Walking by the Rue de la Loi 130 in Brussels, you wouldn’t necessarily know that one of the most powerful agencies in the EU-machinery resides here. Located right above the subway station of Maalbeek, torn apart by the horrific terrorist attacks of 2016, the main offices of the Directorate-General for Agriculture & Rural Development (in short: DG AGRI) of the European Commission (EC) look grey and inconspicuous.
But looks can be deceiving. Agriculture is an absolutely crucial dossier within the European Union. Up until the 1980s, almost three-quarters of the total budget was spent on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In 2019 the CAP still ate up 36 percent of all EU-money – totaling 59 billion euros. For decades, technocrats hidden in the anonymous offices at the Rue de la Loi could decide how that money was supposed to be spent in every far corner of the EU.
The monopoly position of DG AGRI, however, is coming to an end. In December 2019, the then brand new EC president Ursula von der Leyen took office and immediately announced a Green Deal: an all-encompassing roadmap that should transform Europe into the first climate neutral economic bloc by 2050.
According to the Commission, the Green Deal will turn the EU into a world leader in green financing and sustainable innovation, and allow EU diplomats to engage in Green-Deal-diplomacy, while also creating millions of new jobs. To realize this grand vision, a true tidal wave of new legislation, political strategies, reduction goals and financing proposals is planned.
In May 2020, Dutch EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans, responsible for the Green Deal, published two policy strategies aimed at making agriculture more sustainable. The twin strategies have been dubbed the Farm to Fork strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy – and should by 2030 have dammed in pollution, cut pesticide use in half, halted soil erosion and protected insect populations. In order to do that, the Commission plans flower strips alongside fields all over Europe, wants to plant three billion trees, clean up 25.000 kilometers of river beds, and plans to drastically increase the number of protected nature reserves to create green corridors. Farmers are expected to slash the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and will have to let 10 percent of their fields lie fallow, while VAT rates on ecologically grown fruits and vegetables will decrease.
How the Green Deal proposals will materialize is far from certain though. According to the Commission itself, a lot will depend on the willingness of national governments, different EC departments and the EU parliament to translate the proposals into actual policy. A translation that will be easier said than done – with DG AGRI in the lead, the European farming lobby has immediately made sure that binding reduction goals for pesticides can’t materialize easily.
As soon as the first policy proposals for the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies started circulating within the European Commission, high level civil diplomats of DG AGRI set to work. Besides halving the amount of chemical pesticides used in EU agriculture, the Green Deal also proposes to quickly increase the acreage of land cultivated by ecological standards to approximately 30 percent – from 8 percent right now. A conversion that quick is nothing short of ‘excessive’, writes DG AGRI diplomat Tassos Haniotis in an internal EC document openDemocracy was able to obtain. Because of the ‘limited supply response in arable [organic] crops’ (translation from Brussels speak: the amount of organics EU farmers are actually able to grow) the Green Deal could even lead to a growing amount of imported food, Haniotis fears. Thus he concludes that the desired shift to organic farming ‘should remain demand driven’ – not enforced by the European Commission.
Haniotis is an agricultural economist and expert in EU-US trade relations. He was co-writer of several big free trade agreements and has worked in several positions within the Commission for years; starting off as a consultant in the United States, he was head of cabinetin the EC itself and nowadays leads one of the twelve directorates that make up DG AGRI.
Decisions on how to make their respective agricultural sectors more sustainable would be better left to national governments, Haniotis argues. Besides that, the Greek diplomat warns that the measures currently proposed would leave the ‘strategically important North African market’ without its usual European wheat supplies – ‘leading to price increases in North Africa’ and leading to ‘these countries becoming dependent on imports from Ukraine and Russia.’
At first sight it may seem a little strange that a top-level EC diplomat rages against plans laid out by the very same European Commission he works for. In this light it’s important to realize how the most powerful institution of the EU is actually organized. The EC is headquartered in a thirteen-story-high colossus in the center of the European Quarter in Brussels, named the Berlaymont. The Berlaymont houses the 27 EU Commissioners, one from each EU member state, their cabinets and a whole bunch of supporting departments, human resources, the ICT department and the general secretariat.
The 27 directorates-general (DGs – de facto the ministries of the EU) responsible for their respective policy areas, are housed in different offices spread out throughout Brussels. The DGs all compete amongst each other for money, the best diplomats and civil servants, and who gets assigned to which policy dossier. The powerful trade department (DG TRADE) is housed inside the EC headquarters itself; DG AGRI at a convenient walking distance. The environmental department (DG ENV) has to make do with a spot on the edge of town.
But that hierarchy isn’t set in stone – and the Green Deal may change power relations in the European Commission. Now that the environmental consequences of intensive EU agriculture are becoming clearer, more departments are claiming influence over what was once exclusively DG AGRI’s domain. EU Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans assigned authoring the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies to the health department (DG SANTE) and DG ENV respectively. AGRI Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski wasn’t even invited to the presentation of the twin strategies.
An important reason why agricultural policies are being drawn away from DG AGRI is simple: from an environmental point of view, their policies simply don’t work. In a recent report, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) concludes that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has not really been performing when it comes to protecting biodiversity. The amount of birds, butterflies and flying insects in Europe has steadily continued to decline and is now one third less than in 1990. The effects of CAP on biodiversity, according to the ECA, are ‘limited’ at best.
