In the complex world of Romanian politics, Dacian Ciolos was a very rare bird: a technocrat with no party affiliation who managed to rise to high office – to the post of agriculture minister – without, seemingly, ever bowing his head to anyone.
It is certainly true that Ciolos would not then have become a European commissioner, with a salary many times higher than a Romanian minister’s, without the personal backing of Traian Basescu, Romania’s shrewd, powerful and widely disliked president. But, as even Ciolos’s opponents grudgingly admit, he is not Basescu’s man. Few important figures in Romanian public life in recent memory have survived Romania’s political battlefield and emerged with such an unblemished reputation.
Ciolos accepted a similar challenge when, in 2010, he became Europe’s agriculture commissioner, a post that has put him at the centre of many battles. And his acknowledged integrity and professionalism may prove crucial sources of goodwill as he seeks to win support for the radical proposals he outlined yesterday (12 October) for reform of the EU’s agricultural system: contrary to the political zeitgeist, he issued an impassioned plea in favour of farmers, in which he argues that the EU will have to double its agricultural output by 2050.
Ciolos, who is only 42 and now finds himself in charge of a staggeringly large budget – around 40% of the EU’s entire spending – had very humble beginnings. He hails from a Transylvanian village in which, until very recently, everyone cultivated a local variety of onion – and which is probably the only place in the world to have raised a statue to the glory of the onion.
Through the 1990s, he studied agriculture and worked in the countryside, witnessing the redistribution of land to the peasants that followed the fall of communism in one of Europe’s most backward agricultural economies. He also learned about agriculture in Europe’s agricultural superpower, heading to France, where – with the help of French government scholarships – he gained degrees at Rennes and Montpellier. His stints in France, spread between 1991 and 2001, also included work on organic farms, rural development projects, and an agricultural chamber of commerce. And it was in France that he met his future wife, Válerie, also an agronomist by training.
It was in that period, in 1997, that he also gained his first taste of the European Commission, coming to Brussels as a stagiaire. He put a foot back into the Commission a few years later when, in 2002-03, he worked for the Commission’s office in Bucharest, providing advice on its pre-accession agriculture and rural development programmes.
His regular contacts with Brussels continued when he joined the agriculture ministry in 2005, where he prepped the agriculture minister for meetings with other agriculture ministers and the Commission ahead of Romania’s accession in 2007. Soon after Romania joined the EU, he became a junior minister for agriculture, and was promoted to minister when a corruption scandal toppled his predecessor. When the centre-right government fell, Ba?sescu chose him to head a special agricultural commission.
In Bucharest, Ciolos proved an extremely patient and methodical professional. A modest man who likes books and walking in the Carpathians (and now the Ardennes), Ciolos also managed to disarm colleagues and the media with grace and exquisite manners.
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1969: Born, Zalau
1994: Degree in horticultural engineering, University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, Cluj-Napoca
1995: Consultant, agricultural and rural development project, Arges County
1997: Stagiaire, DG Agriculture and Rural Affairs, European Commission
1998-99: Manager of a rural development programme, Arges County
1999-2001: Co-ordinator of bilateral agriculture co-operation projects
2001-02: Programme co-ordinator, National Association of Agricultural Development
2002-03: Task manager, Sapard programme, European Commission’s delegation to Romania
2005-07: Adviser to Romania’s agriculture minister
2007: Under-secretary of state for European affairs, agriculture ministry
2007-08: Minister for agriculture and rural development
2009-10: Head of presidential commission on agricultural development
2010-: European commissioner for agriculture
Ciolos would take pains to call journalists, or write to them, calmly setting out where he thought they were wrong in their assessment of agricultural policy. He would also argue that a medium-sized country with a tradition of family and subsistence farming, interrupted by a only a half-century of inefficient communist-controlled state agriculture, was qualified to obtain the agriculture portfolio in the European Commission – if it could find a competent and knowledgeable candidate.
And competence and knowledge were the reasons that José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, highlighted for selecting Ciolos. Nonetheless, Ciolos’s nomination was a surprise to many. After all, the percentage of Romanians working in agriculture was, at about 30%, five times the EU average.
Nor was Ciolos helped by Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, when he suggested that Ciolos’s appointment was a “second victory for France”. It is only when his personal links with France are mentioned that Ciolos shows slight irritation. “My wife has nothing to do with all this. I spoke French before I met her,” he says, adding that at that point – in 1997 – Valérie already spoke Romanian “after a five-month stint in Romania” and that “actually, we hit it off by using Romanian as our language of communication”.
Ciolos dismisses any notions of partiality. “Favouring one’s country of origin is a myth. A commissioner’s margin of manoeuvre is not very large. Just think of the fact that every autumn I have to present a detailed account to the [European] Court of Auditors,” he says.
And, unlike other commissioners, he does not maintain a privileged relationship with journalists from his country of origin. “I’m not your mole in the Commission” was his dry answer when, at a press breakfast, Romanian journalists reproached him for not feeding them insider information.
“When I became a commissioner, I assumed a dimension of my personality that went beyond my Romanian origin,” he says. “One has to be able permanently to go beyond one’s own cultural identity, while using it in order to give flesh to one’s actions.”
Some of that flesh comes from his roots in the countryside. “I was always in contact with the daily life of peasants,” he says. “My grandparents used to work the land…and that work was very hard. I have maintained a huge sensibility to everything concerning village life.”
In his view, dealing with bureaucracy is another valuable factor in ensuring that policy-makers keep their feet on the ground. He depicts bureaucracy as having the advantage of allowing initiatives to settle, “to give time to decant the sludge”. With its innate conservatism, a good bureaucracy can strike the right balance between ambition and feasibility, he says. Bureaucrats provide “a measure of reality”.
“A European policy cannot be the fruit of the thinking of one single person,” says Ciolos, who, in his words, does not have “an overblown ego”.
“I came to Brussels to do the job that was expected from me, not to talk about myself,” he says. From his history it is also evident that he is accurate when he argues that “agriculture is my main passion”.