Maximising the synergies between various policy areas: Lessons learned from the AMTF report

Ladies and gentlemen,

It's my pleasure to be here with you again. I understand your discussions today have been both productive and useful. The work of this forum is one important strand in the collective challenge to reshape and rebalance the European food chain.

First, I thank Commissioner Bienkowska and her thoughtful opening speech. I agree with her that, while in an ideal world voluntary approaches would deliver our commonly-shared objectives for all businesses, in the real world we need to look at all our options.

I also acknowledge all the Member States who have spoken recalling the significant step of Council Conclusions earlier this week. And I understand that on their side, as well as on the side of many of the stakeholders, the need for a comprehensive approach was overwhelmingly supported. Voluntary measures are necessary and desirable, but the Commission has been called upon to implement the findings of the Agri Markets Task Force.

I'm confident that the High Level Forum will play an important role in providing the Commission with good advice, and I believe we have got a first taste of that today. This has been a very interesting afternoon with many high level participants and an active exchange of views.

In the first instance, let me say that I am very grateful for your ongoing contribution to what has become a very prominent European conversation.

Our framework for governing farming and related sectors in Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy, has evolved to become more in tune with global market realities. Open markets present many opportunities but also many challenges.

There is a justifiable concern that farmers, who have less of a cushion with the removal of policy tools such as quotas, have become the main shock absorber in the supply chain in relation to market risks such as price volatility or prolonged periods of low prices.

As a result, the longstanding question of the food supply chain and how to improve its functioning has become a topic of discussion among key policymakers and interest groups across Europe.

In my view, it is entirely correct to hold this discussion. And the convergence of many views, for a discussion such as this one, and positions expressed by institutions is a clear indication of a commonly felt need to address the situation. 

I would like to share some reflections with you.

We all know why we have strong EU consumer protection law – as a group, consumers are many, but not organised.  Therefore, public policy needs to correct the market failure and produce clear, enforceable rules.  It is for this reason that EU consumers enjoy some of the best protections in the world.

There are also many food and producers, 22 million in fact, across the EU.  Like the consumer, producers suffer from the challenge of being organisationally fragmented, in relation to buying desks across the EU, but also in relation to large processors.  You can also say the same for Agrifood SMEs – they are often faced with huge asymmetries when it comes to bargaining power.

For that reason, the Common Market Organisation Regulation, underpinned by Articles 39 to 42 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, sets out rules to strengthen the position of the producer in the food supply chain.  Our legal basis is clear when it comes to action to help farmers.

We have done a great deal, notably in the fostering and support of producer organisations, but we must always ensure that our actions respond to the needs of producers, in light of the crises which continue to affect the sector and call into question the sustainability of our European agricultural model. 

This is not just a contention. We have had an important contribution to the public debate on these important issues with the report of the the independent Agrimarkets Taskforce, which reported its findings to the Commission in November.  As you are aware, this group, chaired by former Dutch Agriculture Minister Cees Veerman, started its work in January, consisting of 12 senior experts with strong expertise from all along the food chain.

Last month, following several meetings over the course of 2016, the taskforce presented its recommendations. Their messages focused on the need for further action on unfair trading practices, stronger market transparency and deeper farmer cooperation. These were presented as credible first steps to guarantee the viability of the sector now and in the future, in the interests of farmers themselves, but equally as importantly, in the interests of the whole food chain and EU citizens as a whole.

In this light, they conclude that the policy framework governing the supply chain "can and should be further improved."

Among other conclusions, the report calls for new rules at EU level to cover certain Unfair Trading Practices as well as the implementation of effective enforcement regimes in Member States such as through the use of an Adjudicator.

Other recommendations include increasing market transparency, enhancing cooperation among farmers, facilitating farmers' access to finance and improving the take-up of risk management tools.

When it comes to transparency, the Taskforce argues that the Commission's market observatories and dashboards are commendable steps in the right direction but there is room for improvement, in particular as regards the timeliness and the standardisation of data collected from Member States.

The recommendations call for creating a platform for better communication and exchange of information between Member States concerning how market data is collected and how national food chain observatories work.

Let's look at risk management: ideas from the Taskforce include the mandatory inclusion of appropriate measures in Member States' rural development programmes. This step could be accompanied by monitoring and evaluation systems that map all relevant data linked to the occurrence of risks.

As regards unfair trading practices, the report recommends that framework legislation be introduced at EU level - to cover certain baseline unfair trading practices (for instance maximum payment periods) as well as to mandate effective enforcement regimes in Member States - such as an Adjudicator.

All these suggestions provide real food for thought, and I call on everyone present in this forum to ensure a high degree of synergy with the recommendations which we will examine very carefully. As I mentioned earlier, the wind is at our backs, so we must not let the opportunity pass us by.

The Task Force report should be seen in a wider context. The European Parliament voted to adopt a report this June, by an overwhelming majority of 600 to 38, calling for EU legislative action to tackle unfair trading practices in the food supply chain.

And this very week, the Slovak Presidency  secured unanimous Council Conclusions on strengthening the position of farmers in the food chain.  Likewise, Ministers signed up to greater transparency on margins and prices, as well as clarification to further activate producer cooperation, in order to help farmers get a fair deal for their produce.

From the part of the Commission, we will reflect very carefully on these clear indications from the Council and Parliament. This is further recognised by the Commission Work Programme for 2017, which gives the green light to take further action as necessary, to ensure that there is real balance in the food chain.

Accordingly, I believe the High Level Forum offers a great deal of complementarity.

In this respect, I welcome today's adoption of your Work Programme. The three main clusters - Fair and efficient trading practices; Competitiveness and new opportunities in the single market; and Price transparency within the food chain - are well chosen.

I'm convinced that your work here today, as we all as the future discussions between Members of the Forum, can bolster the Commission's broader agenda of ensuring a sustainable agri-food policy for the EU as a whole. 

The High Level Forum should continue to provide a useful arena for exchange of best practice to ensure that the EU food chain delivers for all, from the producer, through to the processor and of course the all-important consumer.  I'm sure that all participants will be able to find inspiration and learn from best practise shared during these discussions.

I know that all those present today look for  concrete outputs, that deliver for citizens.  Both collaborative actions and exchanges of best practices, greater coordination on research and innovation and other collaboration will doubtless deliver, sometimes in the long term. I believe that we all agree that  we need to identify 2017 as a year for action to deliver real improvements in the food chain.  For too long, the producer has been the main shock absorber of prices rises and falls.  This is not sustainable, as if we drive the producer to the wall, we will not have a product to sell.

I am grateful to you for your hard work and initiative, and I am confident that if we maintain the current momentum we can begin to make a real difference next year.

Thank you.