European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s decision to withdraw a proposal that would have forced farmers to drastically reduce their reliance on chemical pesticides marks an abrupt end to Belgium’s attempt to recast the legislation as a tool to promote greener alternatives.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s decision to withdraw her administration’s proposal to halve chemical pesticides across the EU came as a surprise to member states, whose delegates were discussing this week a Belgian suggestion to abandon the main objective but replace it with a greater focus on alternative ways of crop protection.
Von der Leyen’s decision to torpedo the bill – announced today (6 February) in the European Parliament amidst the applause of the centre-right EPP group, his former political headquarters – had already been taken the day before, while an unaware working group intergovernmental body was discussing Belgium’s compromise proposal. The current EU Council President was trying to keep the proposed Regulation on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) afloat, despite its rejection in November by the European Parliament.
Now he has thrown in the towel. A Belgian diplomatic source confirmed that the presidency was unaware of the intentions of von der Leyen’s cabinet until he delivered his speech to a largely empty debating hall in Strasbourg. An official from another EU national delegation told Euronews, with hindsight, that the Commission representative had been “suspiciously silent” during yesterday’s (5 January) meeting.
The substance of the closed-door discussion in Brussels was a compromise proposal dated January 28, in which Belgium eliminated the controversial target of halving the “use and risk” of chemical pesticides. This objective first appeared in the “farm to fork” strategy presented by the new commission in 2020, together with a biodiversity strategy aimed at halting ecosystem decline, including a dramatic decline in populations of bees and other pollinators that has been linked to pesticide use.
Belgium instead sought to reformulate the draft law as a complement to the existing EU directive on the sustainable use of pesticides dating back to 2009. Its idea was to broaden the provisions on integrated pest management (IPM), which covers a range of techniques designed to reduce the need for chemical pesticides, ranging from netting and weeding to the introduction of beneficial insects.
But although Belgium still saw the potential for “added value” in a new regulation, many EU member states had already concluded – after rejection by a European Parliament whose approval would be required for any legislation drawn up between the governments, and amid contentious protests across Europe by farmers angered in part by Brussels’ environmental policy – that, as two diplomats separately put it, “the dossier was already dead”.
Although it was evidently moribund, the decision to withdraw the proposal – which is expected to gain consent from the bloc’s 27 commissioners in the coming weeks – has spooked environmental groups, who fear that von der Leyen’s Green Deal is crumbling in a conservative context. and the populist reaction ahead of the European elections in June.
“Pesticide pollution is a huge problem that needs to be addressed,” said Martin Dermine, director of Pesticide Action Network Europe and coordinator of an EU citizen’s petition which has gathered over a million signatures in favor of tough rules to reduce the use of pesticides. “It pollutes our waters, harms our health and destroys the biodiversity we depend on. It destroys fertile soil and, in the long term, endangers food production.”
Nor are green groups the only ones upset by the failure of the political effort to reduce pesticide use. Water companies, represented by trade association EurEau, see the removal of chemicals polluting lakes and rivers as a costly step in purifying drinking water. However, the group saw little prospect for a “new proposal with a much more mature content”, as suggested by von der Leyen. “Given the current political climate it seems rather unlikely that a new proposal will substantially improve the protection of drinking water resources,” it said in a statement.
The European Parliament will hold the final EU vote on 26 February on a nature restoration law, designed to implement the biodiversity strategy and seen by environmentalists as another crucial element of the Green Deal legislation which, so far, has survived for a hair on the opposition of the great European People’s Party and its allies. Center-right group leader Manfred Weber thanked von der Leyen for scrapping the pesticide proposal, which he said would have entailed all sorts of “irrational bureaucracy” for farmers.
Also on February 26, agriculture ministers will gather in Brussels for an EU Council summit where von der Leyen promised an update on how the Commission plans to address farmers’ concerns.