At the end of January, Jordan Bardella took a TGV from Paris to a farm in the Médoc. He took journalists with him. Put on wellies, pet the cows, shoot evening news next to a bale of hay, and head back to Paris. Bardella is the young party leader of Marine Le Pen’s radical right-wing Rassemblement National for the European elections in June.
He is high in the polls. Farmers’ protests are a godsend for him. During such lightning visits he scolds:bucket doors professionnels” – professional whiners – who keep issuing complicated standards for climate, animal welfare or food safety, but never leave their Brussels offices to see what they are doing. “You would think that those people don’t want agriculture or fishing at all!”
Because it is not only Bardella who spouts this kind of nonsense, but also his radical and extreme right friends elsewhere in Europe, it might be a good idea to clarify a few things. First of all: one third of the European budget goes to agriculture, while the agricultural sector accounts for 1.4 percent of GDP. Of all EU countries, France receives the most: one sixth. And guess who benefits most from that? Large farms. Because the more hectares you have, the more you get. 20 percent of farmers receive 80 percent of the subsidies. No wonder the number of small farmers is declining.
The largest customer of European agricultural funds is agribusiness. Bardella and co pretend to support a forgotten, impoverished class that has no choice but to throw shit on the streets and ram police cars with tractors, but that’s only a fraction of the story. The farmers’ protests in France, Germany, Belgium and elsewhere are more a well-timed tantrum of a privileged farming class than the desperate cry for help of small farmers who know every cow by name and at dark at the kitchen table are drowning in Brussels papers about pesticides or eco-hedges. There are hardly any smallholder farmers anymore. And the majority are not in Western Europe, but in countries such as Romania. And as far as those papers are concerned: why is it bad that you tightly monitor business people who receive a lot of money?
Brussels officials know this of course. And they hate it. If you want to hear harsh criticism of European agricultural policy anywhere in Europe, you have to go to Brussels. Every time the European budget for seven years has to be negotiated, these ‘whiners’ make proposals to give less agricultural funds to agribusiness and more to small farmers who do need it (and to others who are barely making ends meet due to ‘market forces’, such as nurses or teachers). But such reforms never happen.
Criticism of the EU’s agricultural policy is being heard in Brussels in particular
Why not? Because the Member States decide the budget, not European officials. And national leaders are all under pressure from the agri lobby. They know: if I tell large farmers the truth – namely that you cannot both benefit from the free agricultural market and hold your hand at the government when things go wrong – they will vote for Bardella next time. And not only them, but also many citizens who do not know what is going on and fall for Bardella’s bullshit arguments about elite versus poor farmers, and city versus countryside (the farmer’s union leader in France himself has around 700 hectares).
Even President Macron, who knows better but is sweating for the elections in June, abused the European summit this week to force ‘Brussels’ to give farmers transitional arrangements on climate rules.
When the European agricultural policy was set up in 1962, farmers were paid to produce. People had to eat, it was that simple. After a while there was so much subsidized food that farmers were paid not to produce or to sell surpluses in Africa. Nowadays we have a different system: the market regulates production, but farmers receive a subsidy per hectare. Result: the agrilobby has politics by the throat and drives voters into the arms of the radical right. The small farmer is in trouble. European agricultural policy needs to be overhauled, and now.
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