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23rd Sep 2018

Deadlock on organic farming rules 'breaking records'

  • EU wants to promote organic farming, but new regulation is in a deadlock for months (Photo: Eric Parker)

A legislative file that aims to encourage farmers to switch to organic farming remains deadlocked, as “little progress” was made last week during trilogue talks between MEPs, national governments, and the European Commission.

“There was a very constructive atmosphere at the trilogue [of Wednesday 3 May],” an EU source told EUobserver, on the condition of anonymity.

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  • Trilogues have become increasingly popular in Brussels (Photo: Valentina Pop)

“However, we have to admit that little progress was made on the contentious issues.”

Trilogues are an informal format of talks, in which the three EU law-making institutions - the parliament, council and commission - attempt to hammer out a compromise behind closed doors, instead of going through the official channel of a second reading in the parliament and council.

Trilogues have become increasingly popular in Brussels, in part because it is thought that it could speed up the legislative process.

In the case of the organics regulation however, this has not been the case.

“I think we managed to break a record here,” said the EU source, noting that it has been “dragging on for years now”.

The regulation was proposed by the EU commission more than three years ago, on 24 March 2014, with the idea that it would increase the production of organic food in the EU.

While organic food is becoming more and more popular, the supply side in Europe cannot keep up, which is leading to increased imports.

In the analysis of the commission, the current EU rules are so complex that it is preventing small-scale farmers from switching to organic production methods.

Trilogue negotiations began 18 months ago in November 2015.

There is no official database that contains the length of each trilogue process, but several sources say it seems like a record has been broken.

One of the reasons as to why it is taking so long is because it is a complex regulation that covers a wide range of topics.

The proposal contained a new rule that mixed farming - in other words, using organic and conventional methods on the same farm - would only be allowed during a transitional period. It would also introduce a new system of group certification for small-scale farmers.

Politics hidden in technical details

“The voluminous proposal contains a high level of technical detail, behind which important political points of principle are hidden,” said a progress report about the talks, published in December 2016.

The report was written by the Slovak Republic, the third country to coordinate the file under its temporary presidency of the Council of the EU, which rotates between member states every 6 months. On 1 January, the presidency moved to the fourth country in line: Malta.

A second EU source, close to the Maltese presidency, said Malta is “totally in the hands of delegations,” meaning that the decision hinges on the other member states.

One problem is that there are “many parts to bring together, and not necessarily between the three institutions, but also within the council”.

The new proposed rules on greenhouses, for example, have to take into account the continent's different climatic conditions - from the Nordic countries to the Mediterranean members of the EU.

The first source also confirmed that there are “diverging views” within each of the three EU institutions, adding that the Maltese presidency was “committed to continue working on this” and that “numerous drafting sessions” were ongoing.

'Constructive approach'

On 31 May, the last trilogue discussions will take place under the Maltese presidency.

The EU commission did not want to give an assessment on why the file is taking so long.

Instead, it only provided a comment saying that agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan “has been and remains committed to a successful conclusion of the negotiations”.

“The commission appreciates the constructive approach being shown by all three institutions and remains confident of achieving a satisfactory outcome which will ultimately benefit this important sector,” an EU commission source said.

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