WIRTZ: How Europe’s Green Deal Came and Went

by | May 9, 2024 | Opinion

By Bill Wirtz

The European Union is known for its unhurried approach to policymaking. The wheel of Brussels turns slowly with institutions haggling over every comma in a tedious process known as the ‘trilogue’. This made it all the more surprising that in a vote last week, the European Parliament voted in favor of a deregulation reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s farm subsidy scheme. The European Commission put it together in only eight weeks.

The European Parliament is up for reelection in a month and a half, and traditionally, parliamentarians from all 27 member states rarely pass any significant legislation this close to the end of their term. Members are usually busily campaigning to hold on to their seats, but this time around the vote is a noticeable part of their campaign messages.

The CAP gets renewed every four years, and on top of a financial support system for farmers and their businesses, it integrates steering policy, or “conditionality”. This conditionality dictates environmental rules that farmers must respect to access direct payments, and includes requiring farmers to minimize tillage to prevent soil erosion, This necessitates farmers set aside at least four percent of their farmland for biodiversity or mandating the growing of “cover crops”.

EU agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski told Polish media that Brussels is removing links between the Green Deal, the EU’s plan to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and the CAP. EU parliamentarians in Strasbourg approved the changes to the CAP with an overwhelming majority last week, in what is arguably a significant move towards deregulation – or “simplification”, as the European Commission diplomatically dubbed it.

This is indicative of a pre-election trend in Europe. While in 2019, a selfie with Greta Thunberg would have been desired campaign material, an increasing number of lawmakers in Brussels are shying away from ambitious environmental rules as the pushback by farmers and citizens has become overwhelming.

The trend has penetrated the Commission as well. President Ursula von der Leyen, who in 2020 championed the virtues of the European Green Deal and its promise to overhaul the agricultural system and give a boost to biodiversity, now meets with large manufacturers to shape the future of European industrial policy. The word “sustainability” has taken a back seat, in favor of “competitiveness” and “industrial autonomy”.

Finnish agriculture minister Sari Essayah bemoans a “tsunami of new regulations” on the agriculture and forest sector in the past four years, aligning himself with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who believes that the EU’s Nature Restoration Law is “badly drafted”. Austrian Agriculture Minister Norbert Totschnig even calls for an immediate suspension, stating that goals to combat deforestation globally would add “unnecessary bureaucratic rules” on European producers. Ministers and the European Parliament both had previously shot down legislation that would have cut down on the use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture after it had become clear that the targets were not evidence-based but politically motivated.

Four years into the grand experiment of the European Green Deal, named after ambitions for a Green New Deal in the United States led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the EU is not implementing rules that were designed to reach its ambitious climate goals. Some are even being repealed altogether.

Brussels is breaking taboos even in the field of biotechnology. The European Commission and Parliament are fast-tracking plans to make gene-edited plants legal in the bloc, following years of applying the ‘precautionary principle’ to a technology already in use in the U.S. They’re banking on the fact that new crop varieties will reduce farming’s carbon footprint. The focus is increasingly not on the sustainable outlook of biotech but rather on how it will improve farmer yields and income.

In the halls of Brussels, the political ambitions of the 2019 environmentalist movement have proven a stoppable force when confronted with the immovable object of consumer purchasing power and producer discontent. As some U.S. states plan to create stricter use in the agricultural sector, such as with New York and Vermont attempting to ban insecticides in the image of Europe’s existing legislation – lessons have yet to be learned.

Bill Wirtz is the Senior Policy Analyst at the Consumer Choice Center, where he covers agricultural and trade policy.

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