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Can Joe Biden restore food trade talks with Europe?

For the EU, former President Donald Trump’s international policy was seen as a major regression for global trade policy. When former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker signed the EU-Japan trade deal in 2018 — abolishing virtually all tariffs — Europe sold the move as being in significant contrast to the protectionism taken in the United States. That said, many EU member states prefer consumers only to buy European when it comes to food, even at the expense of major trade deals.

When Europe and the United States tripped up on the conclusion of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it wasn’t because of the Obama administration at the time. Trade deals need to be approved by national parliaments, and the opposition of the Wallonian parliament (Southern Belgium) prevented the accord from being signed. Since then, more EU member countries have joined the protectionist club. France and Ireland have shown fierce opposition to trade between the EU and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, over the competition that would ultimately arise for their national beef producers.

One year ago, U.S Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack explained to the European Parliament in a virtual appearance that the differences in how Europe and the United States treat crop protection and genetic engineering are an obstacle to the two blocs’ trading. The EU seeks to halve its pesticide use by 2030, with its soon-to-be-released Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD), and it plans to continue to outlaw genetic engineering technology based on legislation going back to 2001. 

However, the ambitious agriculture reforms are now being questioned by its own member nations: Central and Eastern European countries have claimed that the goals are not feasible. French President Macron said in May that the strategy’s “objectives must be reviewed because under no circumstances can Europe afford to produce less,” and he added that a “deep food crisis” could emerge in the upcoming months.

Disagreements in Brussels have reached the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union. Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski sings a different tune than Green Deal Commissioner Frans Timmermans. Wojciechowski aims to stall the release of the pesticide reduction targets, while Timmermans slams the opponents of the reforms in the light of the war in Ukraine as opportunistic.

Unlike in the American federal system, the European Commission will need the support of a large set of member states before proceeding, making the 50 percent cut more unlikely than previously believed. On top of that, England is currently mulling legislation (already introduced to the House of Commons) that would legalize gene-editing in the food sector, in what is one of the significant regulatory breaks since Brexit. Meanwhile, the European Union, which has reportedly been reviewing its statutes on the matter, comes under pressure as one of the few remaining developed nations that do not allow new technologies in food.

The existential question for European lawmakers is to what extent EU food rules are supposed to be exported elsewhere. The bloc prides itself on high food standards — yet, simultaneously catches itself contradicting its own food safety agencies and ends up embroiled in World Trade Organization (WTO) disputes over banning specific pesticides. According to Brussels, crop protection tools that are banned in the EU should also not be imported from elsewhere. Yet, instead of addressing regulatory concerns with trade partners, Europe makes up its mind unilaterally and informs trading nations via press releases. In times when Europe is more dependent than ever on friendly nations to provide anything from wheat to animal feed, it is hard to imagine that this approach will be long-lived.

For the Biden administration, this presents an opportunity to restore food trade talks with Europe. For too long American produce has been held back from the European market over an exaggerated mistrust of U.S food standards. As it dawns on Europe that it needs reliable partners to assure strategic autonomy, Washington should reach out and seize the opportunity. Perhaps we’re in need of a TTIP 2.0, or whatever we are choosing to name trade agreements these days.

Originally published here

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