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25th Feb 2024

Analysis

Von der Leyen kills EU pesticides ban in election sop to farmers

  • Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs in Strasbourg that farmers work 'hard' every day to produce the high-quality food consumed by many. "'For this, we owe them appreciation and thanks and respect' (Photo: conceptphoto.info)
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European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday (6 February) abruptly withdrew the EU's flagship plan to halve the use of pesticides, calling it a "symbol of polarisation" — in the wake of farmers' protests which have rippled across Brussels and the EU.

Her decision to scrap the pesticide proposal is in one sense symbolic, since the initiative was rejected last November by the European Parliament and has been stuck in the EU Council for months.

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But it offers a concrete message to rural voters and the agri-business sector ahead of the EU elections.

With the Greens advocating for significant and radical changes, focusing on the environmental affects linked to agriculture, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) has moved to portray itself as the champion of farmers and rural interests.

And von der Leyen's move directly responds to the political resistance against the Green Deal, not only coming from protesters in the streets but also within her own EPP party ranks — who celebrated the announcement.

The EPP previously warned that the commission's proposal could harm food security.

But Austrian centre-right MEP Alexander Bernhuber hailed Tuesday's announcement as "a first good sign" that the commission is willing to collaborate with farmers rather than against them.

EPP leader Manfred Weber said that the proposal would have triggered "irrational" bureaucracy for farmers. "Our farmers can be certain that they have a future … We are the party of the farmers and we stand on your side."

Expressing satisfaction with its withdrawal, the agri-food lobby group COPA-COGECA criticised the proposal as "poorly-designed, poorly-evaluated, poorly-financed, and offered little alternatives to farmers".

"The EU commission is finally acknowledging that the approach was not the right one," they said.

Green MEPs, for their part, denounced the U-turn as "regrettable", arguing targets are necessary for pesticide reductions and hoping for a new proposal during the next legislative term.

However, since the Green party might lose power in the June EU elections, and with the possibility of far-right groups gaining around a quarter of the seats, it's unclear if a new plan would move forward.

Pesticides are chemicals used for the protection of plants and crops, but they are potentially toxic to humans and are seen as one of the main drivers behind the rapid loss of bees and other pollinators.

It is estimated that around 75 percent of major crops for food production depend on pollinators to some extent.

Von der Leyen's decision was deemed by environmental campaigners as a "negative signal" for farmers and citizens as they argue that policymakers listen more to agribusiness' disinformation than science.

"Many policy-makers have been acting in the interest of the agrochemical industry and larger farming unions, which pretend to represent farmers, while they are boycotting the urgently needed move towards resilient, sustainable, long-term profitable, farming systems," Kristine De Schamphelaere, a campaigner from PAN Europe, told EUobserver.

Last year, Dutch former EU commissioner Frans Timmermans argued that the new gene editing proposal was "inseparable" from the proposals to halve the use and risk of pesticides and to restore nature.

Farmers 'in the driving seat'

The climate and biodiversity crisis, along with soil loss and degradation, economic and social disruption, and malfunctioning global food markets, have created a tough situation for farmers, landowners and regulators in the bloc.

Nevertheless, science indicates that it is paramount to reduce emissions from the sector, as agriculture is responsible for about 10 percent of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions.

During a plenary debate in Strasbourg, von der Leyen said farmers work "hard" every day to produce the high-quality food consumed by many. "For this, we owe them appreciation and thanks and respect."

She said the importance of listening to farmers and mentioned her 'strategic dialogue' on the future of agriculture, which von der Leyen believes will help reduce divisions.

And she also stressed that public subsidies can provide such incentives for farmers to adapt to "nature-enhancing measures".

Nevertheless, direct payments to farmers and rural developments already account for over one-third of the EU budget.

"We want to make sure that farmers remain in the driving seat," von der Leyen also said, suggesting that farmers and agri-food lobbies still have significant power in shaping agricultural policies or decisions.

Beyond Tuesday's symbolic announcement, further concessions have been granted to farmers since the protests began.

This includes fresh derogations for the year 2024 under the Common Agriculture Policy and a proposal which would allow tariffs on products such as poultry, eggs and sugar if imports from Ukraine exceed certain levels.

And no references to agriculture in the 2040 climate target proposal.

In addition, the commission has promised a new proposal to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers in the upcoming weeks.

This all comes after the commission already softened green obligations after the Covid-19 pandemic, energy crisis and Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Elections fears

Meanwhile, there are widespread concerns over populist and far-right groups hijacking farmers' protests and demands.

Against the backdrop of a key summit focus on delivering aid to Ukraine last week, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán met with farmers protesting on the streets.

"Brussels is suffocating European farmers," he said in a post on his social media on Tuesday, arguing that new rules are raising production costs.

However, increased prices in fuel, feed and fertilisers, as well as raw materials and agricultural products, are mainly to blame for higher production costs.

Blowback against green policies in the Netherlands triggered the Farmer Citizen Movement's triumph in the March 2023 provincial elections — and their votes then mainly went to rightwing populist leader Geert Wilders who won the national election last November.

Centre-right parties that rely on support from rural voters are concerned about the projected big wins for the far-right and populist parties in June.

But, as UK writer and eco-activist George Monbiot wrote in a recent op-ed in The Guardian, far-right and populist parties are already influencing policies.

He also contrasted the immediate success of the farmers' protests in affecting political change, with the treatment handed out to similarly disruptive Extinction Rebellion protestors. "The far right's resurgence in Europe is fuelled to a large extent by what used to be called 'agrarian populism'"

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