Food sovereignty agenda opening door for more balanced policymaking in Brussels

Making good on his commitment made at the annual congress of France’s leading farmers’ union, Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau unveiled a new agriculture law on 3 April that would place food sovereignty on par with sustainability in domestic –  and eventually EU – policymaking. Enshrining agriculture’s national status as a “major general interest,” the draft legislation includes proposals to remove a controversial tax on farmers’ diesel fuel, reduce “disproportionate” penalties for environmental damage and prioritise the sector’s development, alongside a host of administrative streamlining measures.

This significantly more industry-friendly version comes after the explosion of farmers’ protests in January forced the French Government to withdraw the initial bill presented last December. Yet Europe’s farmers are certainly not alone in demanding a new approach, with the results of a Euronews-commissioned survey released in late March revealing that roughly half of EU voters deem Brussels’ policies harmful to the bloc’s agriculture and food independence – a damning wake-up call that policymakers must respond to ahead of June’s fiercely-contested elections.

Nature restoration saga reflecting new reality

According to EU agriculture expert Alan Matthews, this study notably shows that the strongest opposition to the bloc’s food policies is found in its largest-producing countries, including France, Poland, Spain and Italy, with the current Commission’s overzealous environmental agenda likely seen as a significant threat to its farmers’ competitiveness. The EU executive’s ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy has come under increasingly heavy fire, with deepening MEP opposition resulting in over half of its commitments left unmet and the freezing of new proposals to make time for the ‘Strategic Dialogue’ with farmers.

Considered Farm to Fork’s flagship policy, the EU’s nature restoration law proposal could be on its last legs, with the watered-down compromise deal struck between the Parliament and national governments hanging in the balance after eight member-states, including Italy, the Netherlands and Hungary, revoked their approval at the late-March EU Council summit. Lacking the majority needed to pass the final hurdle, the nature restoration file has been shelved – quite possibly until after the European elections – a development largely interpreted as a response to the bloc’s wave of farmers’ protests.

Aiming to restore at least 20% of the EU’s ecosystems by 2030 and all degraded areas by mid-century, the law has generated significant controversy, with its arbitrary, burdensome requirements on farmers prompting Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to quip that the bill “may sound good, but it is a bad law.” Reflecting the broader opposition view, De Croo supports strong biodiversity protection legislation but stresses that Brussels’s approach must avoid exacerbating farmers’ already-significant business uncertainty – namely in excessively removing arable land and consequently undermining Europe’s agricultural competitiveness and sovereignty.

Nutrition label’s last gasp?

Given that Belgium holds the EU Council Presidency – and thus controls the bloc’s legislative negotiations – until July, De Croo’s intervention in the nature restoration law debate is significant, yet this bold stand has unfortunately not extended to an equally-misguided agri-food file.

Delayed since late 2022, Belgium is controversially using its EU Presidency to put the front-of-package nutrition label – Farm to Fork’s healthy food pillar – back on the agenda just before the elections, organising a scientific symposium to address widespread concerns around former frontrunner Nutri-Score. Among the member-states currently using Nutri-Score, Belgium aims to generate support behind the divisive label, yet recent developments on both the political and scientific fronts will render this undertaking difficult, to say the least.

Having long drawn the opposition of countries including Greece, Cyprus, Czechia and Hungary, Nutri-Score’s reductionist assessment of nutritional value prompted Romania’s competition authority to ban the system last May, followed by a legislative initiative to do the same in former bastion Switzerland. Governments in this expanding coalition share concerns with the label’s unjustly negative grading of traditional products including PDO cheeses, cured meats, and even whole milk and prunes in its latest version, putting the bloc’s local farmers at an even further competitive disadvantage amid their products’ branding with ‘Ds’ and red ‘Es’ in supermarkets.

Concerning the supposed scientific consensus around Nutri-Score, a newly-published Dutch study reveals that the system’s developers have been involved in most of the favourable research, notably contrasting with over 60% of independent studies which have negatively appraised the system. Among this scientific opposition is Medical University of Warsaw professor Mariusz Panczyk, who recently amplified these research integrity concerns while concluding that Nutri-Score’s flaws render it an ineffective option for EU implementation.

Trade at heart of future sovereignty

Beyond Farm to Fork, EU trade policies have increasingly found themselves in the hot seat as the election approaches, with national governments keen to temper their farmers’ concerns over agri-food imports’ competition and sovereignty impacts. Interestingly, even European citizens are heavily linking agricultural independence and trade – nearly 90% of respondents in a recent Eurobarometer survey asserted that the bloc should prohibit third-country products non-compliant with EU environmental and animal welfare standards.

France has taken perhaps the boldest anti-trade stance, remaining firm in its opposition to the Mercosur deal on the grounds that the agreement would flood the single market with cheaper, lower-quality beef, eating into its farmers’ already-fragile income while undermining the EU’s biodiversity and climate goals. Yet President Macron’s government is bizarrely pushing for the ratification of the CETA free trade deal between the EU and Canada, with the French Senate’s rejection in March frustrating Paris’s aims and keeping France in the group of ten member-states yet to rubber stamp the agreement. Unwisely dismissing this rebuke as political “instrumentalization,” the French Government would do better to heed the farmers’ groups and NGOs decrying CETA’s threat to fair competition, “quality standards and European food sovereignty.”

With farmer and citizen demand for food sovereignty hitting a considerable peak in the pre-election period, member-state and EU policymakers must ramp up joint efforts to abandon outdated, disavowed agriculture policies and help farmers assume a greater economic role while supporting an equitable green transition. France’s newly-unveiled law has set the tone, but Paris will need to mobilise its considerable clout to ensure its vision for rebalancing agri-food policymaking cuts through in Brussels’s halls of power.