Treaties and Tractors: The protests in Europe against free trade agreements, WTO at the root of it all

Peasant organizations demand that free trade agreements that have been opening the doors to unfair competition for years be halted, which materialize in their current problems.

Tractors continue to block the roads, new mobilizations are announced, and the problems that the agricultural sector has put on the table are beginning to dominate the center of political debate and media attention. Among the demands of one side and the other, and among those that the far right wants to co-opt and exploit for its own benefit, there is one that is a well-known issue among many activists and social organizations that did not necessarily have to be part of the agricultural sector: free trade treaties.

As one of their main demands, the three farmers’ associations – Asociación Agraria de Jóvenes Agricultores (ASAJA), Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Agricultores y Ganaderos (COAG) and the Unión de Pequeños Agricultores y Ganaderos (UPA) – have demanded that negotiations for one of the major agreements on the table, the Mercosur agreement with the European Union, be completely halted. This agreement would eliminate barriers and further open trade with Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. They also demand the “non-ratification of the agreement with New Zealand,” which is pending its final ratification by the Parliament of New Zealand and, according to COAG, “opens the door to the importation of meat and milk from the other side of the planet.” Additionally, they also demand that “negotiations with Chile, Kenya, Mexico, India, and Australia” be halted, all of which have been signed by the EU in recent years.

These proclamations are not new, even if it’s when farmers have paralyzed the roads that they have jumped into public debate. Social movements and campaigns against free trade agreements have been warning for years that these trade agreements would have devastating consequences for agriculture, livestock, economies based on these sectors, the planet, and our own bodies. The campaign against the free trade agreement(FTA) between the European Union (EU) and the United States, known as the TTIP, was the focal point of hundreds of social movements, farmers, ranchers, and environmental and human rights defenders across Europe. That FTA was frozen after Trump’s victory, but others like the agreement with Canada, the CETA, and those signed in the following years are now being demanded by farmers’ organizations to be halted and renegotiated. From those free trade agreements, these protests.

The World Trade Organization at the root of it all

To find the roots of the problems that are now flourishing in the form of discontent in the countryside, one needs to point to the beginning of the establishment of international trade rules in this latest era of globalization.

Andoni García, a member of the executive committee of COAG and the coordinating committee of Via Campesina Europe, points to the beginning in the 1992 CAP, “which adapted to the negotiations of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT),” which later evolved into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“That’s where the influence of globalization and the WTO on European agricultural policy begins.” From there, García explains, tariffs began to be reduced or eliminated, as well as tools that protected farmers such as indicative prices for production. “It was decided that regulations had to be eliminated to facilitate international trade, as well as direct aid.”

In Via Campesina, they are clear about it and express it in one of their statements: “The WTO has become a space where the Rule of Might prevails, with a few developed countries determining the course of world trade.” But “when that WTO derails and does not progress – García says – is when these types of bilateral free trade agreements begin to be promoted,” where the EU has played a fundamental role.

Not playing by the same rules

The primary opposition to these types of treaties has always centered on the regulatory differences between the two sides of the agreement. The EU has developed much more advanced legislation and controls than countries in the global south or countries with much more liberal regulatory perspectives such as the United States or Canada. The simple explanation could be summarized as most of these FTAs attempting to align regulations in a negotiation that almost always ends up being downward, euphemistically termed “regulatory cooperation.”

“The FTAs have gone far beyond tariff issues; they have addressed regulatory matters,” explains Lucía Bárcena, from the Transnational Institute and a participant in the campaign against free trade agreements. “The standards and controls that exist in Europe for certain agricultural products are obstacles, and this is where this regulatory cooperation comes in, seeking to eliminate them,” she adds. According to the researcher, these regulatory reductions have led to a liberalization where products that were previously not allowed or subject to much stricter control and quality processes are now reaching our supermarkets and plates.

Regarding controls or the absence thereof, “it goes much further,” says the COAG representative. “In free trade agreements and those of the WTO, the receiving country, in this case, the EU, is obliged to accept as valid the controls carried out in the countries of origin of those products and the certifications issued by companies, with more or fewer public controls.”

As if that were not enough, they also prohibit public administrations from conducting systematic checks at borders. In other words, as recipients, they have to rely on certifications from private companies in other countries, and furthermore, “the rules governing this international trade are not the same as those we have to comply with within the EU,” laments García.

Another major difference in controls, and therefore the costs and time incurred by farmers on both sides of one of these agreements, could be the damage control system. “Europe relies on the guarantee system, meaning you have to prove that you comply with phytosanitary rules and conduct checks throughout the product chain,” says Javier Guzmán, director of the organization Food Justice, which has been pointing out the problems that these FTAs would cause for years, and now they explode in the form of protests and serious difficulties for the agricultural sector.

In contrast, in the United States and other countries, it’s a risk-based system: “I bring it, and if something happens, then I stop it. Furthermore, the state receiving the product must prove that the incident occurred due to the product,” he explains. He provides one of the most notable examples from the battle against the TTIP: chlorinated chicken. “In Europe, chicken production requires checks throughout the chain, it’s quite rigorous, but in the United States, there are no checks during the process; when it reaches the end of the chain, it’s washed with chlorine to clean bacteria, and that’s when the only check is made. When you sign a free trade agreement with a country that does that, you’re accepting that chlorinated chicken reaches your plate.”

If the same rules do not exist, “then unfair competition occurs,” says Montse Cortiñas, deputy general secretary of UPA. They are aware that in terms of labor differences such as wages, they cannot demand much, but they do question “if the CAP policy is very focused on environmental care, as European society demands of us, at least products that are not permitted in Europe should not be used, and those countries should be required to care for the planet as much as we are.” Although she says there are hundreds of examples, she explains one very visual and straightforward: “There are products that are causing deforestation in the Amazon to produce them, and they are being exported to Europe, when here we are required to care for the environment, which is an incredibly cynical exercise.”

(This is an excerpt translated from a feature that appeared on the Spanish portal EL Salto written by Yago Álvarez Barba. The title has been edited for clarity. To read the full article in Spanish click here. ). Cover Image and Title: La Via Campesina