War in Ukraine derails French plan for fairer food trade – POLITICO
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Between exorbitant food prices and millions of tons of wheat stuck in Ukrainian silos, a French proposal to impose stricter regulations on imported food and animal feed seems dead and buried.
Faced with opposition from countries inside and outside the bloc – and warnings from the European Commission of legal problems if passed – the provisions known as “mirror clauses” are unlikely to become a standard feature of EU trade deals anytime soon.
Not to mention a global food crisis which means the EU is now focusing on deletion barriers to food trade.
It marks a defeat for France, whose former agriculture minister said such clauses – intended to allow third countries to ‘mirror’ the EU’s own standards – were the first, second and last. third priority of his presidency of the Council of the EU this year.
“It was a hot item on the agenda before the French elections and afterwards it kind of died in silence,” summed up an EU diplomat.
Much of France’s optimism – it has promised to wage a “crusade” to ensure the clauses are on the EU’s agenda – must be seen in the context of the presidential election in country in April. The policy has been backed by the country’s powerful farm lobby and environmentalists, who fear it will be undermined by food produced cheaply and made with looser environmental restrictions outside the EU.
President Emmanuel Macron said the proposal was a “common sense” way to use trade policy so that “our own constraints are reflected to us by the people we trade with”.
But with Macron’s re-election and the resignation of his agriculture minister responsible for presenting the proposal in Brussels, the noise around the mirror clauses has also diminished.
Russia’s invasion likely accelerated a trend that many in Brussels were initially unenthusiastic about. Instead of making it harder for countries to sell to the EU, the bloc has instead opened its borders to Ukrainian grain and is now scrambling to stabilize global supply chains.
In March, France paused its demand for mirror clauses by removing it from the agenda of a meeting of EU agriculture ministers – and that is unlikely to return any time soon.
Since the start of the war, the European Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the G7 have all urged countries not to erect artificial barriers to food trade, and a similar statement should be made at a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Geneva next week.
“To avoid a huge food security problem with particularly dire consequences for many developing countries, it is crucial that no country acts now in a way that would impede agricultural trade flows or generate trade tensions/disruptions” , Justin Brown, former Australian ambassador to the EU, told POLITICO.
Even without the war, the countries with which the EU most wants to sign free trade agreements – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and India – have also warned that the clauses could jeopardize such agreements.
Sam McIvor, CEO of the New Zealand beef and lamb lobby, said the EU should instead push for “comparative standards” rather than fully mirrored standards with trading partners.
problem at home
Since the war, the EU’s own standards have dropped significantly, with the European Commission suspending the announcement of new rules aimed at reducing pesticide use for at least two months, and countries like Spain demanding relaxations in rules for importing pesticides.
When France chaired a meeting of agricultural diplomats this week, no one took the floor to discuss the proposal. As momentum wanes, France will not produce a set of conclusions agreed by EU countries, an idea floated earlier in the year, according to a second EU diplomat. Instead, EU agriculture ministers will only debate a low-key Commission report that says there are major legal obstacles to unilaterally revising the global food trade playbook.
Liberal-minded European countries like the Nordic countries are probably breathing a sigh of relief. Many countries have been skeptical of the French proposal from the start, arguing that it is both illegal and unworkable.
But the French government and EU farmers have not given up yet. They have already won many victories, with a wide range of new trade defense measures and making a Frenchman the main enforcer of EU trade rules.
Paris could still claim to have made progress if it can broker a deal later this month on a proposal to eradicate deforestation from commodity supply chains – but that would concern crops that are little grown in Europe, such as the coffee and cocoa.
A civil servant working for the French presidency insisted that the mirror clauses would remain. “This is a topic that everyone realizes is important and will continue to be discussed,” they said, even as EU free traders and the powerful Commerce Department of the Commission are eyeing the upcoming Council Presidencies of the Czech Republic and Sweden to take over the EU’s new free trade agenda.
The liberal countries fear that France will further complicate this program by trying to insert mirror clauses in these trade negotiations.
“The mirror clause exercise is not a sprint, it’s a long-distance race,” said Pekka Pesonen, general secretary of European farmers’ lobby group Copa & Cogeca. “We believe this will be on the agenda for future presidencies.”
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