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 pesticide across the EU came as a surprise to its member states, whose delegates were discussing this week a Belgian suggestion to abandon the headline target but replace it with an increased focus on alternative ways of protecting crops.
Von der Leyen’s decision to torpedo the bill – announced today (6 February) in the European parliament to applause from the centre-right EPP group, her former political home – had already been taken the previous day, while an unknowing inter-governmental working party was discussing Belgium’s compromise proposal. The current EU Council presidency holder was trying to keep the proposed Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation (SUR) afloat despite its rejection in November by the European Parliament.
It has now thrown in the towel. A Belgian diplomatic source confirmed that the presidency had been unaware of the intentions of von der Leyen’s cabinet until she made her speech to a largely empty debating chamber in Strasbourg. An official from another EU national delegation told Euronews, with the benefit of hindsight, that the commission representative had been “suspiciously quiet” during yesterday’s (5 January) meeting.
The substance of the discussion behind closed doors in Brussels was a compromise proposal dated 28 January, in which Belgium had struck out the contentious goal of halving the “use and risk” of chemical pesticides. That target first appeared in the farm-to-fork strategy the newly-installed commission presented in 2020 alongside a biodiversity strategy aimed at halting ecosystem decline, including a drastic fall in populations of bees and other pollinators that has been linked to pesticide use.
Instead, Belgium sought to recast the draft legislation as a complement to an existing EU directive on sustainable pesticide use dating from 2009. Its idea was to broaden 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 potential for “added value” in a new regulation, many EU member states had already concluded – after the rejection by a European Parliament whose approval would be needed for any legislation hammered out between governments, and amid confrontational protests across Europe by farmers angered in part by environmental policy from Brussels – that, as two diplomats separately put it, “the file was already dead”.
Although it was evidently moribund, the decision to withdraw the proposal – which is expected to be given the assent of the bloc’s 27 commissioners in the coming weeks – has spooked environmental groups, who fear that von der Leyen’s flagship Green Deal is crumbling amid a conservative and populist backlash in the run-up the EU elections in June.
“Pesticide pollution is a huge problem that has to be tackled,” said Martin Dermine, director of Pesticide Action Network Europe and coordinator of an EU citizen’s petition that gathered over a million signatures in favour tough rules to cut down on pesticide use. “It pollutes our waters, harms our health and destroys the biodiversity that we depend on. It destroys fertile soil and endangers food production in the long run.”
Nor are green groups the only ones upset at the failure of a political effort to reduce pesticide use. Water companies, represented by the trade association EurEau, see the removal of chemicals that pollute lakes and rivers as an expensive step in the purification of drinking water. However the group saw little prospect of a “new proposal with 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 is due to hold on 26 February the EU’s final vote on a Nature Restoration Law, designed to implement the biodiversity strategy and seen by conservationists as another crucial piece of Green Deal legislation that has, so far, narrowly survived the opposition of the large European People’s Party and its allies. The centre-right group’s leader Manfred Weber thanked von der Leyen for scrapping the pesticide proposal, which he told her would have meant all kinds of “irrational bureaucracy” for farmers.
Also on 26 February, agriculture ministers are due to gather in Brussels for an EU Council summit where von der Leyen has promised an update on how the Commission plans to address farmers’ concerns.