In a recently published Parliament survey, agriculture, food and fisheries have emerged as a major area of disagreement between Brussels and the EU capitals.
Our readers won’t find this news astonishing, as they are very aware of how ruthless and ferocious agri-food spats can become in Europe.
On a weekly basis, they have been briefed about new clashes between EU countries on the front-of-pack labelling, or farmers taking the streets to protest against the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Not to mention new trade deals negotiated by the EU with nefarious consequences on Europe’s agricultural sector that upset every stakeholder, for different reasons.
All these arguments, controversies and disputes enter the internal political debate. And they are well noted by citizens.
This is what has been found in the annual Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the European Parliament and published on Friday (12 February): agri-food and fisheries have been confirmed as an apple of discord between the EU and member states.
While migration is by far still perceived as the main area of disagreement between Brussels and national governments, mentioned by nearly half (47%) of respondents, environmental (20%) and food-related issues (20%) follows immediately after.
To put it in perspective, environment and agri-food are both perceived as more confrontational on the EU stage than public health, despite the recent vaccine row and the criticism of how the EU has managed the pandemic.
The news does not catch us off guard also because some of the funniest demonstrations in EU history belong to the agri-food realm.
My favourite one dates back to February 1971, when a group of Walloon farmers gatecrashed a gathering of agriculture ministers of the then European Economic Community (EEC) with three cows, as a protest against the Mansholt Plan, the first CAP reform ever.
Besides, agricultural spending has always accounted for the lion’s share of the EU budget, and it is well known that where there is money, arguments will abound.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to check in which countries the level of confrontation is perceived as particularly heated.
Surprisingly, in one country – Ireland – agriculture, food and fishery have been ranked as the first contentious issue between the government and the EU institutions.
According to Luke Flanagan, one of the most experienced MEPs on Irish agricultural issues, the problem is created locally rather than in Brussels, as the poll results are most likely due to the largest farming organisation – the Irish farmers association (IFA) – objecting to rules and regulations of the CAP on a regular basis.
“This is picked up by the general public who then presume that this is our major area of disagreement with the EU,” he told EURACTIV.
For another MEP from the democratic socialist party Sinn Fein, Chris MacManus, Irish citizens demand an EU trade policy that bolsters short supply chains, environmental protection and a viable future for rural communities, while the EU has recently failed to respect these red lines.
He referred in particular to the Mercosur agreement as, according to him, it puts at risk most vulnerable indigenous sectors.
“When the EU grants the Mercosur countries 99,000 tonnes of the beef access or the US tariff-free lobster imports, Irish people know that will push their local farmers and fishing communities, who are already struggling, one step closer to financial ruin,” he said.
But Latvia, the Netherlands, and Finland also seem to have a beef with the EU when it comes to agrifood.
The European Commission and fisheries ministers have fought for quite a while on a drastic fishing quota limit in the Baltic Sea to save the cod stock at the risk of collapse, but that took a heavy socio-economic toll on the Latvian economy.
The Netherlands has opposed the electric fishing ban in a momentous spat against France, the European Commission, and NGOs.
To convey an idea of how “pop” this fight had become, the day before the final vote, fishnet used by electric fishing vessels stood outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, while inside, Dutch folk singer Geke van der Sloot sang the song Lied voor de vissers (“Song for the fishermen”), composed for the occasion.
While in Riga and Amsterdam, the reason for the frictions could be found in fisheries, in Helsinki the disagreement with the EU could be perceived because of different natural conditions.
“We have a short growing season, long winter and implementation of [agricultural] directives are mostly tighter than the minimum,” Finnish MEP Elsi Katainen explained to EURACTIV.
According to her, this clearly sometimes creates a bit of disagreement in the agri-sector, although so far, the CAP has secured profitable farming in the north of the country.
Another explanation could come from the fact that farmers could feel it is unfair to see cheaper products on the market, produced with lower standards, while the EU asks from its farmers a tight regulation on quality and food safety.
For instance, Katainien recalled that Finland is one of the few countries which have properly implemented the ‘pigtail’ directive.
“On the other hand, our high standards are a strength in the export markets,” she added.
The positive news from the survey is, indeed, that providing affordable and safe food, as well as a fair standard of living for farmers, is quite high on EU citizens’ wish list – for 26% of respondents, they are ranked higher than measures to develop renewable energy or better trade cooperation with global players.
Agrifood news from this week
Future agrifood partnerships between the EU and Africa take into account the realities of farming in Africa, especially in the context of a drive for a greener transition, agrifood stakeholders have warned. Natasha Foote has more.
Pesticides that are currently banned in Europe may still be exported to foreign countries, an issue which highlights the EU’s lack of coherence, according to the leftist Die Linke and the Greens. EURACTIV Germany reports.
News from the bubble
CAP negotiations to hit a sticking point on social conditionality: Social conditionality is proving to be a thorny issue in the upcoming Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) negotiations if the most recent special committee on agriculture (SCA) meeting is anything to go by. The meeting, which was held on Monday (8 February) saw nearly all member states raise issues with the inclusion of social conditionality in the reform of the CAP, which would see CAP subsidies would be conditional upon farmers’ upholding working and employment standards.
Three options appear to be on the table, none of which seem to have a clear majority. These include: having the social conditionality (with penalties) conditional on court rulings; including a chapter on social conditionality in national strategic plans; and developing a specific provision on “implementation conditions” that the Commission would check before approving the national strategic plans.
