Paris ups anti-Brussels rhetoric over farming row

Pork prices have been low since Russia enforced its agricultural embargo. [Smoobs/Flickr]

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls challenged Europe over the agricultural crisis on Monday (8 February), as farmers stepped up their protests against low meat prices. EURACTIV France reports.

“The Commission should activate its emergency powers. So far it has done too little too late,” the French prime minister said.

Pork farmers dumped animal carcasses at the offices of several local politicians in the Lot-et-Garonne department and held further demonstrations in Brittany.

Market regulation

Stéphane Le Foll, the French minister for agriculture, demanded the urgent establishment of “market regulation measures” ahead of next week’s meeting of the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers.

But this focus on the European dimension of the farming crisis has irritated opposition politicians.

Constance Le Grip, a French Republican MEP (EPP group), tweeted, “[It’s]Too easy to resort to “Brussels bashing” against the European Commission in the agricultural crisis, Mr Valls!”

The agriculture minister, who is also the spokesperson for the French government, is often absent from European Council meetings in Brussels, choosing instead to send a representative.

Since Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan took over the agriculture portfolio in November 2014, France has seen its influence in this area severely reduced. “In fact, DG AGRI is there to respond to Anglo-Saxon interests, and is most attentive to Ireland,” said a member of a French agricultural organisation.

The Juncker Commission’s decisions have often left a bitter aftertaste in Paris. Its recent decision to open an inquiry into price fixing in livestock farming is the latest in a series of measures that have exacerbated tensions between the French government and the EU.

Even the Minister for Ecology Ségolène Royal openly criticised the European institutions for their handling of the Dieselgate scandal.

Euroscepticism growing on the French left

This episode clearly points to an emerging trend of Euroscepticism within the French government.

The political line taken by the prime minister has never been overly Europhile. At Davos, Valls had already warned that “the European project could die” if the challenges it faces were not addressed in the short term. He also warned that “Europe could drop out of history.”

But with members of the prime minister’s close entourage openly expressing their frustration with Brussels, the French government’s euroscepticism has reached new levels.

“The same people that reproached us for criticising the functioning of the EU two or three years ago are now constantly vilifying Brussels. The dam has burst, and with security policy we are seeing the resurgence of doubts about European integration in the left,” a French politician said.

Splits from the 2005 referendum

In the run-up to the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution, the French left had failed to show a united front. Certain influential members of the Socialist party, including Laurent Fabius and Manuel Valls, campaigned for a “no” vote, although the current prime minister eventually switched to the (ultimately unsuccessful) “yes” camp.

>> Read: Greens accuse France of double standards on diesel emissions

In an attempt to pacify farmers, and particularly pork producers, who have been hardest hit by the collapse of prices, Valls even promised to negotiate the reopening of the Russian market for French exports.

EU standoff over Russian embargo

Since Russia introduced an embargo on pork products from the EU over a year ago, the European Commission has conducted negotiations on behalf of all 28 countries.

Pressure from Valls has failed to sway the Commission, which still refuses to open country by country negotiations, despite the fact that Moscow’s justification of its ban on pork products as a counter-measure against swine fever does not apply to France, much less Brittany.

The Russian embargo has deprived France of an important export market. And although new markets have been opened in Asia, notably in China and Vietnam, the low price of meat in this part of the world makes them far less valuable.

“We have recovered our export volumes but the prices are ridiculously low,” a representative of the pork sector said. 

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