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European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR)
News article6 February 2024Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations

Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the conclusions of the European Council meetings

Thank you, Madam President, dear Roberta,

Mr President, dear Charles,

Honourable Members,

Much of the attention around the special European Council has focused indeed on our EUR 50 billion Ukraine Facility – and rightly so. We are providing Ukraine not only with the funding to keep the economy running, but also with the strong predictability for the next four years. This Parliament has backed our proposal from the very beginning. And today, I would like to thank you for your unwavering support. This is what it means to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. With your approval, we will be able to make important payments to Ukraine as early as March. As we will discuss Ukraine in the next debate, allow me to focus on other topics of the special European Council.

The special European Council also agreed on the first-ever – and I emphasise first-ever – revision of our multi-annual budget. It confirmed the priorities that the Commission presented back in June. And I am very satisfied that we got 80% of the funding we had asked for. We certainly had some difficult choices to make, but we have a very good result now. We will now be able to step up our fight against irregular migration and to better protect our external borders. We now have the means to engage even more with the countries of the southern neighbourhood. And I am very glad that the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans is now on a solid financial footing. We will also be able to improve our response to natural disasters in Member States, and to humanitarian crises, such as in Gaza. And with STEP, we will support critical technologies that are made in Europe. With this agreement, Europe has the financial resources to tackle some of the main challenges of this decade. And I would like to thank the European Parliament for your support so far. And of course, I count on your agreement.

Honourable Members,

While the European Council was in session, farmers from across Europe were taking to the streets. Many of them feel pushed into a corner. Farmers are the first in line feeling the effects of climate change. Droughts and floods have destroyed their harvests and threatened livestock. Farmers are feeling the impact of the Russian war. Inflation, the rising cost of energy and fertilisers. Nevertheless, they work hard every day, to produce the quality food we eat. For this, I think we owe them appreciation and thanks and respect.

It is true. Issues have escalated in recent years. Our farmers deserve to be listened to. I know that they are worried about the future of agriculture and about their future as farmers. But they also know that agriculture needs to move to a more sustainable model of production, so that their farms remain profitable in the years to come. And we want to make sure that in this process, the farmers remain in the driving seat.

This is why we launched the Strategic Dialogue on the Future of Agriculture in the European Union. We have invited a broad scope of representatives of the farming sector, the young farmers, the rural communities, the seed and fertiliser industry, the food sector, the processing sector, but also the financial sector, the cooperative banking sector, the consumers and environmental groups, and of course science. We need to analyse the situation together, share ideas and most importantly develop scenarios for the future. We need to move beyond a polarised debate and to create trust. Trust is the crucial basis for viable solutions.

There is a lot at stake for all of us. Our European food production system is unique. The products in our supermarkets reflect the variety of our cultures and traditions. Europe has the healthiest and highest-quality food in the world, thanks to our farmers. They play a central role in this system, and of course, they must be paid fairly for that. It is true that we provide huge support to this sector. Our Common Agricultural Policy is supported massively by the EU budget. Money is important – but it is not everything. Healthy natural resources are also key to maintaining high yields. In particular, fertile soil has always been the backbone of our farmers' livelihoods. And we know that 60-70% of soils in Europe are now in poor condition. We can reverse these trends. And many farmers are precisely doing that. But we need to do more.

Effective nature protection must offer generous incentives for intervening. Farmers need a worthwhile business case for nature-enhancing measures – perhaps we have not made that case convincingly. A real incentive that goes beyond mere loss of yield is required. Public subsidies can provide those incentives and for example premium labelling, in cooperation with retailers and processors. In other words, nature conservation can only be successful through a bottom-up and incentive-based approach. Because only if our farmers can live off their land will they invest in the future. And only if we achieve our climate and environmental goals together, will farmers be able to continue to make a living.

Our farmers are well aware of this. And we should place more trust in them. Let me give you one example. The Commission proposed SUR, which is the worthy aim to reduce the risks of chemical plant protection products. But the SUR proposal has become a symbol of polarisation. It has been rejected by the European Parliament. There is no progress anymore in the Council either. So we have to do something. That is why I will propose to the College to withdraw this proposal. But of course, the topic stays . And to move forward, more dialogue and a different approach is needed. And on this basis, the Commission could make a new proposal with much more matured content and with the stakeholders together.

Honourable Members,

The months ahead will not be easy. But I think we have an important opportunity now. It is clear to everyone in this House that our agri-food sector – beginning with the farms – needs a long-term prospect and a willingness to listen to each other and look for common solutions. We need to avoid the blame game and find solutions for problems together. The report from the Strategic Dialogue on the Future of Agriculture in the European Union is to be tabled by late summer and it will be enormously important. The results and recommendations from this dialogue will be discussed in Parliament and with the Member States, and they will form the foundation of our future agricultural policy.

Thank you for your attention.