A fourth and supplementary activity was to enlarge the role of Farm Advisory Services to advise farmers on social legislation. Many member states raised the issue that social conditionality was not in the original Commission proposal, and that this falls outside the remit of the CAP, which has already been subject to environmental conditionality. Among those most opposed to the inclusion of social conditionality include Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic and Lithuania. Check out EURACTIV’s article to learn more about the issue.
Protected product: The European Commission has approved the application for the entry of “Ponikve” in the register of protected designations of origin (PDO). Ponikve is an appellation of white, rosé and red wines produced on the Pelješac peninsula in southern Croatia.
Pro-Nutriscore alliance: A coalition of six EU countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain – plus Switzerland will establish a transnational coordination mechanism to facilitate the use of the front-of-pack nutrition label Nutri-Score. The news has been hailed by those who advocate for the adoption of this framework as the EU-wide mandatory food labelling.
Wine package prolongation: The European Parliament gave the final green light to extend the length of the Commission’s aid package for winegrowers by a year. To learn more about this set of extraordinary measures, check out our reporting.
Agrifood news from the capitals
Organic food consumption is at an all-time high after the demand for organic produce soared over the past year, which has seen the biggest year-on-year increase in sales in 15 years. The organic market, including food, clothing, cosmetics and other products, increased to £2.79bn, a rise of 12.6% on 2019, according to the Soil Association in its annual organic market report, released on Wednesday (10 February). (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)
Germany’s cabinet passed a package on insect protection on Wednesday (10 February) after a long dispute between the agriculture and environment ministries (BMEL and BMU) and deep divisions between environmental organisations and farmers. The compromise reached between the BMEL and BMU has provisions to protect certain habitats like grasslands for insects and curb light pollution, which can harm nocturnal insects. An additional package presented by the BMEL severely restricts the use of the glyphosate and completely bans it as of 2023. Environment minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) was pleased with the compromise, saying “The glyphosate phase-out is coming.” Environmental organisations agreed. President of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), Olaf Bandt, said “Every kilo of pesticide saved, every pesticide-free square kilometer of land and every light source saved are positive for insects and nature. The final phase-out of glyphosate agriculture also points in the right direction.”
While agriculture minister Julia Klöckner (CDU) also voiced her approval of the package, farmers associations were highly critical. Joachim Rukwied of the German Farmers’ Association (DBV) called the law “short-sighted and a strategic mistake in environmental protection policy.” (Sarah Lawton | EURACTIV.de)
Northern Ireland’s department of agriculture staff resumed checks of animal-based products at two ports on Wednesday (10 February). The checks were suspended on 1 February after threatening graffiti appeared in a number of loyalist areas warning that port staff could be “targets”. According to RTE News, the decision comes after police carried out a threat assessment. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)
There is a great deal of uncertainty about who will succeed Teresa Bellanova as Minister of Agriculture in the new government led by the former governor of the European Central Bank (ECB) Mario Draghi. The latest rumours swirl around a technocratic figure or an agriculture expert, but there are some speculations that right-wing party Lega is interested in the job. At the beginning of the week, the Italian daily La Repubblica reported that even the party’s leader Matteo Salvini could be a candidate for the post. “We want to be part of a government that keeps its head up when negotiating with Brussels if Italian agriculture has to be defended,” he said after the second round of talks with Draghi. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)
The European Commission has approved an investment of more than €86 million from the European regional development fund in Croatia to expand its next generation broadband infrastructure, in line with the EU broadband strategy and policies. The investment will provide Croatia’s rural and suburban settlements with access to high-speed internet services to the benefit of citizens and local businesses. Commissioner for cohesion and reforms, Elisa Ferreira, said: “All Europeans should have stable and fast access to internet services. This has proven to be even more relevant in the coronavirus pandemic context where numerous activities have shifted to a full online format. By contributing to end the digital divide between urban and rural populations, this project will open up to new economic opportunities and boost Croatia’s socio-economic development.” (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)
Around nine million tonnes of food are wasted in Poland every year while there are some 1.6 million people living in extreme poverty, the Federation of Polish Food Banks has reported. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the problem. The association estimates that the number of people in need of free food in Poland could be even higher, reaching 5-6 million. Households account for nearly half of this amount, with bread, fruit, cold cuts and vegetables wasted the most. The reason for this is usually missing the expiration date, poor quality of products bought or simply buying too much food. These statistics increase the most during holidays and summer, when it is the season for trips and barbecues. (Mateusz Kucharczyk | EURACTIV.pl)
France has failed in its ambition to reduce the use of pesticides, according to a report published yesterday (February 9th) by the think tank of the Nicolas Hulot Foundation. According to the report, the use of plant protection agents has grown by 25 % over the past 10 years. The news is seen as a complete failure by the organisation, given that the French government, in 2008, announced its ambition to reduce the use of pesticides by 50 % in 2025. The authors of the report point to numerous reasons for this failure, amongst which a lack of coherence in the attribution of public financing to the agrifood sector. In order to tackle the problem, the think tank calls for a “new contract” between agriculture and society. Transition to agroecology should receive greater support from public and private creditors, while those selling and using pesticides should be subject to financial penalties in the framework of a “polluter pays” system, it concludes. (Lucie Duboua-Lorsch| EURACTIV.fr)
16 February – EURACTIV is holding an event on how a sustainable EU food system will be essential to achieve the sustainable development goals. Learn more.
17 – 18 February – The OLEUM project, which aims to better guarantee olive oil quality and authenticity by empowering detection and fostering prevention of olive oil fraud, will explore the impact of OLEUM on the future of EU policies on olive oil and how it will impact on the olive oil sector economy and practices. See here for details.
17 – 19 February – There is the BIOFACH, the world’s leading trade fair for organic food, which this year will take place completely digital. Learn more.