After announcing €30 billion in support of an ecological transition last Thursday (3 September) the French government also presented a controversial bill authorising an exemption from the ban on neonicotinoid insecticides, a class of pesticides suspected to be harmful to bees.
In an interview with EURACTIV France, German MEP Martin Häusling explained why he is challenging the decision.
Martin Häusling is the Greens’ spokesman for agricultural policy in the European Parliament and a member of the environment committee (ENVI).
In response to the difficulties faced by the sugar beet industry, the French government announced at the beginning of August that it wanted to introduce a derogation to re-authorise the use of neonicotinoids, which have been banned since 2018. As an organic farmer and MEP, are you concerned about this?
Of course I’m concerned. Derogations should remain exceptional. These days, however, European countries are taking more and more of them; in Austria, Poland and soon in France.
The more there are derogations, the more pressure there will be on other European countries that don’t adopt them. For example, in Germany, no derogations have been granted so far. If France reuses neonicotinoids, German farmers will be able to legitimately ask themselves: “And why not us?” The risk is that the European ban will eventually become null and void.
With this decision, France is also sending a strong signal to the outside world, to importers, etc. The risk is that the European ban will eventually become obsolete. If we reauthorise the pesticides that we previously banned, other countries, such as Brazil, will think that European pesticide policy is not as restrictive as it claims. A bad signal is thus also being sent outside the EU.
If other countries have been granted derogations, isn’t France just adapting to market competition?
The reasons behind the reauthorisation of neonicotinoids are purely economic. But this is neither a valid argument nor a solution. When the derogation expires [according to Article 53 of the EU regulation, a EU member state may authorise the use of neonicotinoids under derogations of up to 120 days], farmers will face the same problem.
It is essential that these derogations remain de facto exceptions and remind member states that economic arguments are not sufficient for them to be granted.
When sugar beet growers run into difficulties, the ban on pesticide use cannot be lifted so abruptly, at the risk that the next industry will demand it too. [After the French government’s announcement in early August, the maize industry also called for the reintroduction of neonicotinoids].
Three types of neonicotinoids have been banned at by the EU, yet France’s biodiversity law of 2016 goes further than that, banning five. Can it really be said that France is a bad pupil?
No, precisely not. The fact that it was France that took this decision surprised me greatly. It was held up as a model in banning all neonicotinoids, and its policy was one of the strictest in Europe.
This decision is all the more surprising since it came from a former Green MP who now heads the French environment ministry.
Would it have been less surprising coming from other EU member states?
I don’t want to point the finger at anyone and we must avoid hasty shortcuts. But it is true that the use of pesticides in some Eastern European countries is not as problematic.
In France, Germany, Austria, there has always been a relatively high level of environmental awareness. There is a tendency to assume that they will always act consistently on this point. Until now at least.
However, isn’t it true that the French government is only complying with the article 53 of the European regulation, which states that EU member states can benefit from a derogation on the use of these insecticides if “a danger which cannot be controlled by other reasonable means” arises?
This is true. In order for a country to obtain a derogation, it is obliged to inform the European Commission first. But if this derogation becomes permanent, if it is readopted in later years, then it is up to the Commission to give its approval. And it can refuse it.
European Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides have indicated that these derogations will not be accepted so easily in the future.
You have sent a letter to Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, urging him “to be clear and not to let France get away with this derogation” and you say that you fear for the “credibility” of the European Commission. Could you elaborate on that?
Indeed, we have written a letter to both Commissioners and a letter to Mr Timmermans, in which we made it clear that this is no longer acceptable. A ban has been decided at the European level and it is time that it was strictly respected. If not, our environmental policy will lose credibility.
We look forward to the Commission’s response. It is now up to the Commission to act. It is simply not possible that a ban is imposed in this way and that countries circumvent it immediately afterwards. The Commission has to be more demanding.
As part of its “From Farm to Fork” (F2F) strategy, the EU has announced that it wants to reduce pesticide use in the EU by 50%. If our commitments on the most toxic pesticides are not met, how can the Commission be taken seriously in its own F2F strategy?
On the one hand, we boast about wanting to reduce the use of plant protection products, on the other hand we accept the derogations of member states. The Commission must be more demanding when drawing up a plan, so that it is implemented in the member states.
At present, it seems that the Commission simply does not have the political will to implement it and impose it on the member states.
[Edited by Natasha Foote/Zoran Radosavljevic]