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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. The policy was backed by the country’s powerful farm lobby and environmentalists alike, who are concerned about being undercut by cheaply produced foods made with looser environmental restrictions from outside the EU.
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. Instead of making it harder for countries to sell to the EU, the bloc instead flung open its borders to Ukrainian grain and is now scrambling to stabilize global supply chains.
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.
Since the war began, the European Commission, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the G7 have all urged countries not to put up artificial barriers on food trade, and a similar-sounding declaration is expected to be made at a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Geneva next week.
“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.
Trouble at home
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. With momentum fizzling out, France will not produce a set of conclusions agreed on by EU countries, an idea mooted earlier in the year, according to a second EU diplomat. Instead, the EU’s agriculture ministers will only debate a muted Commission report that said there are major legal obstacles to unilaterally revising the global food trading playbook.
Liberal-minded EU countries like the Nordics are likely breathing a sigh of relief. Many countries have been skeptical of the French proposal from the start, arguing it is both illegal and unworkable.
But the French government and EU farmers haven’t given up yet. They’ve got plenty of wins already, with a wide range of new trade defense measures and getting a Frenchman to be the EU’s chief trade enforcer.
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. “It’s a subject that everyone realizes is important and will continue to be talked about,” they said, even as the EU’s free traders and the Commission’s powerful trade department are eyeing the upcoming Council presidencies of the Czech Republic and Sweden to pick up the EU’s free trade agenda again.
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. “We think it will be on the agenda in the upcoming presidencies.”
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