‘Agriculture as sovereignty’ under the French EU presidency

With less than one month to go until France’s presidency of the Council of the European Union kicks off, Paris is being roundly criticised by some of its European counterparts for seeking to push back deadlines for free trade agreements with Chile and New Zealand.

While some EU countries seem in a hurry to conclude these agreements, in their haste they may not have fully measured the impact which poorly crafted agreements could have on European agriculture.

As France has made clear, European farmers are asked to comply with higher safety and environmental standards than their foreign competitors, with the result being that products which fail to live up to EU rules are nonetheless widely available across European markets.

Let’s be clear: weakening these standards should be out of the question.

Indeed, they need to be further strengthened in many areas (particularly when it comes to pesticides and agriculture’s contribution to decarbonisation).

On the other hand, a coherent policy approach demands that non-European agricultural suppliers adhere to the same food safety, quality, and environmental protection criteria as European producers, with European governments having the option of instituting “mirror clauses” in trade agreements to compel them to do so.

In the absence of these provisos, Europe won’t only be subjecting its farmers to unfair competition; it will also make it even more difficult for European agriculture to meet the EU’s own standards.

What’s more, farmers are not the only ones suffering from the imbalance between standards inside and outside the European bloc. Under the status quo, EU consumers are being sold products linked to destructive and unsustainable agricultural practices banned in Europe.

Two years ago, for example, a French Senate report found that between 10 and 25 percent of agricultural products imported by France do not comply with European standards. As environmental experts from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany pointed out last year in Nature, the EU – by allowing these products into the single market – is effectively “outsourcing environmental damage to other countries, while taking the credit for green policies at home.”

One of the most flagrant examples of this trend is the catastrophic deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon, largely driven by the intensive livestock farming encouraged by the Bolsonaro government.

Despite Brazil’s pledges to combat illegal deforestation, the rate at which Amazonian rainforests are being cleared is actually increasing, with 877km2lost this past October alone.

Before Bolsonaro took office, Brazil averaged 6,500km2 of forest cleared annually; since the populist firebrand took office, that average has increased to 10,500.

Indeed, many of the countries with which the EU is signing free trade agreements – including Mercosur nations such as Brazil as well as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand – use “pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified (GM) organisms that are strictly limited or forbidden in the EU.”

When it comes to livestock farming, these regulatory differences could have a direct impact on the health impact of products on European tables. As a Veblen Institute report recently explained, meat imports from countries like Brazil, the US, and Canada regularly violate EU rules against the use of growth hormones, animal feed, and inhumane animal treatment and transport.

Early momentum at EU level

While this issue impacts the whole of Europe, France has been the most outspoken voice pushing for change. Emmanuel Macron declared last May that “we defend above all the mirror clauses, which will allow us to see our own requirements respected by those with whom we trade.”

Regarding the agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, whose ratification France is blocking, Macron added that: “we have, in South America, countries that deforest, that do not place the same limitations as us on phytosanitary products, that do not have the same work requirements as us.”

French agriculture minister Julien Denormandie has also argued that the EU should “export its standards and stop having foreign standards imposed on its own single market.”

Despite the tensions over ongoing FTA negotiations, those arguments are starting to catch on in Brussels and other European capitals.

In October, the French, Spanish and Austrian ministers of agriculture wrote a joint editorial calling on the EU to change its approach and become a standard-setter for international trade.

In November, the European Commission responded with a draft regulation to ban imports of products such as beef, palm oil, and coffee if they are linked to deforestation, claiming that the proposal would put into place “mandatory due diligence rules for operators” requiring them to “collect the geographic coordinates of the land where the commodities they place on the market were produced.”

Unfortunately, as the French agricultural sector subsequently pointed out, companies importing beef from countries such as Brazil will not have any way of ensuring their products actually comply with those rules, given that Brazil does not trace livestock from birth until slaughter – as mandated in Europe and carried out by tools such as the Trade Control and Export System (TRACES).

Moral and strategic imperative

By influencing and shaping agricultural standards in other markets, the EU can achieve several of its own strategic objectives, including advancing the fight against climate change and helping to avert future pandemics.

While protecting its own consumers and farmers, European governments can also raise standards of food quality and environmental quality overseas, demonstrating global solidarity alongside strategic autonomy.

One of the challenges for the French presidency of the EU is thus to convince the rest of its European counterparts that Paris’s demand for harmonised standards covering agricultural imports is inseparable from the EU’s flagship Green Deal as well as the core concept of European sovereignty.

Thanks to Europe’s collective weight in the global marketplace and the economic importance of Europe-bound exports around the world, the EU has both the opportunity and the responsibility to leverage its position to impose its standards worldwide.

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