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Protecting Europe’s #farmers needs more coherent policies

Graham Paul

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European agriculture is at a crossroads. As policymakers in Brussels debate the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the European Commission finally rolled out the roadmap to its flagship Farm to Fork strategy, the bloc’s first comprehensive food policy, while a free trade agreement with Mexico, if ratified, could have significant effects on the EU’s agricultural sector. But what’s woefully missing in this flurry of international deal making and regulatory tweaking is protecting farmers from unfair competition and artificially inflated prices.

Strict regulations at home, more flexibility abroad?

The sweeping free trade agreement with Mexico, which the EU finalized in April but which still needs to be approved by the French parliament, has already sparked a fierce backlash from farmers everywhere. Chief among their concerns is the fear that the agreement will usher in unfair competition from Mexican farmers. By exempting nearly all Mexican goods from EU tariffs, the free trade agreement opens the door to some 20,000 tonnes of Mexican beef a year and huge quantities of Mexican pork and poultry—products which were heretofore excluded from the European market over health and safety concerns.

European agricultural associations have been alarmed by the trade agreement and warned that it risks kicking off a “race to the bottom” for environmental and safety standards. At the very moment that the Farm to Fork strategy seeks to raise the standards for Europe’s food by imposing strict standards on farmers, it’s nothing short of perplexing to allow imports of foodstuffs from countries with less stringent regulatory regimes.

Above and beyond the concerns that the free trade agreement could see European consumers ending up with food items that don’t conform to the bloc’s usual health and safety requirements, European producers will naturally be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis Mexican farmers who don’t have to bear the extra costs of complying with European health and safety measures.

Overtaxing essential fertilizers cutting into European farmers’ profits

Even if the new trade deal with Mexico is not ratified, there are other policies which are cramping European farmers’ competitiveness and imposing extra costs on them. While the EU’s agricultural sector is becoming more efficient in its nutrient use, hefty tariffs slapped by the EU on some of the most widely-used nitrate fertilizers, however, represent a significant extra cost which European farmers have warned is harming their ability to compete on the global market. According to French trade unions, fertilizers represent up to 21% of farmers’ costs, and keeps input costs artificially high as most of demand is satisfied by imports.

“It’s a new attack on our revenues and the competitiveness of French producers of grains, oilseed crops and beetroot”, proclaimed one French association of agricultural unions. The producers of these crops are unable to switch products and are unable to pass these increased operational costs to consumers, meaning that they are left with little choice but to eat into their margins.

Margins scraped thin

This is particularly problematic given that European farmers are currently being buffeted on all sides by financial headwinds. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the latest Eurostat assessment of the performance of the EU agricultural sector, from November 2019, showed farmers’ input costs—for fertilisers as well as for other necessary items like seeds and animal feed—rising at a faster pace than the value generated by the agricultural sector.

The Eurostat report also noted that most EU member states saw declines in real income in the agriculture sector, with some countries, such as Denmark, recording extremely steep declines bringing them in line with 2005 lows. What’s more, farmers’ incomes in the EU-27 have consistently lagged behind the value added in the broader economy—even with substantial support from the Common Agricultural Policy. A steady decline in the agricultural labour pool has further strained the sector, and the CAP’s efforts to address the growing labour shortage have so far yielded mixed results.

Covid-19 highlights the weak spots in European agriculture

The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated these structural problems and piled pressure on European farmers. Supply chains were dramatically interrupted. Some farmers were forced to destroy their crops or to let them rot as shuttered borders across Europe prevented seasonal workers from travelling to harvest the produce.

Despite crisis funding from the EU, surveys have indicated that EU farmers’ confidence in the sector has plunged amidst the public health crisis. According to one recent survey carried out by Ipsos, a third of large EU farmers are now questioning the long-term viability of farming as a business, while 65% of the EU’s agricultural producers predict that they will see negative revenue impacts for the next two or three years.

In order to mitigate the effects of the crisis, the farmers polled called on the EU to do more to control price fluctuations and to prevent distorted competition. It was clear even before the pandemic that there were flaws in the EU’s agricultural policy—from allowing foodstuffs from less strict, and therefore less costly, regulatory regimes to be imported through free trade agreements, to imposing extra costs on European farmers in order to protect European fertiliser producers—which were whittling away already-narrow margins in the bloc’s agricultural sector. With the industry in crisis amidst the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn, the EU can no longer afford to place these burdens on its farmers’ shoulders.

Agriculture

CAP: New report on fraud, corruption and misuse of EU agricultural funds must be wake up call

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs working on protection of the EU's budget from the Greens/EFA group have just released a new report: "Where does the EU money go?", which looks at the misuse of European agricultural funds in Central and Eastern Europe. The report looks at systemic weakness in EU agricultural funds and maps out in clear terms, how EU funds contribute to fraud and corruption and undermining the rule of law in five EU countries: Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.
 
