PARIS France and Germany, the European Union's two farming heavyweights, will need closer links following the loss of Britain's contribution to the EU farm budget after Brexit and ahead of a reform of EU agriculture policy, France's farm minister said.
Newly appointed Jacques Mezard, 69, who traveled to Berlin on Monday, said he had agreed with his German counterpart Christian Schmidt to work closely together, notably on the consequences of Britain's departure from the 28-member bloc for the future of the EU's farm policy (CAP).
"The priority is to preserve the Common Agriculture Policy as a driver of European life," Mezard told Reuters in an interview. "And this wish seemed totally shared by the German minister."
Current geopolitical uncertainties, notably in the United States, further increased the need for a strong cooperation at EU level, he said.
"What is happening on the international stage, be it Brexit, whether it is Western Europe's relations with President Trump ... has made a number of our European partners, mainly Germany, think about the need to have a European vision, to stick together, and to ensure that the Franco-German engine resumes functioning in full harmony," Mezard said.
France and Germany still have different positions on some key issues like the way subsidies should be distributed to farmers, but Mezard said he felt Germany's view on the CAP had evolved, notably with Schmidt coming from its largest rural region Bavaria.
The EU is due to review its farm policy post-2020 with negotiations expected to start soon. The European Commission, the EU executive, will release the result of a public consultation on the matter next month.
Mezard said France would ask for some adjustments to the CAP rather than sweeping changes.
But the negotiations will be complicated by uncertainties about the final budget, given that Brexit negotiations are not expected to be over before 2019.
There are tens of billions of euros that Britain may owe the EU in widely varying estimates, while at the same time there is the prospect of the EU losing Britain's total net contribution to the bloc of around 10 billion euros ($11.2 billion) per year.
"If Britain is no longer in the mix there is a risk - to put it mildly - to see a fall in the global budget of the CAP. That would strongly impact not only France but others could be more hit and there is a real European political debate that will open here," Mezard said.
He declined to say whether France, the biggest beneficiary of EU farm subsidies, would agree to raise its contribution, saying it was too early, but said he would do everything possible to maintain the CAP's strength in the EU.
At the national level, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would devote 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion) over five years to agriculture aimed at investment. It was too early to give details of the plan but subsidies could target projects like the building of biogas plants on farms, reservoirs or new premises, Mezard said.
On sensitive environmental issues like extending the EU license for weed killer glyphosate, or widening the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, Mezard said he would seek full scientific evidence before taking any decision.
"I don't want ideological positions on this. If there is a proven risk, I think it is right to ban some products. The real thing is that we have all the technical elements establishing that there is a real risk," he said.
(Writing by Sybille de La Hamaide; Editing by Andrew Callus and Jane Merriman)