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The European rural model

[ Index ]


Defending the European rural
and agricultural model at the WTO

by Doriane GIVORD

If we are to take full advantage of the potential
of the rural world and recognise the socio-economic
but also historical and cultural importance of
agriculture in rural Europe, the multifunctional
nature of European agriculture must be maintained.


On 27 September 1999, in its conclusions on the "Millennium Round"[1] adopted by unanimity, the Council of Ministers for Agriculture underlined that the protection of the European agricultural world was of fundamental importance for the European Union given the multifunctional nature of European agriculture and the role that it plays in the economy and society as a whole.

Defending the European agricultural model as an essential objective in the multilateral trade negotiations, is a strong political statement expressing the distinctiveness and importance of the European agricultural and rural model for European society as a whole. It is recognition that the debate on agricultural and rural policies cannot be limited to an exclusively technical kind. It also promotes the European agricultural and rural model on the international scene, a model that reflects the specific history, cultures and choices of European society and which is therefore not negotiable.

Are these not just words? Would defending this European model not just be protectionism in disguise as some of our trading rivals claim?

Nothing is further from the truth. Political recognition at the highest level of the need to preserve this European agricultural and rural model is sincere. It echoes the concerns of our society and the socio-economic changes of a world increasingly affected by the globalisation of trade, a world where the search for and assertion of identities are perhaps especially strong because our societies are increasingly torn between the international and local levels. The demonstrations at the ministerial conference in Seattle in November and December 1999 or, to refer to a figure symbolic of the French and European agricultural and rural world, the interest roused by the actions and positions of José Bové[2], are living testimony of this.


What is "multifunctional" agriculture?

"Agricultural model vs. European rural model"; "rural vs. agri". These two terms, which in the past sometimes seemed to be at odds with one another or at least compete with one another, are today totally complementary. Politically speaking, Agenda 2000 dispelled any ambiguity by making rural development the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This integration, sanctioned at the political and legal level, is also to be found in the promotion of the concept of "multifunctional agriculture".

A concept recognised internationally

A lot of ink has flown since the official international recognition of the term. Multifunctionality has thus been the subject of work and discussions by the specialised bodies and institutions of the United Nations (notably the United Nations Environment Programme - particularly the work of the Committee for Sustainable Development and Agenda 21; and the Food and Agriculture Organisation). Similarly, after the agriculture ministers of its member countries officially recognised the multifunctional nature of agriculture at the ministerial conference in Paris in March 1998, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently began work to analyse this concept. Finally, discussions held at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as part of the process to analyse and share information and ending in December 1999, enabled the European Union and other members to present their view of the concept. This will help pave the way for the next debates at the trade negotiations on agriculture.

The "Friends" of multifunctionality

With Japan, Korea, Norway and Switzerland, the European Union has set up the - informal - group of "Friends of multifunctionality". These countries all recognise the fact that agriculture has several roles in addition to the production of agricultural goods and food. They consider that because of this distinctive feature, agriculture deserves special treatment in international trade negotiations in order to preserve the roles that agriculture plays for the environment, for rural landscapes and also for rural development. The countries that are "friends" of multifunctionality do not, however, have a monolithic view of the concept. They accept certain differences in the definition that each country can give, reflecting its history, its culture and also its level of development. So, multifunctionality is not the privilege of a club of rich nations. It also concerns developing countries whose agricultural sector must be able to fully assume its role in the development of rural areas and in so doing in the fight against poverty. This "conceptual diversity" as well as the crucial link between multifunctional agriculture and rural development are one of the main conclusions of the conference on non-trading concerns which took place in Norway in July 2000. It was organised by the Friends of Multifunctionality and brought together some forty countries, thirty four of which were developing countries.

The sceptics

The major exporters of agricultural commodities and food products, the Cairns group[3] and the United States, have repeatedly questioned the intentions of those defending this concept, which they claim is a pretext for maintaining protectionist agricultural policies.

