EU policies must account for farmers’ needs to foil far-right populist wave next year

Karolyn PhebeKarolyn Phebe | Updated: 28-09-2023 15:41 IST | Created: 28-09-2023 15:38 IST
EU policies must account for farmers’ needs to foil far-right populist wave next year
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While her State of the European Union address focused heavily on Ukraine, EU enlargement, and her Green Deal, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wisely chose to highlight the bloc’s farmers. With environmental protection and food production increasingly pitted against each other, the EU chief promised a “fair and just” green transition for the agricultural sector while recognising farmers’ contribution to food security in the face of significant headwinds.

Moreover, von der Leyen announced a forthcoming ‘strategic dialogue’ on the future of EU agriculture, rightly positing that listening to the sector is “the only way to secure the supply of food” while reducing the current polarisation surrounding agri-food policy debates. As next year’s European elections approach, Brussels will need to continue down this path, adjusting its policies accordingly while transcending the false sustainable farming-food security dichotomy to fend off far-right advances in its rural heartlands.

EU’s farming battlegrounds

Von der Leyen’s nod to farmers has been warmly received by her European People’s Party (EPP) colleagues. In recent months, the EPP has stepped up its battle against Brussels’ green farming policies to attract the crucial rural vote for the 2024 elections, with President Manfred Weber branding them as the “farmers’ party,” while slamming Green Deal policies as dangerous attacks on food security.

This Brussels battleground is broadly mirrored at the domestic level, with far-right parties appealing to rural farming regions that feel alienated and abandoned by the EU, from Vox in Spain – whose leaders seek to capitalise on farmers’ grueling struggle with droughts – to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland, which is shamelessly pandering to farming communities facing strong competition from Ukrainian grain exports.

Yet farming powerhouse France is perhaps the most apt example of this phenomenon. The far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party of Marine Le Pen has historically punched above its weight in European elections, with its anti-EU rhetoric, green skepticism and image of defending farmers’ interests playing well in rural regions. In 2019, the party finished first in France with just over 23% of the vote and currently leads the poll for next year.

The RN is now preparing to launch its latest powerplay, with the RN leader Jordan Bardella recently announcing his stewardship of an EU campaign set to focus on translating “European issues into people’s daily lives.” Meanwhile, President Macron’s Renaissance party is planning its electoral counteroffensive in RN strongholds, with potential lead candidate and European Affairs Minister Laurence Boone gearing up for a tour of rural farming communities to challenge the RN’s hollow Green Deal bashing.

Nutrition label a case in point

The ongoing front-of-package (FOP) nutrition label saga embodies the current polarisation plaguing European agri-food policy debates. Aimed at tackling the continent’s emerging obesity “epidemic,” the Commission’s idea for a harmonised FOP label should seemingly have avoided overt politicisation. Nevertheless, consensus between member-states on which labeling system the EU executive should propose has been impossible to reach.

France’s Nutri-Score label has undoubtedly elicited the strongest reactions. Adopted on a voluntary basis in France, Germany, and the Benelux countries, Nutri-Score has faced opposition in countries including Romania, Poland, Spain and even its home country due to its unjustly harsh impact on local farmers.

In France, producers of Bleu d’Auvergne and Maroilles cheese have decried Nutri-Score’s controversial algorithm, whose narrow focus on individual chemical components as opposed to broader nutritional value results in ‘D’ and ‘E’ scores for these locally-produced, vitamin-rich cheeses due to their high salt and fat content, while certain products, including Chocapic cereal, receive a green ‘A’ by replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners.

Beyond the risk of shoppers rashly avoiding ‘D’ and ‘E’ products, these local foods could actually be banned from advertising if the Commission proposes a Nutri-Score-like system. Romania’s national competition authority has notably banned Nutri-Score over concerns that it would mislead consumers, while nutritional scientists from the Medical University of Warsaw have recently cautioned that the “Nutri-Score system promotes an incomplete view of healthy eating,” particularly for people with highly-specific dietary needs.

These sharp divisions prompted the Commission to rule out Nutri-Score last September to avoid a proposal that “polarises the debates.” Since then, the Commission has been cautiously evaluating the impacts of each label, promisingly resisting political pressure to force through a hasty, misguided decision.

Hypocrisy traps of green policies

While Brussels has managed to avoid the FOP labeling trap for now, other agri-food pitfalls loom on the horizon. With health and sustainability the twin aims of the Green Deal’s Farm to Fork strategy, the Commission has also proposed a sustainable food systems law centered around sustainable public procurement requirements and a voluntary bloc-wide green labeling system.

The EU executive assumes that the sustainability label would “incentivize business operators to go beyond minimum sustainability requirements” to boost their score and prices, while the green procurement pillar is designed to boost market demand for food produced to higher environmental standards. Yet these noble principles are undercut by severe implementation risks, including driving up costs for the bloc’s farmers and potentially incorporating arbitrary targets to cut meat and dairy consumption should the Commission bend to calls from certain out-of-touch academics.

While Von der Leyen’s speech notably snubbed the sustainable food systems framework, the Commission President nevertheless doubled down on her commitment to seal the Mercosur trade deal by year-end. Given the unresolved standoff between the EU and the South American bloc around the former’s environmental concerns – namely farming-driven deforestation in the Amazon – rushing into this agreement could expose the bloc’s Single Market and farmers to torrents of cheaper, less sustainable agricultural imports.

Beyond the competition implications, this situation would essentially amount to outsourcing of EU food system emissions, hypocritically and counterintuitively undermining its own sustainability policies with a poorly designed trade deal pushed through for political reasons.

Crunch time

As the EU navigates this minefield of agri-food issues in the coming months, it should avoid further polarisation by favoring a rational over an ideological approach that accounts for the broad consequences of its Green Deal policies.

Von der Leyen’s annual address has shown encouraging signs, but with the threat of a populist wave in next year’s election, her more conciliatory approach – balancing hard farming realities with environmental ambitions – will need to translate into concrete support and sound decision-making for the agricultural sector as her mandate winds down.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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