The EU’s great green retreat benefits the far right. For the rest of us, it’s a looming disaster | Arthur Neslen

The EU’s great green deal cave-in has been nothing less than spectacular. As aggressive lobbying and violent farmers protests ramped up in the last year, Brussels has killed plans to cut pesticide use by half, to green farming practices, to ban toxic “forever” chemicals, to rein in livestock emissions and, last week, to restore nature to 20% of Europe’s land and seas.

The aim may have been to create breathing space. Predictably, that hasn’t worked. The bloc’s anti-deforestation regulation seems likely to be the next green reform for the chop, with 20 agriculture ministers reportedly calling for it to be pared back and suspended on Monday, citing “administrative burdens”.

Why is this happening? It is clear that centre-right parties fear an expected far-right insurgency in June’s parliamentary elections. But veteran observers also see a strategic bid to set a “brown” agenda for the next European Commission, in the same way that the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion youth protests in 2018 set a green agenda for the current one.

The difference, says Pieter de Pous, of the independent climate-change thinktank E3G, is that “unlike with the school strikes, the commission and EU ministers didn’t even wait for the election results to come in this time. They just rolled over pre-emptively”.

If they keep rolling, the next victims may be the world’s forests.

Farmers’ protest in Berlin, 22 March. Photograph: Renato Franco Bueno/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

That would be a global gamechanger, because the EU’s deforestation law is a green jewel in European commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen’s crown that has garnered praise and inspired imitations beyond the EU. It introduces traceability requirements on commodities such as beef, soy, coffee and cocoa in deforestation hotspots – and bans on products whose origins cannot be verified. EU consumption of these commodities has caused about 10% of global forest loss.

Europe’s agriculture ministers argue that small farmers in the bloc should not be bound by the same forest protection rules that apply in the Amazon or Congo basin. But exempting them would raise questions, such as how can the commission legally ban deforestation-linked products from abroad while allowing them at home? Why should other countries respect demands for forest protection that Europe itself flouts? And how can we protect our remaining old-growth forests from the same industrial interests destroying them abroad?

Crucially, if the commission decides to throw this key measure to the chainsaws, what will be left of its green deal by 2030? Not much, beyond emissions cuts. “Von der Leyen risks obliterating her last remaining achievement on land use over the last five years,” Julia Christian of the forest conservation group Fern tells me. “There is already almost nothing left of the green deal.”

The narrative impulse for the EU’s fade to brown has been “farmers with pitchforks”. But farmers’ demands have been many and various, and typically centred on three grievances: a financial squeeze caused by fixed low retail pricing for their products, high input prices turbocharged by commodity speculation around the Ukraine war, and fears that the trade deal between the EU and South America’s Mercosur bloc will increase imports from countries with lower environmental and animal health standards.

Farmers’ protest in Madrid, 17 March. Photograph: Sergio Pérez/EPA

Yet while the TV cameras focus on flames and manure in the streets in Europe, but the policymakers focus on demands from the biggest agribusiness trade associations. Just last week, more than 20 of them submitted a joint letter warning of “serious disruptions in all commodity supply chains” to Europe unless “red tape” and “administrative burden” are removed from the deforestation law.

It is this duality in the farmers’ high-profile campaign that has led agricultural unions representing rural workers and many small farmers to boycott it, arguing that farmers are being used by big, self-interested landowners to bring down the green deal.

And they just might. Von der Leyen recently responded to the protests by inviting the farm owners’ union Copa Cogeca to a meeting, after which she pledged to cut the “administrative burdens” and promptly ripped up remainders of the supposedly greened common agricultural policy (CAP) initiated just two years earlier.

Such retreats risk deepening the accelerating rural crisis, as climate chaos buffets farmers with early frosts, floods, droughts, heatwaves, fires and soil erosion.

Agriculture also makes up about 10% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, and freeing farmers from the “burden” of reducing these now just stores up greater burdens down the line.

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As the smaller unions point out, the real beneficiaries of the EU’s regulatory “brown-outs” will be the 20% of large industrial farms that reap 80% of the CAP’s €387bn budget, while nearly one in five farmers live in poverty in countries like France.

EC president Ursula von der Leyen at the Green Deal Summit, 26 September 2023, in Prague, Czech Republic. Photograph: Michal Čížek/AFP/Getty Images

The lesson here should be that evading the redistributive obligations of a just transition creates constituencies for a backlash. Instead, the commission is genuflecting to the “backslides cover backsides” principle.

It doesn’t have to be like this. On the same day that agriculture ministers rounded on the deforestation law, a group of NGOs led by Oxfam proposed a ban on retailers purchasing farm produce at prices below production costs.

The EU could also clamp down on commodity speculation with better market monitoring, price controls on futures markets, and an excess profits tax for commodity index funds and other derivates trades.

By walking away from the EU-Mercosur trade agreement too, as French president Emmanuel Macron suggested last week, it could create the basis for a rural pact that protects the green deal and begins to break the stranglehold that Europe’s big landowners have on agriculture policy.

The facts are clear: a policy cave-in to Europe’s farmopoly at the expense of our common future is a bad choice, not a political necessity. By pandering to the arguments of the far-right populists that it ostensibly opposes, the commission is not satisfying them or progressing its own agenda: as research shows, it is merely sowing the seeds of greater future catastrophes.

The Guardian