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Germany's farm minister stands by radical agenda: Renate Kunast accepts her first months have been difficult, both at home and within the EU

Germany's farm minister stands by radical agenda:
Renate Kunast accepts her first months have been difficult, both at home and within the EU

May 22, 2001 Financial Times (London) by Haig Simonian

Four months ago, Renate Kunast, Germany's new farm minister, burst on to the European scene threatening to tear up the Common Agricultural Policy and replace it with a radical mixture of organic farming, natural animal raising and greater consumer protection.

Dozens of meetings later Ms Kunast remains as combative as ever, whether dealing with other members of the European Union or with Germany's state governments, which have responsibility for regional agricultural policy.

In an interview, Ms Kunast says she is still committed to her aims as originally declared, which include raising the share of organically grown foods to 20 per cent in the next 10 years from 2 to 3 per cent today.

But she admits to having recognised the difficulties of dealing with Brussels and other EU countries on the one hand, and the German states on the other - particularly in a period dominated first by the BSE, or "mad cow" crisis, and then by foot-and-mouth disease.

"How were the first four months? They were difficult, and have, in truth become more difficult", she says.

"At the start, there was certainly an element of surprise. What was odd was that, in some cases, things got emotional, because I put questions which others also wanted to put: what are we paying for, what are we eating? Must it be like this, what are the consequences?".

"As I've received answers to a lot of those questions, I've no longer looked at things with such innocent eyes, but with a degree of disgust and astonishment at the mendacity and inflexibility of this system", she says.

Such language rings oddly compared with the traditionally collegial tones of European farm ministers, who, whatever their policy differences, tend to be males from farming backgrounds - or at least politicians with close links to national farm lobbies.

As an environmentalist Green whose political experience was shaped primarily in the city state of Berlin, and before that, as a lawyer specialising in social cases, Ms Kunast is a conspicuously odd member of the club. However, she argues it has already been possible to redirect agricultural policy along more ecological lines.

Helped, perhaps, by public outrage over mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth, and the fact that farm lobbies have been put on the defensive, she highlights measures which are either on the drawing board, or have been already introduced.

The list includes much closer controls over the use of antibiotics and other drugs for animals, new guidelines for battery hens, as well as steps, due this week, to simplify and streamline the current, somewhat haphazard, system for identifying "ecological" products in the shops.

Further ahead, she is preparing to implement EU rules giving member states an element of flexibility over subsidies to farmers, based on whether they meet defined environmental criteria. Such "modulation" has been allowed for some time but had never been practised before in environmentally-conscious Germany.

"She's recognised the realities in terms of her political room for manoeuvre," says Wilhelm Henrichsmeyer, professor of agricultural economics at Bonn university.

But the bigger tests for Ms Kunast may just be coming. This week negotiations among EU farm ministers on reforming the beef market will provide her best opportunity to redirect policy along ecological lines. Further ahead are the EU's mid-term review in 2002-03, and the prospect of much bigger changes after 2006 linked to enlargement.

She believes there have already been clear signs that traditional voting patterns among EU farm ministers are shifting, with new, more reform minded, alliances taking shape.

"Things now look as if they will go faster and further than I originally thought,", says Mr Henrichsmeyer, noting signs that the traditional alliances in the farm council are altering as Germany moves closer towards member states, such as the UK, pushing for CAP reform. "And the Commission has in turn been encouraged and emboldened by that," he reckons.

But even the radical Ms Kunast is wary when it comes to transferring responsibility for farm policy back to individual member states. Such renationalisation has been proposed, among others, by Wolfgang Clement, the powerful premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.

"It's worth discussion", she says. "Maybe not necessarily to renationalise ... but to discuss what should be opened up and how. That will also be a point to discuss in the mid-term review: do you give countries a greater chance to be more flexible in setting their priorities differently? We don't just want to boost production, but split subsidies from output".


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