BERLIN — No longer a political backwater, Germany’s agriculture ministry has emerged as a highly sought-after prize for both conservatives and Greens in talks on forming the country’s next government.
The tug of war over the ministry pits Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), the arch-conservative sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, against the environmentalist Greens. It also reflects a broader battle over the future of food and farming in the EU’s biggest country and predominant political power.
Merkel’s CDU party, together with the CSU, the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats are in the thick of exploratory talks about forming a government after September’s general election, with the clock ticking down to a deadline on Thursday, when the parties should decide whether to proceed to full-blown coalition negotiations.
Whoever takes over the agriculture ministry will have a big say not just in German politics but also on hot EU topics, such as reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the use of glyphosate, a popular weedkiller whose fate is at the center of a major Brussels policy battle. The Greens advocate a ban on glyphosate; the CSU is opposed.
“Green agricultural policy can’t be implemented without a Green-led ministry” — Harald Ebner, a Green member of the Bundestag
The Greens see the ministry as central to their plans to set Germany and Europe on a much more environmentally-friendly path, meaning more sustainable farming and dramatic reductions in the use of pesticides on crops and antibiotics in animal feed. They also have proposed expanding it to encompass a broader portfolio of issues, including the environment and consumer protection.
“Green agricultural policy can’t be implemented without a Green-led ministry,” said Harald Ebner, a Green member of the Bundestag who served on the agriculture committee in the last parliament.“In my view, we must have this ministry.”
The CSU, which has held the agriculture ministry for the last 12 years over three different governments, sees itself as the protector of farmers in its Bavarian homeland and its watchword on agriculture is “efficiency,” which means continuing with methods that produce high yields. The party is particularly anxious to keep its rural base happy, having lost large numbers of votes in September’s election to the far-right Alternative for Germany.
The current CSU leader and Bavarian state premier, Horst Seehofer, was agriculture minister in Merkel’s first government | Ronny Hartmann/GettyImages
“Agriculture and agricultural policy are of great significance for the CSU because we’re so strongly rooted in rural areas,” said Artur Auernhammer, a CSU member of the Bundestag who also served on the agriculture committee. “For us in the CSU, it’s important that we’re interested in efficient agriculture.”
The first round of the talks between the would-be governing parties on agricultural issues was unexpectedly contentious. An internal paper compiled afterward included big-picture statements that the four parties “want to maintain a diverse agrarian structure” and work with farmers for a “common path into the future,” but many key topics were left unaddressed.
Agriculture accounts for just 0.6 percent of Germany’s GDP (although that still means it added about $20 billion to Europe’s largest economy last year), but the German Farmers’ Association estimates that the agribusiness industry writ large employs approximately 4.6 million people here, roughly 11 percent of the working-age population.
The topic has also grown in political significance in recent years as Germans have taken a closer interest in how their food is made, how it reaches them and the impact of agriculture on the environment.
For the CSU, the agriculture ministry feels like a natural fit. Roughly 60 percent of Bavaria’s 12.8 million residents live in rural areas, and approximately half of Bavaria’s land is used for farming.
The CSU insists it is not just interested in conventional farming methods but wants to strike a balance, as befits a so-called Volkspartei — a “people’s party” that draws on a broad base of support from different sections of society.
“The Greens are not a people’s party, we are a people’s party,” said Marlene Mortler, another CSU MP who served on the agricultural committee. “We’re concerned with organic and ecological farming — and we’re also concerned with classical, conventional farms, of which there are many more.”
The current CSU leader and Bavarian state premier, Horst Seehofer, was agriculture minister in Merkel’s first government. The incumbent minister, the CSU’s Christian Schmidt, has held the job since early 2014 and remains in office in a caretaker capacity until the next government is formed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel | Lian Matzke/AFP via Getty Images
CSU MP Auernhammer said the ministry should stay in the hands of his party or the broader alliance it shares with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), sometimes known simply as the Union.
“We in the CDU/CSU, from the whole Union, are interested in keeping the ministry within our ranks,” Auernhammer said. “We’ve run it for the last 12 years. We see also the necessity of strengthening this ministry and its goals, and to expand it as a ministry for all rural areas.”
“We think we need to do something fundamentally different on this” — Bettina Hoffmann, Green Bundestag member
But while the CSU talks of balance and continuity, the Greens want dramatic changes.
“Where [the coalition negotiation process] is difficult is with animal welfare and the approach to the industry,” said Bettina Hoffmann, a Green Bundestag member who specializes in agriculture issues. “We think we need to do something fundamentally different on this.”
The Greens also want to focus on climate-friendly, sustainable farming. That would include revamping agricultural subsidies so that more ecologically driven farms receive more money. An overhaul of the meat industry, including improved treatment of livestock and better animal welfare labeling, is also among the party’s priorities.
The last time they were in government, the Greens held the agriculture ministry for four years — and renamed it the ministry for consumer protection, food and agriculture. The CSU was irked by a title that seemed to relegate farmers to last place. But if the Greens wrest back control of the ministry again, much more than the name is likely to change.