For months leading up to the long-awaited European elections in early June, farmers across Europe were leading protests in virtually every corner of the EU. Their core demands varied from state to state, but the messaging from farmer’s representatives in Brussels heard in 24 languages, was clear — the European Union severely overregulates the age-old practice of farming. Whether it be costly environmental impact surveys, restrictions on crop protection chemicals and fertilizers, or the fact that access to direct payments from the government might as well require farmers to have a degree in grant application writing, the barriers to success for European farmers are high. 

Farmers protesting bemoaned the fact that Europe’s political class suffers from a deep misunderstanding of their sector. Lawmakers in Brussels view agriculture as an eyesore and an impediment to their rosy climate protection goals ever since the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. The Effort Sharing Regulation of 2020 requires EU member countries to reduce their share of greenhouse gas emissions in proportion to their emissions, which means that countries with less fertile soil and high use of fertilizer have to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, somehow. That is what led the Dutch government to attempt a buyout program for livestock farmers, which resulted in massive farmer protests and an electoral victory for a farmer’s party known as the BBB.

Despite the grandiose ambitions of the environmental movement once organized around Greta Thunberg, political reality has caught up. Right-wing parties made major gains in the most recent European elections in part by aligning with the pro-farmer messages about food security and protecting the dignity of growers who feed the continent. Politicians in Brussels want to stay in Brussels. That is why the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament, quickly shifted its views to a more pro-farmer stance. The EPP struck down key legislative proposals such as halving pesticide use by 2030, a key political goal of environmentalist campaigners that lacked scientific backing. 

Today, Europe faces a different reality. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has a good chance of being reconfirmed despite having been a major driver of the “Farm to Fork strategy”, which set out to ban pesticides, reduce fertilizers, and repurpose farmland in the EU by 10 percent. Von der Leyen, who is now pretending to lead Europe in a more industry-friendly direction, is trying to fit her square brand through a round hole. It will take a lot of time and effort for citizens to take her political rebrand seriously. In the last months of her first term, Von der Leyen implemented more lenient policies for accessing farm subsidies, imposing less bureaucratic rules on farmers. She also retracted plans to limit the use of plant protection chemicals. This course correction seems more cosmetic than ideological.

For American politicians, it will be hard to understand where Europe stands now. The ascendant right-wing parties aren’t avid free traders, meaning that a comprehensive free trade agreement with the United States is once again a distant prospect. On top of that, the talk of Brussels for the next five years will be so-called “mirror clauses”, meaning Europe will uphold the idea that EU regulation ought to be the benchmark for trading internationally with agricultural products. Don’t respect EU environmental rules? Can’t bring it in. 

Perversely, much of the European right that challenged environmental rules in their campaigns will still be happy to see mirror clauses popularized, because they are a convenient way to erect protectionist measures for their constituents. Many European farmers erroneously believe that trade protectionism will advance their interests, and balk at the idea of exporting more French wine, Dutch cheese, or Italian olive oil across the pond to eager American consumers. Either way, farmers across the EU have sent a strong message to the United States, which is that burdensome environmental regulations are a challenge to food security and offend most voters. Everyday people like seeing food well-stocked on market shelves, and they like the idea of that food coming from nearby farms. 

Global trade will always be a divisive issue, it’s quite clear that heavy-handed domestic restrictions on the trade of farming are a political death knell.

Originally published here



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