Over four months after first teasing it, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen officially launched her ‘Strategic Dialogue’ between the bloc’s policymakers and farmers on 25 January. Over the coming months, a wide range of agri-food stakeholders will convene for meetings on supporting farmers’ income, sustainable agriculture and the long-term competitiveness of Europe’s food system.
Rightly noting the “increasing division and polarisation” around EU agriculture in her inaugural address, von der Leyen’s conciliatory attempt arrives amid a wave of farmers’ protests ripping across the continent, prompting several agriculture ministers to criticise its timing. Given the significant immediate pressures facing its farmers, the dialogue’s delayed launch and admitted focus on long-term vision above day-to-day action reinforces widely-held perceptions that the EU is out of touch.
With Europe’s far-right latching on to the farmers’ uprising to fuel their EU electoral ambitions, Brussels’s ‘Grand Coalition’ parties will need to rapidly change course to avoid losing meaningful influence over its agri-food agenda.
EU agricultural battleground intensifying
From France and Germany to Romania, Lithuania and the Netherlands, farmers’ protests have erupted across the EU in recent weeks, with the movement reaching the EU’s doorstep itself in late January ahead of a nascent expansion in Italy and Spain. At a lively demonstration in Brussels, farmers largely directed their anger at EU “technocrats,” whose cumbersome green agriculture rules, regulations and trade policies have emerged as the key grievances uniting the various national protests.
To her credit, von der Leyen has astutely cited “competition from abroad” and “over-regulation at home” as the core of farmers’ mounting challenges, while French MEP Valérie Hayer, Renew Europe’s freshly-elected President, has vowed to embrace a balanced approach in helping farmers boost revenues and navigate the green transition “from both a financial and human point of view.”
Yet their electoral rivals to the right are drowning out these olive branches to the farming sector, with prominent nationalist figures, such Marion Maréchal – EU electoral leader of the French far-right party Reconquête – attending the Brussels protests to position themselves as the ‘farmers’ party.’ As Polish agriculture minister Czesław Siekierski wisely suggested in response to the Strategic Dialogue, moderating forces in Brussels should “go out there and listen to the farmers” to influence a more supportive decision-making process capable of fending off the far-right’s charm offensive.
Crunch time for Farm-to-Fork rethink
Maréchal and other far-right leaders are attacking the European Green Deal’s “tsunami” of rules – particularly within the EU’s Farm-to-Fork (F2F) strategy – as a primary source of EU farmers’ rage, amplifying the latter’s condemnation of Brussels for imposing increasingly-incomprehensible bureaucracy.
A pillar of F2F and an embodiment of its worst tendencies, Brussels’s bloc-wide nutrition labelling proposal is rearing its head after a year on the backburner, with the Belgian EU Council Presidency seemingly keen to push France’s ever-divisive Nutri-Score label over the line before June’s elections. The new year has seen a new Nutri-Score, with the team behind the colour-letter graded system unveiling an updated algorithm after facing fierce criticism.
Yet the research and agri-food communities remain far from convinced, with experts such as French nutritionist Dr. Anthony Fardet still opposed to the “unsuitable” label due to its “reductionist vision” that “only considers food as a group of a few nutrients.” As Fardet has spotlighted, this fundamental scientific flaw has resulted in industrial foods receiving many ‘A’ and B’ Nutri-Scores, while local producers of heritage foods, such as Roquefort and Fourme d’Ambert cheese, continue to receive unjustly-harsh, competitiveness-slashing grades.
Belgium’s Presidency nevertheless has high hopes that its late-April scientific symposium on Nutri-Score will drive up support, with the Belgian Federal Nutrition and Health Plan (PFNS) body recently claiming that if it can muster “a good ten Member States applying the Nutri-Score, its weight in the balance could prove decisive.” Beyond the fact that 10 member-states out of a 27-nation bloc would hardly represent a consensus, the tide is already turning against the label – even in “friendly” territory.
While still used in Spain, Madrid has not officially adopted Nutri-Score due to political resistance, while the label faces a potential legislative ban in one-time stalwart Switzerland and high-level regional opposition in its home country. Moreover, the Belgian Presidency’s move to force through a proposal that has been frozen since late 2022 due to the Commission’s concerns of “polarising the debate” completely undermines von der Leyen’s ‘Strategic Dialogue.’
Shielding against unfair trade competition
Beyond Nutri-Score, Brussels’ decision-makers must carefully navigate upcoming trade issues to avoid adding further unfair competition on local EU farmers.
In recent months, the most immediate trade-related threat for EU farmers has been the influx of Ukrainian grain facilitated by Brussels’s exceptional tariff-free access, sparking protests and border closures in border countries including Poland and Romania before spreading to France, where cereal farmers such as Benoît Laqueue are equally decrying how increasing volumes of price-slashing, lower-standard Ukrainian agri-food experts are putting financially-embattled, over-regulated local producers at a significant competitive disadvantage.
Looking ahead, the EU would do well to exercise restraint in this space. The ship has already sailed for the New Zealand trade deal greenlit last November, which has potentially exposed the EU market to food products using banned pesticides and herbicides, creating “unfair competition” as French MEP David Cormand has rightly posited. However, the currently-stalled EU-Mercosur trade agreement presents a major opportunity for Brussels to defend its farming sector, with COPA-COGECA President Christiane Lambert calling for an unequivocal “no” to the deal.
Encouragingly, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal reaffirmed the agricultural heavyweight’s staunch opposition to the Mercosur deal in late January, while outlining a range of cost relief and red tape-cutting measures. What’s more, with the Commission seemingly preparing to incorporate new safeguards to protect EU farmers from Ukrainian grain and President Macron set to meet with von der Leyen on 1 February to devise EU-wide solutions to farmers’ challenges, the bloc’s political leaders may finally have taken a right turn.
Building on these early signs of promise, the EU will need to wisely select which files to hold fire on and which to progress – an imperative which will require adjusting the immediate focus of its newly-launched ‘Strategic Dialogue’ with the agricultural sector to provide urgent support while casting off its ‘out of touch’ image ahead of the elections.