European agri co-ops call for solutions as farm protests continue

As farmers call for action on pay, red tape and foreign competition, the European Commission has proposed to allow them to derogate for one year from certain rules

Across the EU, farmers are taking to the streets to protest against falling incomes, rising costs and competition from imports.

On 30 January, French farmers, who have been protesting for weeks, stepped up their pressure by blocking roads outside Paris demanding improved pay, less red tape and protection from foreign competition. Some farmers also argue that the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, a major part of the European Green Deal, sets out “unrealistic” and “expensive” targets for the agricultural sector.

La Cooperation Agricole, an apex representing 2,100 French agricultural co-operatives, warns that French agricultural and food production risks being “knocked out” due to the increasing costs coupled with “a race for low prices”. The organisation blames certain distributors for not taking into account the production costs of French agricultural raw materials and agri-food industries and refusing to recognise the increase in industrial production costs, such as energy costs and wages.

Consequently, La Cooperation Agricole is calling on distributors to “align their actions with their words” and work with the agricultural sector to find a solution. The apex is also asking the French government to enforce the EGAlim laws, under which retailers can be fined up to 2% of revenues if they do not give French farmers fair prices.

“We cannot remain passive in the face of the weakening of our agricultural and agri-food production,” Dominique Chargé, president of La Cooperation Agricole, said in a statement. “The price war waged by certain distributors is to the detriment of the contents of the French plate. We have made proposals, we now expect concrete and rapid measures from the government.”

The French farmers also claim their products have to undergo higher quality control checks than those of farmers in other European countries. Similar comments were recently made by the new French prime minister, Gabriel Attal, who argued French farmers faced  “unfair competition” from other European farmers.

These claims were disputed by the president of Cooperativas Agroalimentarias, a Spanish federation of agricultural co-ops, Ángel Villafranca, who told El País that such comments risked negatively impacting the Spanish economy and agri-food producers. Spanish co-ops have also complained that the protests and road closures in France are preventing their trucks from entering the country.

Meanwhile, France is also threatening to block the EU-Mercosur trade agreement, which is currently being negotiated by the European Commission. The Mercosur countries – Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay – have been in trade talks with the European Commission for more than two decades with a provisional agreement reached in 2019 yet to be ratified.

Protests similar to those in France have occurred recently in other European countries, including Belgium, Germany, Poland and Romania. As these continue, Copa and Cogeca, the two apexes representing European farmers and agricultural co-ops, took part in the launch day of the strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture in Brussels on 25 January. During the meeting they shared the expectations of farmers who are protesting across the EU as well as the challenges these face.

“During the past few months, farmers across the EU have been severely impacted by extreme weather events and trade disruptions linked to the Russian invasion of Ukraine all of which have had severe impact on farming activities and the food supply chain,” the apexes said on 31 January.

“Consequently, this has created difficulties for farmers in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) implementation, with repercussions for the 2024 agricultural year. Copa and Cogeca have repeatedly asked the European Commission to consider derogations from CAP conditionality (e.g. GAEC 6, 7 and 8), eco-schemes and agri-environment-climate commitments which build on these, for 2024. We called for a common action to address these severe difficulties.”

European farmers benefit from EU funding through the block’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which represents 31% of the total EU budget. A total of €387bn in funding will be allocated to the CAP for the 2021-27 period and this includes support for climate change mitigation. France is the largest CAP recipient (17.3%), followed by Spain (12.4%), Germany (11.2%) and Italy (10.4%).

In light of these demonstrations, the European Commission announced on 31 January that it would introduce a “one-year derogation from CAP rules on fallow lands”.  To receive the CAP support they are entitled to, farmers must respect an enhanced set of nine standards beneficial to the environment and climate, including the Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) 8 Standard, which requires, among other things, devoting a minimum share of arable land to non-productive areas or features.

The exemption will enable farmers to delay implementation and still be eligible for their CAP basic direct payment. Furthermore, EU farmers growing nitrogen-fixing crops (such as lentils, peas, or favas) and/or catch crops on 7% of their arable land will also be considered as meeting the requirement.

“Today’s measure offers additional flexibility to farmers at a time when they are dealing with multiple challenges,” said the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen. “We will continue to engage with our farmers to ensure the CAP strikes the right balance between responding to their needs while continuing to deliver public goods for our citizens.”

Copa and Cogeca welcomed the move but said the decision came too late in the agricultural calendar and “remains limited”.

The two apexes say they will continue to engage with the Commission and take part in various thematic meetings.

“We hope that member states will further strengthen this proposal to have a more global approach, especially in member states that have been particularly impacted by extreme climate events, during the European Council meeting tomorrow,” they added.

The measure will have to be voted on by member states in committee meetings before being formally adopted by the Commission. The regulation will apply retroactively from 1 January 2024.

Protests continued on 1 February with more than 1,000 tractors blocking roads in Belgium, bringing part of Brussels to a standstill.

On 1 February members of Copa and Cogeca met with Ursula von der Leyen and prime ministers Alexander De Croo (Belgium) and Mark Rutte (Netherlands). During the meeting, the farmers called for “fair prices”, less red tape and more protections for the sector.

“Our farmers need to be certain about the future,” Lode Ceyssens, president of Boerenbond, the Belgian Farmers’ Union, said after the meeting.

This story was last amended on 2 February