Sweden lacking leadership on market issues for EU agri-food producers

Sweden lacking leadership on market issues for EU agri-food producers

While Sweden launched its six-month EU Council Presidency in January with strong rhetoric on agri-food policy, ensuing action has left much to be desired. After the red flag cancellation of February’s AGRIFISH Council meeting due to there being “not enough on the agenda,” new revelations from the Nordic country bode poorly for its remaining months in Brussels’s hot seat.

Last week, Swedish agriculture minister, Peter Kullgren, gave an interview full of evasive, non-commital language on key agri-food market issues, repeatedly deflecting responsibility to the Commission on policies from the pesticide reduction plan and harmonised Front-of-Package (FOP) food label to the potential triggering of the bloc’s agricultural reserve fund to support farmers harshly affected by ongoing flows of cheaper Ukrainian agricultural exports.

This weak ‘leadership’ on agriculture has attracted the ire of farmers understandably baffled by the idea of their myriad challenges not warranting the Swedish Presidency’s attention. With a range of Brussels policy debates presenting market threats for the bloc’s agri-food producers, Sweden must spring into action.

Irish-Mediterranean alcohol label debacle

The unfolding alcohol labelling debacle presents a good opportunity for Sweden to step up. The Irish Government’s draft regulation requiring health warning labels on alcohol products has kicked the competition hornet’s nest, with the EU’s major wine producers, namely Italy, France and Spain, up in arms over what even Ireland recognises as a direct affront to the bloc’s Single Market. 

Yet the Commission has unfathomably stepped aside, raising no objections after a consultation process on the warning label in late December and subsequently deferring to member states. This decision is particularly bemusing considering the Commission’s approach to tackling cancer – the primary motivation behind Ireland’s proposed label. 

As the EU executive’s spokesperson Eric Mamer recently confirmed, “the Commission’s Beating Cancer plan is about…avoiding harmful alcohol consumption,” yet the blunt, overreaching approach of the Irish Government directly threatens the wine producers of countries such as Italy and Spain, which are models of moderate consumption and whose top spots in global health rankings certainly do not support unestablished links between light wine drinking and risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The latest AGRIFISH Council meeting on 30 January saw an Italy-led Mediterranean coalition formulate a joint document urging Ireland to adopt a more moderate stance avoiding unilateral action that undermines fair competition and flies in the face of Brussel’s clear preference for harmonised food labelling regulation. Meanwhile, the Assembly of European Wine Regions (AREV) has decried the proposal’s threat to “the unity of Europe” and particularly “the wine sector” vital to the “socio-economic fabric of rural areas.”

FOP label on the backburner?

Much like the Irish alcohol label, which the wine industry fears could slash Italy’s export turnover by billions, the harmonised FOP food label under consideration by the Commission could unjustly inflict economic harm on regional farmers of culturally significant agri-food products. The heated FOP debate is facing a dearth of leadership, with the Commission delaying its final proposal late last year to an undetermined date in 2023 and the Swedish Presidency adopting a woefully unassertive position.

The Commission’s move to push back the FOP decision was largely driven by the deep divisions among member-states, with France’s traffic light-based Nutri-Score system by far the most polarising of the options on the table. Once the favourite for EU-wide implementation, boosted by its adoption in heavyweights like France and Germany, Nutri-Score has come under increasing fire in recent months, with the regional farming perspective finding receptive ears with Brussels policymakers, who have ruled it out for the time being.

Parliament-hosted events have given a platform for nutritionists, farmers and regional politicians to highlight Nutri-Score’s negative impact on the competitiveness of local farmers, whose heritage products, including traditional cheeses, cured hams and olive oil, receive misleadingly harsh scores due to the algorithm’s disproportionate focus on salt, sugar and fats content at the expense of broader micronutrients and health benefits. This threat has prompted the Italian Antitrust Authority (AGMC) to ban the Nutri-Score label for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) products.

Given these inadequacies, Sweden should capitalise on its Presidency to definitively put to rest the prospects of Nutri-Score – as well as similar FOPs – for bloc-wide implementation. If MEP Paolo De Castro’s assertion that the FOP proposal has been dropped from the legislative agenda until after the 2024 EU elections proves accurate, this would create time for the potential development of a more effective solution for farmers and consumers.

More disruption for regional culinary heritage 

But even Nutri-Score’s defeat would not end the policy woes facing the EU’s geographical indication (GI)-protected products. Last spring, the Commission launched a proposal to refresh its GI framework, billed as “an evolution,” rather than “a revolution.” 

Given the considerable economic muscle of the bloc’s GIs – including Italy’s Prosciutto di Parma ham, France’s Comté cheese and Portugal’s port wine – which boast a roughly €75 billion sales value, comprise over 15% of total agri-food exports and deliver significant economic benefits for producers, the Commission understandably wants to ensure the policy framework is fit for purpose. 

But GI producers have raised serious concerns over the wisdom of fixing a system that they are well-placed to assure is working perfectly well, particularly if this initiative involves eroding their crucial role in protecting their brands from fraud and empowering EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) bureaucrats with no on-the-ground knowledge or experience.

The misguided GI facelift has joined Brussels’ food policy Purgatory in recent months, but Sweden’s agriculture minister, Peter Kullgren, has recently said that he expects an EU Council position in the spring, which would tee up final negotiations with the Parliament. Time will tell if the Swedish Presidency seizes this opportunity to deliver on its agri-food commitments.

With European agricultural producers facing a series of competition challenges after a year of soaring energy and input costs, Brussels cannot afford complacent leadership. Sweden’s EU Council Presidency has disappointed on the farming front, but it still has four months to make up for lost, rapidly waning time and help steer ongoing agri-food policy proposals in the right direction for farmers and the Single Market.

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