The EU’s eastern member states could throw their weight behind France’s calls for a temporary suspension of the rules of the internal market to counteract the agricultural crisis. EurActiv France reports.
Stéphane Le Foll’s efforts to convince the EU to intervene in the agricultural crisis that is gripping Europe have so far borne little fruit. But the French minister for agriculture has looked to the East for new hope.
“I met my Slovenian colleague in Ljubljana and we completely agree on the diagnosis of the situation and the solutions proposed by France,” the minister told the press on Friday (11 March).
With Slovenia’s support, Le Foll will present his action plan to his counterparts from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Austria at a meeting ahead of the Agriculture Council on Monday (14 March).
“Slovenia has committed to organising this meeting on 14 March so that we can find a broad consensus on these issues,” Le Foll said.
Walloon farmers will be in Brussels on Monday for the gathering, to protest the falling price of milk, and the increasing difficulty many have in covering production costs.
France failed to secure further relief measures for its struggling livestock farmers at a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers on Monday (15 February), as it tries to contain protests sparked by persistent low prices.
These new allies join Belgium, Spain, Italy and Portugal, who had already offered Paris their support on the matter of the agricultural crisis. Together with Germany, France has even gone so far as to draw up a list of demands, which the countries will defend at the Council in Brussels.
Crisis of overproduction
For Paris, the agricultural crisis is so severe that the EU should take the drastic step of invoking Article 222, which provides for the temporary suspension of the rules of free competition in the internal market. It would be the first time this provision has been used.
The activation of this article would help cut the excessive production of milk, in order to reduce the surplus. But the possibility has met with hostility from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Sweden and the Netherlands.
On an international level, the two ministers have called for extra support for exports and for increased efforts to lift the Russian pork embargo.
This embargo was put in place in 2014 after cases of swine fever were discovered in Europe. It has been in place ever since, with no sanitary justification.
“We have 20 million too many pigs in Europe, three million of which are due to the Russian embargo,” said Éric Andrieu, a French Socialist MEP.
Most European countries support the lifting of the embargo, but in order to bring it about, “an intervention at the highest political level is required,” Le Foll said.
An extraordinary meeting of the European Agriculture Council is currently underway, reviewing the consequences of the Russian embargo, amid calls for support from Europe’s farmers.
Another measure on the French and German agriculture ministries’ list of demands is the raising of the limit for EU intervention in the milk sector. “This measure should allow us to manage the crisis until Article 222 can be activated,” a French source told EurActiv.
In times of crisis, the EU promises to pay producers a minimum price for their milk. But the bloc is currently limited to buying 109,000 tonnes per year, and this ceiling will very soon be reached.
“In 2015, the member states stocked 45,000 tonnes of milk. In the first three months of this year, we have already reached 54,000 tonnes,” Le Foll said. “And all countries are affected.”
Ireland, the home of the very liberal Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan, has stockpiled 4,750 tonnes of milk since the beginning of the year, compared to 1,800 over the whole of last year. “So they will need a watertight argument if they want to convince me that there is no problem with overproduction,” Le Foll added.
French farming unions want a higher price for pork and milk, but the European Commission is instead exploring new markets to compensate for declining consumption in the EU. EurActiv France reports.
The position of the Agriculture Commissioner has caused frustration among French politicians. “Phil Hogan thinks we have to look for new export markets rather than solve the problems of the internal market,” said Jean-Paul Denanot, a French Socialist MEP. “The problem with Hogan is that he just doesn’t listen, it’s as if he’s autistic,” the MEP added.
In fact, the Commissioner has not altered his position since the beginning of the agricultural debacle, much to the irritation of the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. He called on the Commission to “fully assume its responsibilities” and not add to the multiple crises “that could jeopardise the European project”.
14 March: Agriculture Council in Brussels.