The European capital is finding solutions to provide relief to farmers and the agrifood sector impacted by the crisis. At a time when the EU Commission just released its new Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy and Covid-19 recovery fund, Bertrand Wyns and Eva Bille explore the current state of play at the EU level in the field of agriculture.

Covid-19 impacts the full value chain of agricultural goods – from the critical inputs needed to produce goods to the movement of these goods in the EU single market and beyond. Pressured by EU member states, the European Parliament and everyone in between, the European Commission is trying to alleviate the Covid-19 crisis by coordinating the EU’s response and offering financial support to the most impacted segments of the agrifood sector. But how will the Covid-19 crisis shape future agricultural policy?

National interests first

Since the pandemic hit national borders inside the EU have suddenly reappeared. The Covid response has been far from uniform across EU countries, and there are no laws binding them to coordinate lockdowns and border closures. This affects the very principles at the heart of the European Union: the free movement of people and goods.

The European Commission quickly seized its moment and did what it could to try to establish a coordinated approach. Guidelines and advice abound, on everything from how to manage border controls to how to ensure that workers in critical occupations can reach their workplace (including seasonal workers). Fruit and vegetable growers in the UK and Germany hired private jets to manage their harvests on time.

Despite the EU Commission’s efforts to defend the integrity the EU Single Market, nationalist rhetoric has been bubbling away. The Polish agriculture ministry named and shamed 27 importers of dairy products, condemning them for a ‘lack of economic patriotism’. France’s agriculture minister has advocated ‘food patriotism’.

Locking the door to competitive imports may help protect the local economy in the very short term, but it’s a short-sighted measure that will ultimately prove detrimental – especially to those EU countries who rely heavily on imported inputs (grains, seeds, fertilizers) to produce agricultural products. Past crises have also demonstrated that laws passed in a rush tend to be dismantled very slowly (if at all).

Uncorking the bottle

Patriotic tendencies aside, EU member states are eager to benefit from the union’s crisis coffers. Following intense pressure the European Commission unlocked almost €80m in support for dairy and meat (beef, sheep and goat) farmers through a private storage aid scheme. Some have complained it’s not enough. But the genie is now out of the bottle, and other sectors have taken note. The European wine sector – unsurprisingly with France’s support – is calling for a private storage and distillation scheme worth €300m.

And now there’s a big recovery package on the table. Although the fund just unleashed more than half a trillion Euros, agriculture will receive only 2% while 25% remains locked in for climate action. The €15bn for the Agricultural Fund for Rural Development is still better than a poke in the eye, even if the money is tied to structural changes in line with the green deal. But even that may be too little too late, as the 2020 CAP budget has all been allocated, and the next CAP is likely to be frugal compared to its predecessor.

EU countries are in a delicate situation. Eurosceptic politicians want to decrease the overall EU budget. But at the same time most EU capitals are seeking relief for their agricultural industries. National leaders will have to compromise at some point and agree on the least bad option.

Farm to Fork strategy in troubled waters

The long-awaited Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy published on 20 May aims to regulate the entire food supply chain in the EU and with its trading partners. Although the agricultural commissioner received some negative press for not being there at the launch (he claims he wasn’t needed), F2F is still very much linked to agriculture – it proposes for example to ensure that national strategic plans under the CAP gradually align with the EU’s broader policy goals.

Covid-19 delayed the strategy, but the question is whether this delay was used to adapt the strategy to the new normal. Covid-19 is mentioned four times in the document – twice in the introduction and twice in the new section on food security. That seems more like lip service than a substantial re-examination of the strategy in the context of the pandemic aftermath. And will EU member states have a joint view? Two Council tele-debates on the impact of Covid-19 provided member states some room to discuss, but it’s unlikely to offer the same depth as longer in-person meetings.

In any case, Commission Green Deal chief Timmermans would have a hard time convincing EU lawmakers from countries with large CAP-dependent agricultural sectors to embrace systemic change. Either way, the debate between and within institutions is likely to be intense. Environmental NGOs have put pressure on the Commission to accelerate the implementation of the strategy, while farmers, growers and supply chains reeling from the crisis want longer before having to consider new legislation. Timmermans maintains that ‘the transition towards more resilience and sustainability is not a threat to the farming sector but a huge opportunity’. That opportunity may not be so immediately apparent to the agrifood supply chain.

A strong legislative framework that reshapes the European agrifood supply chain in a holistic and thought-through way is a lofty ideal, but the agricultural patriotism witnessed already suggest achieving it will be an uphill battle.