EU agri ministers push for more power in environmental matters

Agriculture ministers from 16 EU countries have demanded more of a say, relative to environmental ministers, on sustainable measures that have ramifications for the farming sector.

The push came in the form of a letter drafted by Austrian agriculture minister Norbert Totschnig and signed by ministers from 15 other countries, including Italy, Poland, Greece, and Czechia, which they sent to the Swedish presidency of the Council of Ministers on Friday (27 January).

“Currently, we are witnessing a disproportionate shift of priorities, lacking the required coherence and equivalence between different but legitimate Union objectives,” the letter, seen by EURACTIV, reads.

According to the 16 ministers, a number of recent and upcoming EU legislative proposals on environmental matters directly affect the agriculture or forestry sector. With environmental ministers firmly in the lead, the ministers fear agricultural concerns and the objective of food security could fall by the wayside.

“At the moment, we have a situation where decisions and topics that affect agriculture are discussed in various EU Council formations, but in the end are decided without the farming and forestry expertise,” Totschnig told reporters ahead of the agriculture ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Monday.

In addition to the 16 signatories, several more delegations also came out in favour of this argument during the meeting, including Spain and Estonia.

Since oftentimes goals set out in environmental legislation for the agricultural sector need to be implemented via the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Spanish minister Luis Planas instead suggested such laws should be discussed by joint groups of environment and farming specialists.

Competence on soils, land use

Specifically, the letter calls on the Swedish presidency to “initiate a legal review of competence” on recent and upcoming European Commission proposals on “soil, agricultural and forest land” with a view to a “stronger involvement” of the agriculture ministers’ council and its preparatory bodies.

This includes the Commission’s upcoming proposal for a soil health law, expected summer of this year, as well as the restoration targets proposed by the EU executive in its Nature Restoration Law.

The letter also refers to the issue of carbon farming in the context of the Commission’s recent communication on carbon removals.

While the Council of Ministers – including all formations from different policy areas – forms one unified EU institution, one formation usually leads the work on any specific legislative project.

Which ministers this will be for a given proposal is decided by the Council Presidency – in this case, Sweden – with the assistance of the Council’s General Secretariat.

Apart from shifting which ministers are put in charge altogether, the letter also proposes that an ad-hoc working group of experts from the agriculture departments should be established in order to feed into and scrutinise environment ministers’ work on the issues in question.

The push for strengthening farming voices vis-à-vis environmental ones comes amid ongoing debates on whether to prioritise environmental ambitions versus food security concerns, especially against the backdrop of the Ukraine war with its impact on global food markets.

“We are committed to the Green Deal, and we are not trying to attack EU climate and environmental goals, but this must go hand in hand with the goal of ensuring food security in Europe,” Totschnig stressed.

An issue of inter-ministry relations?

German minister Cem Özdemir explained his decision not to sign the letter.

“We do not have the same problem: the environment minister and me get along fantastically well,” he said, adding he was happy to advise other countries on how to strengthen cooperation between the ministries.

However, Özdemir, who, like environment minister Steffi Lemke comes from the Green party, acknowledged that this might be more difficult in countries where the two ministries are held by different parties.

Indeed, Austria’s Toschnig is a conservative while the country’s environment minister, Leonore Gewessler, is a Green.

According to Austrian media reports, Gewessler had not been informed of Totschnig’s letter ahead of time, and the push was criticised by Austrian Green MEP Thomas Waitz.

“This letter is an affront and would be a disaster in the efforts to save the Green Deal and stop the climate and biodiversity crisis,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Totschnig also promised to raise the issue of increasing the involvement of agriculture ministers during a meeting on Monday with the EU Budget and Administration Commissioner, the Austrian Johannes Hahn.

However, Hahn’s area of responsibility is linked neither directly linked to farming nor to the environment, and EU Commissioners are tasked with representing their policy area, rather than their home country.


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