That is an incorrect and simplistic interpretation of the debate on multifunctionality, which sounds like a refusal to recognise that the definition of agricultural and rural policies cannot simply be reduced to the economic and commercial sphere but has also to do with wider questions and choices of society. As the negotiators of the European Union have constantly repeated, it is therefore necessary in the multilateral trade negotiations on agriculture, which officially began in January 2000, to take full account of the so-called non-commercial aspects, which include in particular the multifunctional nature of agriculture.

An attempted definition

But how does Europe see multifunctional agriculture? Where is the connection with the European rural model?

Simply stated and at the risk of repeating ourselves, multifunctional agriculture is not just about the production of agricultural goods and food. It is also an agricultural activity that fulfils others purposes, other functions.

The European Union is 44% farmland but an additional percentage consists of other areas maintained by farmers in the countryside (wooded areas, natural areas, buildings and infrastructures). These farmers, along with other people working in rural areas, therefore manage over half of Europe's territory. Consequently, there is an obvious link between agriculture, rurality and territory and the non-market functions of agriculture are patent.

Thus in the European Union, agriculture contributes to the preservation, maintenance and development of landscapes. Furthermore, rural roads, green areas, woods and other elements of the landscape and rural heritage are increasingly fulfilling a recreational purpose.

Farming also contributes to environmental protection by preserving biodiversity, managing biotopes in an integrated way, retaining soils and maintaining the quality of water. What is more, it helps prevent certain natural risks thanks, for example, to grazing and the clearance of underbrush, which prevents fires, to the maintenance of river banks and small hydraulic structures or to the replanting of hedgerows.

Because farming is first of all tied to the land, it being above all an action affecting the natural environment, agriculture and the environment are closely linked. Furthermore, it is scientifically recognised that in rural Europe the working of the land over several decades and quite often several centuries has produced very special and extremely rich ecosystems, which would be irremediably threatened if agriculture were abandoned.

Of course, it would be absurd to deny the devastating role that certain farming practices have had, and in some cases continue to have, on the environment. It should nonetheless be recalled that the European Union has gradually built up a legal arsenal to fight against pollution and promote more environmentally-friendly farming practices. The inclusion of environmental protection requirements in the definition and implementation of Community policies is, moreover, since the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, a legal obligation for the Union, an obligation strengthened following the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty on 1 May 1999.

Agenda 2000 is thus a continuation and deepening of the "greening" of the CAP. The objective is to have European farmers comply with minimum environmental requirements and to encourage them to go further, meaning to adopt practices beneficial to the environment.

Agriculture also plays a role in the development of rural areas, particularly in the areas of the European Union where farming remains one of the foundations of the local economy. Because of its decisive hold over the land and the fact that it perpetuates certain practices, agriculture plays an essential role in regional planning and in the preservation of cultural assets and traditions (eg. certain old rural buildings or concrete know how of the production of typical products). This is at the heart of the interwoven relationship between farming and rural development: the concrete expression of what multifunctional agriculture is can be seen in the synergies between farming and rural development, revealing in this way our European rural model.


The European rural model and multifunctionality

The notion of rurality is generally defined on the basis of population density, and according to this indicator nearly 80% of the European Union is rural. In addition, with the transformation of agriculture these past few decades and the wider socio-economic changes affecting European society, the role of agriculture and society's expectations of it are no longer the same. There is today a growing demand for those non-market goods and services that agriculture provides at lower cost and in addition to its primary purpose of producing agricultural goods. In a way, LEADER's success is testimony of this. The revival of old practices and traditional local products, the success of green tourism and the interest in local cultures and traditions are all proof of this.

Europeans want their countryside to remain a living place. The European vision of rural development is not to create museums far from cities, in the heart of rural areas, where people from the city can spend their holiday admiring a landscape or discovering past traditions. Nor should it evolve towards a world without country folk where food is produced by a small number of owners of agricultural holdings.

Europeans are truly attached to the idea of preserving the extreme wealth of farming activities and rural areas in the Union. The aim is to maintain a living rural Europe, integrated in the economy thanks to its resources and local initiatives. The ultimate aim is to keep our areas alive.

