19 January 2001

German radical adds clout to EU Green lobby

Germany has shocked its EU partners

by appointing a radical green politician

to head the new ministry of food

and agriculture. The impact is

likely to be widely felt, as

Europe editor Philip Clarke explains

DRASTIC situations call for drastic measures – that has been a constant refrain in Brussels in recent months.

Meat and bonemeal bans, SRM controls, tests on fallen stock and a destruction scheme for over-30-month cattle have all been rushed through as more and more BSE cases have emerged and member states have realised there is no room left to sweep them under the carpet.

But few actions have been more drastic than the one taken in Germany last week, with the reshaping of the ministry of agriculture and the appointment of radical Green politician, Runate Kunast, to head it up.

Previous incumbent, Karl-Heinz Funke – booted out for his inept handling of the BSE crisis – was seen as a staunch defender of the status quo. Like most of his predecessors he was a farmer, with strong links into the main farming unions.

In stark contrast, Ms Kunast is a strident environmentalist, with no time for "traditional" forms of intensive agriculture. Her background could hardly be more alien to the typical German farmer. Trained as a lawyer, she spent her early career as a prison social worker, before emerging as head of the local Green party. She is now joint national leader.

Her appointment was no doubt made to convince disgruntled German voters that their government is looking after consumer interests. This message was reinforced by re-branding the ministry of agriculture as the "consumer protection, food and farming ministry", incorporating many areas of policy previously dealt with by the health department.

Ms Kunast has wasted no time in signalling what this will mean in practice. With her new found powers she wants to see farming "return to nature". State subsidies should be strictly reserved for "eco-friendly farming". The organic sector should quadruple in size.

This has sent shivers down German farmers spines, proud of their production achievements and alarmed at their sudden loss of influence.

But the reverberations are likely to go beyond that.

For several years, the commission in Brussels has been trying to move farm policy in an environmentally friendly direction – motivated by the desire to make it more acceptable within the World Trade Organisation, which sets the rules for international business.

Farm commissioner Franz Fischler has been a major proponent of this kind of support. But his attempts to build more "cross compliance", to use the euro-jargon, into the Agenda 2000 reforms were consistently blocked – more often than not by the Germans.

Now he is likely to find that, where he once had a foe, he has a friend. As such, these greener, more consumer-friendly policies will get a much easier passage in Brussels, putting more constraints of EU farmers.

Already Germany has gone beyond what is strictly required under the new anti-BSE legislation. It has decided to ban fishmeal from all livestock rations, not just pigs and poultry, and plans to start BSE testing at 24-months of age rather than 30-months.

It is easy to over-react, of course. Comments from some German farmers that Ms Kunasts appointment will spell the end of their businesses seem somewhat alarmist. In Germany, at any rate, farm policy still operates at regional level.

The Lander are made up of local politicians, more attentive to the demands of their farmer voters than diktats from Berlin.

And so too in Brussels, Germany is just one voice among 15. It cant move policy alone.

But it is clearly one of the loudest voices and, following the changes in voting power agreed at last months Nice summit, its position will be even stronger in a few years time.

Furthermore, when Ms Runast takes the German seat at future council meetings in Brussels, she will find a natural partner in the form of Italian farm minister, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio – the only other Green. Together with the eco-friendly Swedes and Finns they will form a powerful alliance, with the clout to move EU farming in a greener direction.

Ms Kunast is a strident environmentalist, with no time for

traditional forms of intensive

agriculture.

With her new found powers she wants to see

farming return to nature.