EU Must Stand Firm in Trade Stalemate to Level up Environmental Norms

EU Must Stand Firm in Trade Stalemate to Level up Environmental Norms

Brazil has lashed out at European plans to ban certain kinds of agricultural imports—including beef, soy, palm oil and coffee—which were produced on deforested land, with Brasilia slamming the measures as “myopia” and “trade protectionism”. While it’s undeniable that European farmers are disadvantaged by being required to uphold European environmental codes which products imported from outside the bloc do not necessarily conform to, the EU’s actions aren’t borne out of mercenary isolationism but rather the need to ensure that the EU’s high standards on issues like environmental protection and animal welfare are reflected in the bloc’s trading partners.

These so-called “mirror clauses” and other associated trade measures are part of a broader pattern of policies aimed at bringing other nations into line with the EU’s commitments to uphold high environmental standards.

Seeing the forest for the trees

The regulation proposed by the EU, centred around the goal of imposing the same principles on third parties importing their products into the EU as member states must meet, would prohibit the import of half a dozen products cultivated on land that has been degraded or deforested since 2020. Given that those six commodities comprise almost a fifth (19%) of all imports into the bloc, it would represent quite a sea change for the market. Brazilian beef is likely to be particularly affected; as much as 40% of beef arriving into the EU comes from that country, while approximately half of Brazilian cattle has been linked to farms that practice deforestation.

Little wonder, then, that the Brazilian government is incensed at the prospect of such a rule coming into force. The country’s Foreign Minister branded it “myopic” and claimed it was a thinly veiled attempt for France, in particular, to promote its own interests over those of Brazil. Paris is certainly supportive of the proposed measures—the French agriculture minister has argued that the measures are designed to create “a level playing field with regard to what enters the European market” and prevent distortions of competition. As a result, enacting the regulation is one of the key priorities of the French presidency of the EU Council.

Indeed, given that destruction of the Brazilian part of the Amazon rainforest reached a 15-year high in July, Brasilia’s complaints are likely inspired less by legitimate complaints about EU protectionism and more about a fear that Brazil will miss out on lucrative exports.

Leading by example, losing by exchange

In fact, deforestation is just one of many areas where the rigorous standards upheld in Europe are hamstringing farmers in comparison to their counterparts in other countries where legislation is looser. In many parts of the world, there are limited or no regulations on the administration of antibiotics as a means of promoting growth, the use of bonemeal as livestock feed, animal welfare benchmarks and traceability of cattle from birth to slaughterhouse.

This puts European farmers, who must contend with the weight of all those well-founded restrictions, at a serious disadvantage. According to data collated and published by the French Institute for Statistics (INSEE), 20% of all French farmers were incapable of earning enough money to feed their families between 2017 and 2020. For cattle farmers, the situation is particularly challenging. Given that France has one of the highest costs of living of any European nation, it’s unsurprising that the industry is losing some 2,000 cattle farmers every year.

Nothing new in the WTO

Nonetheless, suggesting that French or European efforts to standardise their own criteria across the globe is an underhanded technique exclusively aimed at promoting their economic interests is off the mark. It is rather the desire to prioritise sustainability and ensure that all goods sold in the internal market conform to the same high environmental principles that is the driving force behind the regulations.

“Mirror measures, such as Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) or Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), are not new and are routinely implemented by WTO Members”, an international trade specialist and lawyer told European Views in a recent interview. “Mirror clauses cover a variety of measures, governed by different WTO agreements, including the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), SPS or the TBT Agreement. Depending on the applicable agreement, the non-discrimination requirement is not the only obligation a measure must comply with. For example, in some instances, the measure at hand, even if non-discriminatory, must not be more trade-restrictive than necessary, based on scientific evidence.”

The TBT and GATT are both applicable to environmental protection and thus, broadly speaking relevant to the EU’s anti-deforestation law. Other experts have also argued that there is precedent for safeguarding animal welfare via the mirror clauses in the EU’s current restrictions on seal skin imports.

The carbon border adjustment mechanism is another example of a WTO-compliant policy that has equality and environmentalism, rather than self-interest and discrimination, at its heart. Essentially, as long as the EU abides by its own rules, it’s well within its rights to set the bar for others to clear wherever it wishes.

EU taking charge

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), global production, consumption and trade were responsible for as much as a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. The relatively disappointing progress made at COP26 shows that it must now fall to individual countries to take the lead on climate control and, if necessary, force the heel-draggers into upping their own commitments. With nearly half a billion consumers within its borders and comparatively high incomes contributing to its economies, the EU has the substantial commercial heft to be that party.

For that reason, the French presidency of the bloc, which kicked off on January 1st, 2022, is likely to be a good thing in environmental terms. Introduction of mirror clauses may anger those countries who are reluctant to pull their weight ecologically, but it’s clear that they have no moral leg to stand on. Like it or not, Brazil (and its climate sceptic counterparts) will perhaps be forced to finally address their torrid record on deforestation, animal welfare and other sustainability issues, once and for all.

Image credit: nick v/Flickr

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