Farm protests: structural responses from the EU needed

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Since 2019, the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine have put agriculture and food sovereignty back at the forefront, including in political speeches. This renewed interest in agriculture has not, however, been translated into strong actions in support of a sector facing the tangible effects of climate change and fierce international competition.

Farmers’ protests across EU countries are now spreading to France and Germany. Since the outbreak of farm discontent that began in the Netherlands more than a year ago, it has spread to more than 15 Member States that have seen large-scale protests. Only a handful of countries have not been affected by this movement: Cyprus, Malta, Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and, to a lesser extent, the Czech Republic and Italy.

Of course, the trigger is different from one country to another. In Central and Eastern Europe, the surge in imports from Ukraine is the main catalyst. In Western Europe, it is the standards leading to a decline in production. In this respect, a recent study by INRAE has confirmed previous analyses showing the negative impact of the measures envisaged by the EU through the Farm to Fork programme, the agricultural component of the Green Deal. It puts the potential fall in total European production at 15%, compared with 9.6% previously (-26% for arable crops).

It should be emphasised that the main components of these measures, which are still under discussion — reduction in the use of plant protection products and fertilisers, increased set-aside and organic farming — have not yet had their full regulatory impact at farm level, except in a few countries that have anticipated some of these measures. However, the dynamic cannot be ignored. It is based on an initial idea: to push farmers to embrace environmental transitions through new regulatory constraints on the top of the CAP, forcing them to invest.

One paradox is that this strategy is largely associated with a reduction in public support for agriculture, to be reallocated to other priorities. It was conceived in an economic and financial context that is now a thing of the past: the era of almost free credit. It is also based on another paradox: the idea that less production will solve the problems at a time when, more than ever, Europe needs its farmers and agricultural products to meet the multiple needs of food, feed and the growing green economy.

There is a consensus on the fact that COVID and the war in Ukraine have plunged Europe into a new world, where food is a fully-fledged strategic value chain, used as a geopolitical weapon by Putin’s Russia, but also by all the other major powers. We urgently need to draw all consequences within Europe, so that farmers are not caught between contradictory injunctions and an unresolvable equation: more costs, less production. The major challenge of the current movements and the responses to them is to reposition agriculture as a strategic sector through concrete actions promoting economic and environmental performance together.

There is one figure that illustrates the current situation. Inflation has returned, melting the economic value of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies like snow in the sun. The budget agreement for the period 2021-2027 already drew a line under the equivalent of one year’s direct aid in constant euros. With inflation, at the very least, two years’ worth of direct aid to farmers will disappear from the economic equilibrium of EU farms.

All in all, farm incomes are now, in constant euros, at the same level as in 1995, despite, for those farmers who can afford it, larger structures and the obligation to make greater use of capital. This is bound to create dramatic financial situations as soon as the markets take the slightest false step.

It’s easy to understand why, in such a situation, farmers feel that they are not being supported in their transition by either the public authorities or consumers, whose spending on food continues to fall, despite recent inflationary pressures that have penalised the most vulnerable among them. Yet everyone knows that there can be no low-cost transition in agriculture, as elsewhere. It will have to be financed, unless we relocate our food elsewhere in the world, even if that means turning a blind eye to the economic, social, environmental and geopolitical impacts of such a choice.

Faced with all these challenges, it is clear that the nature of the demonstrations across Europe, and particularly in the western countries of the EU, is not a matter of cyclical problems or passing bad temper. They are about structural imbalances, linked to concrete political orientations, to be corrected.

To restore balance, the European Union will have to rediscover the political ambition of its biggest common policy, the CAP. Over time and through reform, the CAP has tended to become less political, less agricultural and less common. Its economic component has largely been disarmed. Let’s reverse the trend and rediscover the path of investment in the future and of solidarity with the agricultural world on a European scale. Rather than less Europe, the current situation calls for a surge in European agricultural sovereignty.

The strategic debate announced by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, could provide such an opportunity. It should enable us to agree on an objective and sincere assessment of the situation, combined with a real desire to support farmers at European level in the face of the many challenges – including economic challenges – that they face, and to give this strategic sector the support it deserves. Solutions exist.