas such as “farmers should not be victims of international trade.”
Even on animal welfare, which was considered to be his main strength, the Polish said that the most effective system is voluntary action, before dropping a controversial “I’m not extremely ecologist, but I think that farmers are the first ecologists,” which exposed him to furious reactions from the Greens.
In a tiff with Greens MEP Molly Scott Cato, he said bringing European agriculture towards greener practices should be done with farmers, not against them.
“We, the Greens, are not against the farmers, but we are against agribusiness,” Scott Cato retorted starkly. “Will you challenge the agribusiness?” she asked back, getting another vague “I agree with you” as an answer.
In other matters, Wojciechowski showed a lack of ambition for his putative new administration, the European Commission’s Directorate-general for Agriculture (DG AGRI). Asked about DG AGRI’s contribution to the “Farm to Fork” strategy outlined by President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, he basically downplayed his administration’s leadership.
According to him, it wasn’t such a big deal that DG AGRI had lost its oversight on state aid to the agriculture sector, as Wojciechowski said there was a lot of other things to do. “It is not a problem to cooperate with Commissioner Vestager on state aid competence,” the Polish candidate replied.
Contacted by EURACTIV after a meeting of political group coordinators, socialist MEP Paolo De Castro did not hide his disappointment. “We need further verification, nothing is excluded,” he said.
In particular, he said the Polish candidate failed to provide MEPs any clear strategy on the risk of re-nationalising the CAP. “This lack of perspective threatens the most important of the EU common policies,” he said.
The Parliament’s political group coordinators agreed to send further written questions to Wojciechowski, explaining their doubts. On the basis of the answers, they will decide whether to back him or not.
Norbert Lins, the chair of the Parliament’s agriculture committee, had initially tried to make Wojciechowski comfortable by saying the Pole was not in uncharted territory. But he also seemed disappointed, saying in a tweet after the hearings that Wojciechowski’s answers lacked clarity.
“I do not just want to discuss, I want to see action for our farmers,” he said, hinting to Wojciechowski’s mantra of “being open to discussions”.
The centre-right European’s People Party (EPP) deemed his performance as “poor” overall. “I think his performance was very weak and he did not answer concretely to a lot of questions,” said EPP group coordinator Herbert Dorfmann after the hearing.
“Our group is concerned that he just wants to carry on business as usual,” the Greens added.
MEPs tried showing some good will by asking just one question on Wojciechowski’s financial investigation by EU anti-fraud office (OLAF). The Polish candidate complained he was a victim of the situation. “It was the payment for the travel agency and the financial services paid too much. Sorry, there’s nothing wrong from my side…” he said in his defence.
Wojciechowski’s hopes are still alive however, as he gave MEPs what they wanted to hear, namely that the Commission’s CAP proposal is not yet closed and can still be modified.
Replying to De Castro, he explicitly said that the current proposal was “not the bible,” without however specifying which part could be subject to change.
Asked by a journalist about the Commission’s CAP proposal drafted by outgoing farm Commissioner Phil Hogan, he reiterated that it was a good base, but that “we should use all the possibilities,” including a modified proposal.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]