The report outlines up to date cases, including: Fraudulent claims and payments of EU agricultural subsidies Slovakia; the conflicts of interest around Czech Prime Minister's Agrofert company in Czechia; and state interference by the Fidesz government in Hungary. This report comes out as the EU institutions are in the process of negotiating the Common Agricultural Policy for the years 2021-27.
Viola von Cramon MEP, Greens/EFA member of the Budgetary Control Committee, comments:   "The evidence shows that EU agricultural funds are fuelling fraud, corruption and the rise of rich businessmen. Despite numerous investigations, scandals and protests, the Commission seems to be turning a blind eye to the rampant abuse of taxpayer's money and member states are doing little to address systematic issues. The Common Agricultural Policy simply isn't working. It provides the wrong incentives for how land is used, which damages the environment and harms local communities. The massive accumulation of land at the expense of the common good is not a sustainable model and it certainly shouldn't be financed from the EU's budget.
 
"We cannot continue to allow a situation where EU funds are causing such harm in so many countries. The Commission needs to act, it cannot bury its head in the sand. We need transparency on how and where EU money ends up, the disclosure of the ultimate owners of large agricultural companies and an end to conflicts of interest. The CAP must be reformed just so it works for people and the planet and is ultimately accountable to EU citizens. In the negotiations around the new CAP, the Parliament team must stand firm behind mandatory capping and transparency."

Mikuláš Peksa, Pirate Party MEP and Greens/EFA Member of the Budgetary Control Committee said:   “We have seen in my own country how EU agricultural funds are enriching an entire class of people all the way up to the Prime Minister. There is a systemic lack of transparency in the CAP, both during and after the distribution process. National paying agencies in CEE fail to use clear and objective criteria when selecting beneficiaries and are not publishing all the relevant information on where the money goes. When some data is disclosed, it is often deleted after the mandatory period of two years, making it almost impossible to control.
 
“Transparency, accountability and proper scrutiny are essential to building an agricultural system that works for all, instead of enriching a select few. Unfortunately, data on subsidy recipients are scattered over hundreds of registers, which are mostly not interoperable with the Commission’s fraud detection tools. Not only is it almost impossible for the Commission to identify corruption cases, but it is often unaware of who the final beneficiaries are and how much money they receive. In the ongoing negotiations for the new CAP period, we cannot allow the Member States to continue operating with this lack of transparency and EU oversight."

The report is available online here.

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Agriculture

Commission presents study on impact of trade agreements on agri-food sectors

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Commission has presented the results of a study on the expected economic effects by 2030 of ongoing and upcoming trade negotiations on the EU agricultural sector. The results are based on a theoretical modelling exercise on the potential economic effects on the agri-food sector, including specific results for some agriculture products after the conclusion of 12 trade agreements. This study represents an update of a study carried out in 2016. The EU trade agenda is set to have an overall positive impact on the EU economy and the agri-food sector.

Trade agreements are due to result in substantial increases in EU agri-food exports, with more limited increases in imports, creating a positive trade balance overall.

Executive Vice President responsible for trade Valdis Dombrovskis said: “The EU has always stood for open and fair trade which has enormously benefitted our economy, including agricultural producers. This study shows that we have been able to strike the right balance between offering more export opportunities to EU farmers, while protecting them from potential harmful effects of increased imports.

"Supporting the EU agri-food sector will continue to be a key element of the EU's trade policy, be it through market opening, protecting traditional EU food products or defending it against dumping or other forms of unfair trade.”

Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said: “The success of EU agricultural trade reflects the competitiveness of our sector. Reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy have highly contributed to this, supported by a global reputation of EU products as being safe, sustainably produced, nutritious and of high quality. This study, with more positive results than in 2016, confirms that our ambitious trade agenda helps EU farmers and food producers take full advantage of opportunities abroad while making sure we have sufficient safeguards in place for the most sensitive sectors."

 A press release and a Q&A are available online.

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Agriculture

Agriculture: Commission publishes list of potential eco-schemes

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Commission published a list of potential agricultural practices that eco-schemes could support in the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Part of the CAP reform currently under negotiation between the European Parliament and the Council, eco-schemes are a new instrument designed to reward farmers who choose to go further in terms of environmental care and climate action. This list aims to contribute to the debate around the CAP reform and its role in reaching the Green Deal targets. This list also enhances transparency of the process for establishing the Strategic CAP Plans, and provides farmers, administrations, scientists and stakeholders a basis for further discussion on making the best use of this new instrument.

The future CAP will play a crucial role in managing the transition towards a sustainable food system and in supporting European farmers throughout. Eco-schemes will contribute significantly to this transition and to the Green Deal targets. The Commission published the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies in May 2020. The Commission presented its proposals for the CAP reform in 2018, introducing a more flexible, performance and results-based approach that takes into account local conditions and needs, while increasing EU level ambitions in terms of sustainability. The European Parliament and Council agreed on their negotiating positions on the reform of the CAP on 23 and 21 October 2020, respectively, enabling the start of the trilogues on 10 November 2020. The Commission is determined to play its full role in the CAP trilogue negotiations as an honest broker between the co-legislators and as a driving force for greater sustainability to deliver on the European Green Deal objectives. A factsheet is available online and more information can be found here.

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