Ukraine war derails French plan for fairer food trade
Between sky-high food prices and millions of tons of wheat stuck in Ukrainian silos, a French proposal meant to impose stricter regulations on imported food and animal feed looks dead and buried. Faced with opposition from countries both inside and outside the bloc — and warnings from the European Commission of legal trouble if enacted — the provisions known as "mirror clauses" are likely not to become a standard feature of the EU's trade deals any time soon. Not to mention a global food crisis that has meant the EU is now focused on removing barriers to food trade. That marks a defeat for France, whose former agriculture minister said that such clauses — meant for third countries to "mirror" the EU's own standards — were the first, second and third priority of its presidency of the Council of the EU this year. “It was a hot agenda item before the French elections and afterwards it kind of died silently,” was how one EU diplomat summed it up. Much of France's bullishness — it promised to fight a "crusade" to ensure the clauses become part of the EU's agenda — ought to be seen in the context of the country's presidential election in April. President Emmanuel Macron said the proposal was a “common sense” way of using trade policy to have “our own constraints reflected back to us by the people with whom we trade. But with Macron re-elected and his agriculture minister tasked with taking the proposal to Brussels resigning from his post, the noise around mirror clauses has dropped too.
Russia's invasion likely accelerated a trend that many in Brussels weren't excited about in the first place. In March, France hit pause on its push for mirror clauses by taking it off the agenda of a meeting of the EU's agricultural ministers — and it's likely not going to come back soon. “To avoid a massive food security problem with especially dire consequences for many developing countries, it's crucial that no country act now in a way that would impede agri-trade flows or generate trade tensions/disruptions,” Justin Brown, a former Australian ambassador to the EU, told POLITICO. Even without the war, the countries the EU most wants to sign free trade agreements with — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and India — also warned that the clauses could jeopardize those agreements. Sam McIvor, CEO of New Zealand’s beef and lamb lobby, said the EU should instead push for “comparative standards” rather than perfectly mirrored ones with its trade partners. Since the war, the EU's own standards have noticeably slipped, with the European Commission shelving the announcement of new rules to reduce the use of pesticides for at least two months, and countries such as Spain demanding relaxations of pesticide import rules. When France chaired a meeting of agricultural diplomats this week, not one took the floor to discuss the proposal. Liberal-minded EU countries like the Nordics are likely breathing a sigh of relief.
But the French government and EU farmers haven't given up yet. Paris could yet claim to have made progress if it can broker an agreement later this month on a proposal to root out deforestation from commodity supply chains — but that would concern crops not broadly grown in Europe, such as coffee and cocoa. An official working for the French presidency insisted the mirror clauses will stick around. Liberal countries are wary France could still complicate that agenda by trying to insert mirror clauses in those trade talks. “The exercise on the mirror clauses is not a sprint, it’s long-distance running,” said Pekka Pesonen, the secretary-general of EU farmers’ lobby group Copa & Cogeca. The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
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