Macron goes where no French leader has dared to tread …

PARIS — Is France finally willing to take its farmers’ snouts out of the European Union trough and let the bloc spend more of its budget on new priorities such as defense, border security, integrating refugees and promoting education and innovation?

Recent hints by Emmanuel Macron suggest he may be the first French president prepared to take the considerable political risk of accepting a diminution of EU farm subsidies, of which his country’s farmers are the biggest recipients.

If mishandled, that could trigger an outburst of rural protests and hand political opponents a pitchfork with which to skewer the liberal centrist president.

One reason for the move is that Brexit will blow a hole of some €12 billion to €13 billion in the EU’s annual revenue, leaving France as the second-biggest net contributor to Brussels’ coffers after Germany. But at least as important is that the 40-year-old Macron cares more about France’s dynamic knowledge-based industries than about the legacy of its agrarian past.

In his impassioned Sorbonne speech on closer European integration in September, Macron said it was high time to review “without taboos” whether the Common Agricultural Policy was still fit for purpose, saying he was not convinced it was. While touching the CAP was a long-standing French taboo, farmers found the system horribly bureaucratic and unsatisfactory, he said.

By hinting that he may be willing to accept a reduction in agriculture’s share of the pie, Macron is going where none of his predecessors dared to tread.

The French government said in a memorandum to the European Commission in December that the EU27 could not go on spending as much in the seven-year budget period starting in 2021 as the EU28 did before Britain’s impending departure. Negotiations on the next Multiannual Financial Framework start with a summit next month.

In coded language, the French paper called for increased spending on new priorities, especially defense, to be combined with a “deep reform of the oldest policies (CAP and cohesion policy) … to better meet the challenges to which these policies must respond, for the sake of looking for efficiency and added value at the European level.” That sounds a lot like guns before butter.

By hinting that he may be willing to accept a reduction in agriculture’s share of the pie, Macron is going where none of his predecessors dared to tread.

Charles de Gaulle famously boycotted European Economic Community meetings, leaving an empty chair in 1965-66, until France secured a veto over decisions on farm spending. Gaullist Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), a former agriculture minister, locked in a constant level of EU farm expenditure in deals with then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

French farmers have a track record of dramatic and disruptive protests | Yoan Valat/EPA

French farmers have a track record of dramatic and disruptive protests: burning hay outside government offices, blocking highways with tractors and hounding ministers and lawmakers across the country. In a nation with agrarian roots and a tradition of barricades, they have long enjoyed public sympathy. Furthermore, parliament is skewed toward rural constituencies, giving farmers and their union — controlled by the grain and sugar beet barons — outsized political clout.

To be sure, agriculture is a shrinking part of the economy. While France remains Europe’s biggest food producer and exporter, farming and fisheries now account for less than 1.5 percent of GDP and 2.7 percent of employment. Even adding the wider food industry, the sector generates just 3.6 percent of national output and around 5 percent of jobs — down from 6 percent of GDP and 11.9 percent of employment in 1980.

Furthermore, Paris is no longer a net beneficiary of the CAP since it pays in more than its farmers get back, according to European Commission data.

Yet neither of Macron’s most recent predecessors — conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande — dared depart from Chirac’s dogma that agriculture was France’s preeminent interest in Europe.

Hollande’s election in 2012 raised hopes in Berlin that Paris might be give some ground on farm spending. But after coming under fierce pressure at home, the Socialist told Chancellor Angela Merkel that “I have donned the clogs of Jacques Chirac,” according to one participant at their private meeting. Hollande represented the same rural district where Chirac cut his teeth.

Macron embodies a new generation of urban technocrats not in thrall to the farm lobby politically or emotionally. The countryside didn’t vote for him. But that doesn’t mean that touching the CAP is without risk.

If Macron gives the impression of sacrificing French farmers, his conservative and far-right opponents will exploit the issue in next year’s European Parliament election campaign. Already facing accusations that he is a “president of the rich” who cares only for the globalized elites and not “la France profonde” of small towns and rural areas, Macron will need to be able to show his move is helping to forge a stronger, more protective Europe in partnership with Germany.

The marathon battle over the long-term budget has long been one of the ugliest spectacles in European politics.

The good news for the French president is that Berlin’s prospective coalition parties made their own goodwill gesture last week, when they declared their willingness to put more money into the EU pot after Britain leaves, and to let the eurozone have its own budget.

The dual openings by France and Germany raise the possibility of a trade-off redirecting some resources away from agriculture and regional aid — which between them swallow more than 70 percent of EU expenditure — toward the new priorities the bloc will need in order to thrive.

The marathon battle over the long-term budget has long been one of the ugliest spectacles in European politics. Governments fight like ferrets in a sack to pay less and receive more of the roughly 1 percent of gross national income that the bloc spends in common. With Brexit, that fight is likely to be not only fiercer — but ever more significant to how the EU actually spends its money.

Britain long advocated a radical overhaul of EU finances to slash the amount showered on farmers and increase investment in science, technology and economic reform. But in practice, U.K. officials admit their overriding priority was to preserve the rebate on Britain’s net contribution secured by Margaret Thatcher in 1984. “Keeping the rebate was ultimately always more important in Whitehall than how the EU spent its budget,” a veteran of past negotiations said.

It would be one of the ironies of Brexit if the U.K.’s departure forced the kind of reform that proved impossible while it was a member.

Paul Taylor, contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column.

Original Article

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