As the European Union (EU) approaches a pivotal juncture with upcoming elections, recent widespread farm protests across several Member States have thrust agriculture and the challenges faced by farmers into the spotlight. This article delves into the implications of the discontent from the agricultural sector for the upcoming elections and the EU agenda for the next term.

Agriculture holds a pivotal role in European affairs, spearheaded by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), one of the EU’s oldest and most influential policies. Since 2013, farm payments have been tied to practices like crop diversification and permanent grassland maintenance to enhance environmental sustainability. The 2019 launch of the European Green Deal, aiming at transforming the EU into a climate-neutral economy, has further tackled the greening of the agricultural sector. Through key policies such as the Farm to Fork strategy, it aimed to create a resilient and environmentally friendly food system. 

However, since 2023, the European Green Deal has faced a backlash, leading for example to the dilution of the Nature Restoration Law by right-wing parties led by the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. This political reaction in the European arena was the translation by the right-wing parties of widespread discontent among farmers, which began over a year ago in the Netherlands and then spread to more than 15 Member States, highlighting common grievances. The problems include inadequate incomes, unsustainable administrative burdens, complex legislation and concerns about unfair imports (EU-Mercosur agreement, Ukrainian imports, etc.).

This discontent has prompted the European Commission (EC) to take direct action:

  • In January 2024, EC President von der Leyen initiated the Strategic Dialogue on the Future of Agriculture to tackle the escalating polarization. Over the ensuing months, a diverse array of stakeholders from the EU’s agri-food sector—including farmers, industry representatives, consumer groups, financial institutions, and academia—will engage in discussions aimed at charting a new path forward. 
  • The EC withdrew its proposal for the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products Regulation (SUR), which sought a 50% reduction in pesticide usage. 
  • Agricultural pollution has been omitted from the sectors under scrutiny in the assessment of the EU’s 2040 climate target, which defines the post-2030 trajectory to ensure the EU attains climate neutrality by 2050. 
  • The EC introduced a series of legislative proposals relaxing environmental standards for farmers within the CAP.

As the European elections loom on the horizon and the discussions in Brussels revolve around agriculture, political parties are directing attention toward farmers, a substantial voting bloc with considerable potential influence. The right-wing parties position themselves as the parties of the farmers and defenders of food sovereignty, while the Greens and centre-left emphasize the compatibility of environmental protection and agriculture. 

In view of the current election polls predicting a more right-wing parliament, we can expect to see an increased focused on lessening the regulatory burden for farmers. Nevertheless, the effects of climate change on agriculture will require action at European level to help farmers adapt to the consequences of increased drought and flooding, as recently pinpointed by the European Environment Agency, which singles out agriculture as a sector where urgent action is needed. The next Commission, likely to be led by a centre-right president, may propose an agri-food program with more comprehensive discussions and stakeholder involvement. Countries like France will continue to advocate for a protectionist agenda in international trade to shield domestic farmers from external competition. This calls for incorporating ‘mirror clauses’ in trade agreements, which would mandate imported goods to comply with the same regulations as those imposed on EU farmers. Given the prominence of agriculture and food systems, many stakeholders advocate for a dedicated Commissioner for Food. This role would champion strengthening the food system and its transition, making sure that the agriculture sector is part of the solution to achieve the EU’s Climate Goals.

The recent farmers’ protests mirror the overarching dilemma confronting policymakers in today’s landscape where mitigation and adaptation to climate change have taken the centre stage: the need to swiftly implement both an environmental and just transition. Failing to balance these twin imperatives in the upcoming legislative term risks fostering political discontent.

Curious about the policies affecting the agri-food sector? Do not hesitate to get in touch with our sustainability team!

Juliette Olivier, Public Affairs Consultant