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European Commission failing farmers on cheap imports, says key Macron ally

Julien Denormandie has written a book where he forewarns of a brewing farmers' revolt
Julien Denormandie has written a book where he forewarns of a brewing farmers' revolt - AURELIEN MEUNIER/GETTY

The European Commission is failing farmers by dragging its feet on imposing the same environmental norms on foreign imports as it does on the continent, France’s ex-agriculture minister has warned.

France receives about €10 billion in subsidies per year through the Common Agricultural Policy and has enough farmland to be self-sufficient.

Yet it imports cheap Chinese black wheat to make its famed Breton galettes, Canadian seeds treated with pesticides banned in the EU to make Dijon mustard, and huge quantities of Brazilian chicken full of antibiotics that are off-limits for European poultry farmers.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Julien Denormandie, one of Emmanuel Macron’s closest allies, said that while he was staunchly pro-European, this sort of contradiction meant he “totally understood” the farmers’ revolts that have roiled France and other European countries in recent months.

The EU’s draconian agriculture standards only worked if they were also applied to foreign imports, he said, adding that the European Commission had rebuffed his efforts while in government to introduce so-called “mirror clauses”.

His remarks echoed those of British farmers who last week descended on Westminster with 150 tractors to vent fury at the government for allowing cheap imports produced using chemicals and methods that are banned in the UK.

Mr Denormandie, 43, was among Mr Macron’s first devoted supporters when he ran for president in 2017 and became a respected agriculture minister from 2019-22.

Faced with the Commission’s obstinance over banning Brazilian poultry injected with “growth” antibiotics – only allowed to treat sick animals in the EU – he used a decree to ban such meat anyway in France.

Farmers' revolts have roiled France and other European countries in recent months
Farmers' revolts have roiled France and other European countries in recent months - JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP

He also tried to push the commission to measure the expected impact on farmers of its Green Deal to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, an issue that became a major bone of contention for farmers in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

The emissions targets “led to a reduction in European agriculture production of between 7 to 15 per cent, a rise in food prices and imports”, he said.

He complained that while the EU is very good at setting targets in terms of protecting the environment when it comes to creating “production targets in terms of cereals, proteins, we don’t have any”.

“Once we’ve set these two objectives, the question is how do we get there? This vision is missing,” he said.

He left politics to join a carbon data start-up called Sweep in 2022.

He has since written a book where he forewarned of a brewing farmers’ revolt in a chapter called “Le monde à l’envers” – the world’s turned upside down – which later became a farmers’ rallying cry.

Farming is seen as a key topic in upcoming European Parliament elections in which the hard-Right National Rally is currently polling to beat the Macron camp.

Gabriel Attal, the French prime minister, even rang him for “advice” on how to quell the French farmers blockading Paris.

“The sources of the revolt are complex,” he said.

“A decent income is a top priority. A terrible mistake was made in France 20 years ago, which consisted in totally liberalising what is known as the food chain, namely the relationship between farmers, manufacturers and supermarkets, by giving supermarkets full powers to drive prices down.

“In doing so, they drove farmers’ incomes down.”

The EU went some way to answering farmers' complaints by loosening controls on farms and watering down environmental constraints
The EU went some way to answering farmers' complaints by loosening controls on farms and watering down environmental constraints - MATTEO CORNER/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

The European Commission hasn’t properly addressed this problem, he said.

Second, farmers want recognition. “In one scene in the book, an old farmer, told us: ‘You know, 40 years ago, when I was driving my tractor along the same road I’m on today, people would raise their hands to say hello, but now people honk their horns to tell me to get out of the way.”

Last week, the EU went some way to answering farmers’ complaints by loosening controls on farms and watering down pesticide and environmental constraints, such as the obligation to keep 4 per cent of farmland fallow.

Mr Denormandie was sceptical about what the opposition National Rally could realistically offer to farmers to improve their situation.

“It’s always easier to say, as populists do, we’re going to destroy everything with simplistic lies than to build through creative efforts,” said Mr Denormandie.

Like Mr Macron, he also pointed to the “deep-rooted collusion between the French far-Right and a Russian regime that invaded Ukraine and kills its opponents”.

Beyond Marine Le Pen’s longstanding proximity to Vladimir Putin and her party’s loan to a bank with links from the Kremlin, he pointed to her party’s refusal to vote in the European Parliament on a resolution denouncing the conditions in which Alexei Navalny was detained a year before his death.

‘Food as a weapon’

Mr Denormandie warned that Russia was using “food as a weapon” and outplaying the West with wheat warfare.

Russia and Ukraine combined represent 30 per cent of global wheat exports and 80 per cent of sunflower seed products, while Russia is one of the world’s biggest fertiliser exporters.

“For years even as it was arming itself, Russia increased its production from 35 million tons of wheat in 2000 to 90 million today and is showering numerous countries with its wheat (Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Senegal),” he writes in his book.

“Before launching his tanks, [Vladimir] Putin sharpened his weapon of wheat.”

As proof, he cites Russian exports to Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer.

About a decade ago, the West accounted for 70 per cent of Egyptian wheat imports but by the time Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, 60 per cent of Egyptian imports came from Russia.

“The ogre has sunk its fangs into [the] Egyptian stomach,” he writes. “So it is hardly surprising that in July 2022, barely four months after the start of the war, Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, was welcomed in Egypt for talks on wheat deliveries.”

Ukraine’s dogged decision to plough ahead with wheat production and exports was not just about feeding its population and keeping its economy afloat but “because it knows that if it doesn’t, the Russian ogre will happily do so in its place”.