Scientists and the environmental movement have longer been arguing for pesticide reduction, now finally laid out in the Green Deal. Violette Geissen is professor in Soil Physics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Together with a team of scientists, she has researched the effects of pesticides and fertilizers on soils in eleven European countries. In more than 80 percent of the soils they researched, the team found chemical residues, often decades old. ‘There are almost no soils left in Europe which are not contaminated by a cocktail of several chemicals,’ Geissen says. ‘When considering a chemical for market admission, EU institutions usually focus on the effects it has on mortality rates among soil organisms. But there are hardly any tests to find out how chemicals affect bee populations, or how much accumulates in river beds. Luckily the Commission is finally showing some ambition now, because we’re coming to the point that there is not much life left in most European soils.’
The right dossiers
Joost de Jong is from the Netherlands and worked as a policy officer for DG AGRI between 2004 and 2007. As somebody who knows the department inside out, the harsh resistance to the Green Deal hardly comes as a surprise. ‘DG AGRI doesn’t want interference with what they consider as their policy area. Especially when reduction goals for pesticides are concerned,’ De Jong explains. ‘To safeguard their position within the Commission, receive enough money from the EU budget and get assigned the right dossiers, DG AGRI is heavily dependent on political support from Germany, Spain and France. Naturally, its civil servants closely follow the wishes of farmers’ lobbies from there, which usually is highly productive and large-scale agriculture.’
De Jong recognizes the position document authored by Haniotis as part of an Interservice Consultation (ICS): an interdepartmental negotiation that gives all the DGs the opportunity to provide input on policies. ‘The environmental DG has always been quite low in the EC pecking order,’ says De Jong. ‘By assigning the Biodiversity Strategy to them, Timmermans has given off an important signal about his intentions. But in the end, all directorates-general have to approve. That’s why, as far as I know, there has been a lot of political infighting about goals for ecological agriculture and slashing pesticide usage.’
The close ties between DG AGRI and big farming lobbies have been the subject of criticism for years. Environmental action group Pesticide Action Network (PAN) in May 2019 managed to uncover 600 secret documents showing that EC diplomats had tried to weaken legislation regulating the use of endocrine disrupting chemicals by proposing to change definitions of what an endocrine disruption actually entails, in order to limit economic impacts on farmers. During public consultations before the Farm to Fork strategy, German chemical giant Bayer Crop Science wrote in a letter to the European Commission that the company ‘took note of the European Commission’s intention to reduce dependency on chemical pesticides’ – proposing ‘measures to ensure that new innovative solutions are brought faster to the EU market’ and noting such policies would probably be better off left in the hands of national governments.
To reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture, in 2009 the European Commission first introduced a Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD). But implementing such an EU regulation can be difficult. To measure the amount of chemicals used on European fields one first has to have reliable data – statistics that, according to researchers for the European Court of Auditors (ECA), are hard to come by because privacy laws prohibit statistical agency Eurostat from publicly making available commercial information about chemical products. To circumvent this data gap, the ECA researchers analyzed sales numbers and concluded that no significant decrease of chemical usage was found since the introduction of the SUD. Between February and September 2019, the research team went out in the fields to interview farmers and policymakers in France, Lithuania and the Netherlands, and conducted evaluations of national policies – and also found lacking compliance with EU rules by national authorities and even by the European Commission itself.
To coerce governments into complying with the Green Deal, the EC plans a complete SUD overhaul by 2022 and wants to make access to organic pesticides a lot easier. However, the biggest hurdle for Frans Timmermans will be to align the Green Deal with the CAP – especially as negotiations for a new CAP period have already been underway for several years. That might prove a crucial problem for Timmermans, De Jong fears: ‘The Commission doesn’t really have a strong position towards the member states when policy proposals, such as the Green Deal, have not yet been captured in binding regulations.’
The CAP was first conceived in 1962 as a strategy to provide affordable food to citizens and a fair wage to farmers and has since then been periodically renewed, cut, and subject to negotiations between member states. During the current ongoing negotiations it was, for the first time, agreed that EU member states themselves will decide how to implement EU rules and allocate budgets. Therefore, every European country is currently busy writing up a National Strategic Plan, which will be handed in to the European Commission in Brussels. To realize the goals set out in the Green Deal, Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies, the Commission is more or less counting on EU member states to take them into account when formulating a National Strategic Plan – according to an EC working document presented in May.
Power and control
Inside the European Commission, however, there seems to be another bump in the road: the 27 National Strategic Plans will all be reviewed by DG AGRI – the department actively lobbying against binding rules. Through this detour, the EU farming lobby has conveniently managed to win back control over the Green Deal, says De Jong: ‘If you compare the final version of the Farm to Fork strategy to earlier drafts, you can already clearly see the fingerprints of DG AGRI. The goal for ecological agriculture in the EU all of a sudden went down from 30 to 25 percent. You mustn’t underestimate the power Frans Timmermans wields, but sometimes even he simply gets no for an answer.’
Dutch conservative politician Esther de Lange has been a member of the European Parliament for the EPP (European People’s Party) since 2007. She was born in a small village in the hilly south of the Netherlands. ‘Proposing reduction goals right now is, of course, worthless timing,’ she comments on the Green Deal. ‘The future is very insecure for many family farms around Europe, especially since markets have basically evaporated due to corona. Without a viable business model for farmers, reducing their dependency on pesticides will be hard.’
Because of the tight spot European farmers are in, and the fact that they not only have to compete on internal EU markets but also on world markets, De Lange doesn’t have expectations of overly ambitious goals in the National Strategic Plans. Too much national ambition would cause unwanted regulatory burden on farms and could worsen their competitive advantage over neighboring countries: a political risk no government is willing to take. ‘A level playing field is crucial for the internal market to function,’ De Lange explains. ‘The Netherlands sells most of its agricultural produce inside the EU. The Dutch government going at it alone, being more ambitious than for example Germany or Poland, would be a scenario we want to prevent. First, the Green Deal will have to guarantee decent farm incomes and fair prices. Measures that seem to be lacking from the current plans.’