This vision is not incompatible with competitive agriculture, which is one of the objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy. Strictly speaking, rural policy and agricultural policy are complementary. This is clearly stated in Agenda 2000, which makes rural development the second pillar of the CAP but does not limit it to agriculture.

These complementary policies are a response to the fact that the economy of rural areas is becoming diversified and moving beyond farming. Moreover, this diversification is encouraged in order to strengthen the economic fabric of rural areas, weakened by agriculture's transformation in the second half of the 20th century. Thus what makes the European rural model so original is basically the integration between these various activities; the awareness that the development of rural areas must be planned in a holistic manner by incorporating the economic, social and cultural dimensions; and finally the recognition that this development is based on people, on dynamic rural communities.


In conclusion

In short, if I were quite simply and in very concrete terms to explain what the European model is to representatives of other members countries of the WTO, who sometimes doubt our intentions, I would take them on a trip across rural Europe. It would be a long trip lasting several months, and we would visit one LEADER group after another, from Scandinavia to Calabria, from Ireland to Crete and would include the French overseas departments.

During our travels, as we discover areas of wide-ranging geography and landscape, I would tell my guests all the different histories of these territories. I would explain to them how these historical, cultural and social developments have shaped rural areas and communities. I would stress the variety of farming practices and the place agriculture has in these areas not only because of its contribution to their current economic fabric but also and perhaps especially because of the "societal" importance it has had in forming these lands. They will then understand that what makes the European rural world so special is its diversity and legacy of a long, rich and varied history.

But the European rural model is not just a precious memory preserved in a showcase of landscapes. It is also a living and dynamic reality.

The European countryside has visibly suffered to differing degrees from the unprecedented transformation of these past decades.

Agricultural practices and structures have radically changed, and the rural exodus has been on an impressive scale, even leading to desertification in some areas. The socio-economic horizon of the countryside has been bleak. But little by little, rural areas have been regaining hope from development, even if a lot still remains to be done. This has been achieved with the mobilisation of the people living in rural areas, with the intervention of the public authorities backed by European Community policies from the mid-1980s and with a growing demand from our societies for a better environment, beautiful landscapes, living villages and quality products.

That is therefore what the European rural model is: an incredibly rich heritage coupled with local development initiatives implemented by rural communities, both of which are supported by a strong political will to bring rural areas out of their isolation and to develop them; in other words, to give them their chance.

If we are to take full advantage of the potential of the rural world and recognise the socio-economic as well as the historical and cultural importance of agriculture in rural Europe, the multifunctional nature of European agriculture must be maintained.

That is why the European Union has repeatedly explained to its partners that, although it too wants greater participation in the world trade of agricultural products and food, it refuses to limit negotiations to discussions of a purely technical nature.

The European agricultural and rural model is not negotiable. It reflects the choice of our society, the choice for a living and dynamic rural Europe.

A model to be exported, perhaps...


        [*] Doriane Givord is an administrator at the Directorate for International Relations of the Directorate-General for Agriculture of the European Commission. She is responsible for the preparation of the multinational agricultural negotiations. She was previously in charge of the LEADER II Initiative. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.


[1]Ed.: name given to the round of negotiations
of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) launched in Seattle in
November 1999.

[2]Ed.: made famous by the symbolic dismantling
of a "fast food" restaurant in Millau (France) in the
summer of 1999 and by the international echo that his
positions had in Seattle in November-December of the
same year, this sheep farmer from Aveyron is militating
against the rampant globalisation of "bad food" and the
excesses of industrial agriculture.

[3]Set up in 1986, the "Cairns Group" is a
coalition currently comprising 18 farm exporting
countries, ie. Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil,
Canada, Chili, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Guatemala,
Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Paraguay,
the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay.
This coalition advocates a total liberalisation of
agricultural trade and policies.


source: LEADER Magazine nr.25 - Winter 2000/2001

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