Farmer protests across Europe from the start of the year have certainly been successful in pushing their concerns to the top of the political agenda.
Those protests can also point to some real progress made on the issues that most concern the agricultural sector across Europe.
In this analysis piece, we’ll look at that progress made and outline the considerable threats to business as usual, which continue to exist.
In recent concessions to farmers, the EU has proposed a one-year derogation from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) GAEC 8 requirement for farmers to keep 4% of their land fallow.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen this week announced that she was withdrawing a proposal to reduce the use of chemical pesticides in the EU by 50% by 2030, as the proposal had “become a symbol of polarisation”.
The subject of imports from Ukraine was also addressed, with promises made about tightening access to the EU for Ukrainian agricultural production.
In Germany, there was a reversal of the proposed introduction of tax on agricultural fuel and road tax on farm vehicles.
French protests were wound down after the government there promised an end to rising fuel costs, the simplification of regulations and an end to the hated Mercosur trade deal.
While there were no actual protests in Ireland, the show of solidarity by the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) last week was enough for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to declare that the Mercosur deal could not be ratified in its current form.
On the surface, these concessions might sound like progress for farmers. However, several things need to be taken into account before the agricultural lobby can start to count any wins.
Significantly, the political calendar, with European elections only four months from now, means that the current crop of European politicians will be very keen to avoid major protests.
This is not to say they will say anything to placate the protesters, but farmers need to be aware of the difference between a policy change and a kick for touch.
The dropping of the requirement for 4% of land to lie fallow is for this year only. In the same speech, the Commission president said that she was dropping the chemical pesticides reduction proposal, stating “the topic stays” and that to move forward, “more dialogue and a different approach is needed”.ADVERTISEMENT
The controls on Ukrainian imports might be enough to reduce farmer protests in the eastern European Union.
However, speaking to the European parliament this week, von der Leyen said: “Ukraine is Europe, because Europe is in the hearts and minds of Ukrainians. And soon enough, Ukraine will also be in our union.”
French and Irish opposition to the Mercosur deal is well and good, but other countries within the EU wish to progress with the agreement, not least Germany.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz said this week that the EU would be “better off finalising these negotiations” – a clearly different stance to the French (and Irish) position.
Even beyond Mercosur, there are other trade deals already in place which could have significant ramifications for European – and particularly Irish – farmers.ADVERTISEMENT
When farmers think of trade deals, the agreement made with the South American group of countries (Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina) collectively known as Mercosur is foremost in their mind.
However, despite negotiations concluding with agreement in June 2019, the implementation process has yet to begin.
Initially there were reservations about Brazil’s increased levels of rainforest clearance, which came sharply into farmer and political focus with the introduction of the EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork policy in early 2020.
Further negotiations have continued between the EU and the Mercosur group and a deal was close in November 2023. Ultimately, this didn’t happen, and given recent farmer protests, it looks unlikely ahead of this year’s European Parliament elections.
A comprehensive trade deal with Canada (CETA) has been operational since 2017. It was controversial because it granted tariff-free access for up to 65,000t of Canadian beef.
However, volumes have come nowhere near that level because Canadian farmers and processors are unwilling to comply with EU hormone-free demands.
Between January and October 2023, Canadian beef exports amounted to 1,165t, a 15% increase on the same period in 2022, while the EU exported 13,093t to Canada during the same period – a 20% drop on the almost 20,000t in 2022.
So far, farmers' fears with CETA have been unfounded.
While the EU failed to wrap up its deal with Australia in 2023, the deal with New Zealand has been ratified and will come into effect in quarter two this year.
Farmer interests revolve around increased tariff-free access for beef, dairy and sheepmeat products. Sheepmeat quota will grow from 125,769t tariff-free quota at present to 163,769t after seven years of incremental increases.
On beef, New Zealand will have access for 3,333t with a 7.5% tariff immediately, growing to 10,000t after seven years at 7.5% tariff.
They also get a 36,000t of butter quota after seven years with a 5% tariff, 31,000t of cheese tariff free after seven years and additional quotas for powders and whey.
Since the UK left the EU, it has made trade deals with both Australia and New Zealand that will effectively give them unlimited tariff-free access for agricultural products to the UK market after 15 years.
These are potentially the most problematic of all for Irish farmers, as the UK is our largest export market for all commodities.
On the production side, one of the most controversial and continuous challenges facing farmers is the burden of ever more complex regulations.
French protesters secured a promise from their government to simplify these and Emmanuel Macron had previously called for a pause in new environmental regulations for the agriculture sector.
However, this has not stopped the EU pushing ahead with further climate actions, as the bloc works towards a 90% carbon emissions reduction target by 2040 and carbon neutrality by 2050.
Given the current sensibilities, there is a concentration on “technological solutions” in the press release on the subject.
That press release was accompanied by the launch of a new industrial alliance aimed at accelerating the development of a European small-scale nuclear reactor industry.
The EU produced an impact assessment of the 2040 targets, which runs to over 600 pages across several documents. That assessment does lean much harder on agriculture, with the sector mentioned more than 300 times in the publications.
In trying to balance the short-term political goal of reducing protests and the longer-term strategy of reducing climate changing emissions, the EU has landed on the time-honoured tradition of setting up a committee to report on the best way forward.
The body, with the rather grand title of the 'Strategic Dialogue on the Future of Agriculture', first met in Brussels at the end of January.
The committee is tasked with producing a report “by late summer”, which Ursula von der Leyen said this week “will be enormously important”, adding that the results and recommendations from the strategic dialogue “will form the foundation of our future agriculture policy”.
That sounds pretty huge. The report could be one of the most important documents for the future of European agriculture produced in a generation.
Or, it could be something which lands on the other side of a European parliamentary election and is quietly shelved, having done its job of providing political cover when it was so badly needed.