Many thanks for your words of welcome, Chairman Siekerski.
Honourable Members, I would like in the first instance to formally thank in your presence the members of the Agri Markets Taskforce for their hard work and dedication over the course of 2016. I am sure you will share my view that they have done a remarkable job, laying a solid foundation for the year to come.
Allow me to wish the members of the Taskforce, and indeed the Honourable Members of the European Parliament a very happy new year. It is my hope that following a number of difficult years, 2017 will be a better year for farmers. Market sentiment is improving, and prices are slowly but steadily rising. Indeed, the figures for milk prices in November, published just last week, give further cause for optimism.
We must maintain our vigilance on all agri markets in 2017, as the fragile recovery takes hold. I am also hopeful that this can be an important year for agricultural policy, and I look forward to working with you to continue making our CAP simpler, more effective, and more tailored to our farmers' needs.
In that endeavour, I trust that I can rely on the constructive approach of this committee to ensure that we deliver a policy that delivers on its key objectives and in the interests of our farmers.
Let me turn now to today's subject – the report of the independent Agri Markets Taskforce. It is in my view entirely appropriate that we are having this discussion so early in the new year - this meeting is very timely.
Unfortunately Professor Veerman is unable to be with us today, but I am pleased to say that Helfried Giesen will represent the Taskforce, and he will speak to you later this afternoon.
The six weeks leading up to Christmas witnessed a flurry of activity in this critical policy area, and I am very keen that this momentum be maintained right through 2017. Today is another important staging post in our shared pursuit of improving the position of the farmer in the food chain.
In November, the Agrimarkets Taskforce presented its findings to the Commission. This was a massively important step.
When I mandated to the Task Force to look into the position of farmers in the food supply chain I hoped to get independent, concrete and meaningful input at the end of the process. And I have to say that Professor Cees Veerman and his colleagues have exceeded my expectations.
They delivered ahead of time, in a single calendar year, a very comprehensive, detailed, yet accessible and practical report. Not a usual occurrence in this town!
The independence and expertise of the task force brings a high degree of credibility to their work and the largely positive reaction to their recommendations reflects the quality of their report.
In 2015 and 2016, the EU stood by its farmers, supporting them when market difficulties threatened their viability. The EU institutions adopted three solidarity packages, comprising €1.5 billion in additional aid and 32 measures, which proved our willingness to act in the short-term, including through the use of exceptional measures in the face of serious market challenges.
I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the support which the European Parliament has provided for farmers throughout the EU and for the constructive support which you have given to the Commission's efforts, particularly in relation to the solidarity packages.
However, continuing to provide support packages of this scale and extent is not sustainable, particularly in the light of the other political and budgetary challenges facing the EU.
Consequently, in tandem with these packages, which as I mentioned amounted to an additional €1.5 billion in support of hard-pressed farmers, I also wanted to find new ways to enable structural improvements, to avoid the need for exceptional measures in the future. As I'm sure you all agree, there is a pressing need to boost the resilience of our agricultural sector.
Helfried Giesen will provide you with a detailed overview of the taskforce's recommendations later this afternoon.
In essence, the recommendations 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.
In relation to unfair trading practices, the report recommends that framework legislation be introduced at EU level - to cover certain baseline UTPs such as maximum payment periods - as well as to mandate effective enforcement regimes in Member States - such as an Adjudicator.
Of course, MEPs have demonstrated political leadership in this area, as this strong recommendation was a central part of the European Parliament report of June last, adopted by an overwhelming majority of 600 to 38, calling for EU legislative action to tackle unfair trading practices in the food supply chain.
And in December, the Slovak Presidency of the EU secured support for unanimous Council Conclusions on strengthening the position of farmers in the food chain, calling for an impact assessment to be carried out on possible framework legislation at EU level to outlaw certain UTPs.
Ministers also signed up to greater transparency on margins and prices, as well as greater clarification and definition to further activate producer cooperation in order to help farmers get a fair deal for their produce.
On December 15th, representatives from the food supply chain and all EU Member States met at the High Level Forum for a Better Functioning Food Supply Chain.
Commissioner Bieńkowska and I addressed this meeting, during which a clear majority of stakeholders, including in particular the food processing industry, expressed their support for EU framework legislation setting out minimum standards for UTPs.
Commissioner Bieńkowska also gave a clear signal that the EU is committed to addressing existing and emerging barriers in the Single Market for food.
She emphasised that 'there can be no place for unfair trading practices in the modern food supply chain!'
Ladies and gentlemen, all these signs point in the right direction. Now it is up to us as policymakers to take the next steps.
We must proceed with caution – there is no one measure which will act as a panacea in this challenge. But there are clear avenues which may take us incrementally to a better place.
With coherent and coordinated action, we can build a more resilient agricultural sector and ultimately a more efficient and healthy supply chain that delivers for our citizens.
The Task Force's report is infused with a sense of the strategic importance of agriculture for food, the attractiveness of Europe's country-side, and the living fabric of our rural areas. A sense that I know you share here in COMAGRI.
I am grateful to the Committee, and particularly to you Mr Chairman, for organising this hearing today.
By inviting Mister Giesen to present the conclusions of the Task Force's report and by assembling a panel of expert contributors, you have provided an ideal forum in which to consider how we can translate the work of the Task Force from mere proposals to reality.
I look forward to the discussion to come and I will have the occasion, together with Mr Giesen, to engage with you in in a questions and answers session.