Saturday 13 September is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sicco Mansholt. Mansholt, the man behind the European agricultural policy in the 1950s, will be commemorated on that day in Veendam with a symposium on his legacy for the past, present and future. The symposium is being organized by the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the University of Groningen and will be chaired by Dirk Strijker, who is the Mansholt Professor of Rural Development. ‘Without Mansholt there might never have been a European Union.’
Interest in the symposium is high, says Strijker. ‘We’ve been fully booked for weeks. There are places for 350 people, but we could easily have filled a hall with 500 people.’ According to Strijker, this is an indication of the continuing respect for Mansholt. ‘He dragged agriculture out of the mud and turned it into a normal field of business.’ A painting by Sam Drukker of Mansholt is a good characterization, in Strijker’s opinion. ‘You see someone trudging through the clay battered by wind and rain, but not being blown off course by anyone or anything.’
Mansholt, who was appointed agricultural commissioner of the European Economic Community in 1958, was the founding father of the European agricultural policy. This policy concentrated on modernization, economies of scale and the subsidizing of agricultural products. Strijker: ‘The aim was to guarantee food supplies in Europe which would lead in turn to stability and peace. These motives played a major role for Mansholt.’ The communal agricultural policy was one of the few matters that could draw countries like France and Germany together. The success of Mansholt’s policy was thus an important factor in the creation of the European Union. ‘Without him there might never have been a European Union.’
The success of the European agricultural policy was so great that surpluses were even created – the well-known milk lakes and butter mountains. These surpluses were then sold at knock-down rates on the world market. In addition, however, the modernization and economies of scale damaged the landscape and the environment. During the 1970s, Mansholt began to regret his own policy. ‘In later years he was very sombre about what he had done. That was not entirely justified – you have to place his policies into the context of the 1950s. Sadly he wasn’t able to do that. But that was also typical of him – he was an independent thinker and extremely critical of himself.’
The European agricultural policy nowadays is fundamentally different. ‘The subsidies are now much smaller. There is much less price support, too. In the 1990s, this was turned into income support for farmers. This meant that the stimulus to produce too much vanished. The grain prices, for example, have been at the same level as the rest of the world for years. However, the policy should have been changed in the 1970s.’ The surpluses have at last disappeared. Mansholt would certainly have been pleased about that. However, he’d have been less enthusiastic about the way, thinks Strijker. ‘It’s now the market that governs the price of agricultural products. Mansholt was not a great fan of the market. He was a true technocrat and a strong believer in government intervention. He was much more in favour of quotas and set prices. In that sense he was a classic social democrat.’
The farmers themselves have always been in two minds about Mansholt. ‘In particular, the small, conservative farmers who wanted everything to stay the same were not very keen on him. Modernization meant that they had to give up their farms. However, today’s young farmers have Mansholt to thank for their industry. Thanks to his policies, their fathers or grandfathers, farmers who were in favour of progress, could modernize.’
Dirk Strijker (1953) is S.L. Mansholt Professor in Rural Development at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the Universitiy of Groningen. He studied Economics in Groningen and has worked as a lecturer at the University of Groningen since 1988. In 2000, Strijker gained his PhD at the University of Amsterdam with a thesis on regional differences in European agriculture. Strijker is an expert in the field of rural development and European agricultural policy.
Prof. Dirk Strijker, tel. (050) 363 38 97 (secr.)
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