Brussels bows to farmers’ protests by slashing environmental targets

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Brussels will scrap a plan to halve pesticide use, marking a further concession to protesting farmers who have spooked EU governments and another blow to its environmental agenda.

The retreat by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is part of a wider scaling back of her green ambitions in a bid to placate farmers, a key constituency for her centre-right party that is seeking to remain the EU’s most powerful parliamentary group in elections this summer.

Von der Leyen’s green agenda was a critical part of her manifesto to secure support for her election as commission president in 2019. But the backlash to its implementation, exacerbated by high energy prices and inflation sparked by Russia’s war against Ukraine, has complicated her expected bid for a second five-year term as the head of the EU’s executive.

The commission had presented the proposal to cut pesticide use “with the worthy aim to reduce the risks of chemical plant protection products”, Von der Leyen said in a speech to the European parliament on Tuesday.

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But she acknowledged that issues for farmers had “escalated in recent years”, saying the initiative had become “a symbol of polarisation” and that she would propose to her fellow commissioners that it be withdrawn. It had already been blocked by member states and MEPs, she admitted.

Shares in Bayer, the EU’s biggest pesticide producer, rose 2 per cent on the news.

The decision is the latest rollback in the EU’s green agenda prompted by widespread protests from farmers. Brussels has also scrapped specific guidance for agricultural emissions in its recommendation for a landmark 2040 climate target to be announced on Tuesday.

Demonstrations by agricultural groups have become increasingly disruptive in recent weeks, spreading across several EU member states including Germany, France, Belgium, Poland and Romania. Spanish farmers staged protests in several regions on Tuesday.

To quell the protests, which have caused significant damage in cities such as Paris and Brussels, the commission has agreed to ease parts of its environmental agenda, including watering down planned rules on animal welfare and allowing the cultivation of land intended to be left fallow to rejuvenate nature.

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Von der Leyen’s announcement came after she faced pressure over the weekend from members of her conservative political group, the European People’s party, according to a group official.

The EPP, the European parliament’s largest grouping, has become increasingly concerned that farming communities will turn to far-right parties at EU-wide elections in June.

Manfred Weber, EPP group chair, said in a speech following Von der Leyen’s that the group had demanded that farmers were taken “seriously”.

“We always realised that farmers are citizens and don’t want leftwing [green] ideologies that dictate everything to them,” he said.

A law to restore degraded nature, seen as a pillar of the EU’s plan to meet its international environmental commitments, has had most rules that would impact agricultural land removed by centre-right MEPS.

The pesticide proposal was already stalled after many member states and MEPs said there were not enough alternatives to chemical-based products, some of which damage the environment and can be harmful to people. 

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In addition, EU officials admit proposals to improve the treatment of animals being transported to market, slaughter houses or overseas are unlikely to be adopted before June’s election.

Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and a key architect of the Paris climate accord, said the EU faced a “major investment challenge” in farming and other sectors if it wanted to meet its climate goals.

But she said criticism of the bloc’s climate laws as “anti-farming” amounted to “disinformation”, adding that farmers deserved to be listened to by politicians.

Julia Bognar, head of land use and climate at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, said EU leaders need “a just transition plan for the sector to reach climate objectives and thus ensure long-term food security”.