Food security: farmers’ protests lead to concessions on EU climate rules

Joanne HarrisMonday 8 April 2024

For much of the first months of 2024, Europe’s capitals have been blockaded by tractors and lorries. Honking their horns and wielding home-made signs bearing warnings about the importance of agriculture, farmers in countries including Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain have been on the streets protesting.

Farmers are frustrated with their respective governments’ trade and environmental policies, which they say are stopping them from making a living. While energy costs have risen, yields and prices have dropped – due to a combination of factors, including the EU’s waiver on quotas and duties from agriculture giant Ukraine after Russia’s 2022 invasion, sustained bad weather and imports from outside Europe. Farmers have also protested the imposition of standards under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), linked to some of the subsidies they receive from the EU.

Yves Melin, Vice-Chair of the IBA International Trade and Customs Law Committee and a partner at Reed Smith in Belgium, says a breaking point has been reached. ‘The farming sector is mobilised and has mobilised’, he says. ‘They’ve been everywhere. They managed to convince Poland to block imports from Ukraine in the middle of the war. The interests of farmers matter from a political point of view.’

While the height of the protests came in January and February, they continued into March, finally prompting action by the EU. On the trade front, the European Commission (the ‘Commission’) announced it was increasing tariffs on imports into the EU of cereals, oilseeds and grain products from Belarus and Russia, while also proposing to start capping duty-free imports of oats, eggs, poultry and sugar from Ukraine.

The farming sector is mobilised and has mobilised. They’ve been everywhere. They managed to convince Poland to block imports from Ukraine in the middle of the war

Yves Melin
Vice-Chair, IBA International Trade and Customs Law Committee

Meanwhile, the Commission published proposals to simplify certain provisions in the CAP relating to the ways in which farmers can rotate and diversify crops, and removing the obligation to keep a share of their arable land non-productive. If the proposals are taken forward, EU Member States will have more flexibility to make derogations from the CAP in extreme weather events. ‘The proposal strikes the right balance between the necessity to maintain the CAP’s role in supporting the transition of European agriculture to more sustainable farming, the expectations of farmers and member states, and the objective to reach a quick agreement between the European Parliament and the Council’, the Commission said in its announcement.

The measures were welcomed by farmers’ groups across Europe, with caveats. Copa-Cogeca – a group representing farmers and agri-cooperatives – said in a statement that it supported the proposals, adding that, ‘in the end, farmers, foresters, and their cooperatives are the ones who will actually implement the requested transitions while ensuring EU food security, so it is necessary to hear them and build effective responses that work on the ground’.

French agriculture union FNSEA (the Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitants Agricoles) said the proposals represented ‘notable advances’ to address farmers’ challenges. ‘Undoubtedly, the farmers’ protests have unlocked awareness at the level of European authorities’, it said. ‘The FNSEA and the JA [Young Farmers] celebrate this, but above all call, on the eve of European elections, to continue this fundamental work to rebuild the future European “Green Deal” so it forms part of the objective of achieving food sovereignty, and so that it translates these economic changes into a real shift in attitude.’

But there’s another angle to the farmers’ protests – one that stretches outside of Europe. In 2019, the EU reached a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Mercosur states in Latin America – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Agriculture was one of the key areas, with tariffs on European exports of products such as olive oil, wine and canned peaches expected to be removed or reduced. In exchange, the Mercosur countries would be able to import a significant amount of meat, sugar, ethanol, rice and honey with reduced or zero tariffs.

But the FTA hasn’t been ratified, and indeed has been one of the targets of the farmers’ protests. There has been particularly strong opposition in France – arguably one of the most powerful EU states – which has made ratification almost impossible to achieve, according to Melin. Assuming that ratification doesn’t happen, the EU will continue to trade with the Mercosur states on existing World Trade Organization terms. ‘If the Mercosur agreement doesn’t happen I guess we’ll be selling fewer cars to Latin America and they’ll be importing fewer agricultural products to the EU. Overall, farmers will be better off’, Melin believes.

He explains that there’s often opposition to an FTA by EU industries as standards outside the bloc cannot be enforced to the same extent, and sectors such as agriculture contend they shouldn’t be competing without protection with products that, in their view, don’t meet the same standards.

The EU is in the process of negotiating FTAs with a number of other countries, including India – where farmers have also been protesting over falling incomes. The chances of those agreements being ratified could shrink in the wake of the approaching EU elections. Given the shift in power expected at the elections, afterwards ‘the agenda won’t be more free trade, it will be level playing field, energy security, food security’, Melin believes.

Farmers continued to protest into late March. Polish farmers, particularly affected by the situation in Ukraine, complained that the EU hadn’t gone far enough in re-imposing quotas, but they were also continuing to protest that the obligations regarding environmental protection in the CAP are too onerous. It’s clear that, despite the EU’s concessions, anger remains high in the agricultural industry – and unless there’s a rapid, unexpected pickup in the worldwide economy to boost prices, it’s unlikely to dissipate.

Image credit: studio v-zwoelf/AdobeStock.com