Macron’s election will give EU agricultural protectionism a boost of adrenaline

FILE – French President Emmanuel Macron celebrates with his supporters in Paris, France, Sunday, April 24, 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection has bolstered his standing as a senior player in Europe. Macron is now expected to push for strengthening the 27-nation bloc and throw all his weight behind efforts to end the war in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

Last Sunday, Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election. The closer-than-expected margin of victory doesn’t bode well for Macron’s chances in June, when the country holds parliamentary elections. To win over the left and right, look for Macron to ramp up protectionism against agricultural imports.

Le Pen would have done the same thing. While she recently gave up on “Frexit” and leaving the Euro, Le Pen vowed to exclude agriculture from future European trade deals. Macron took a more subtle approach. He has used France’s presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) to promote so-called “mirror” clauses. These clauses, which Macron argues are needed to level the playing field for French farmers, require that imports of agriculture adhere to EU production process methods (PPMs), notably those inspired by health and safety, social and the environmental policies.

This is seriously provocative stuff. Mirror clauses are not about whether imported foods meet EU health and safety standards. They must. Instead, mirror clauses are about how imported foods are made. French farmers have been hit with big costs as a result of the EU’s “farm-to-fork” and “Green Deal” policies. Macron fears that, unless these same costs are imposed on foreign producers, French farmers will revolt.

Foreign producers aren’t having it. Europe’s trade partners, including the U.S., are pushing back at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The case to watch concerns a proposed EU regulation on veterinary medicines. It would restrict certain antimicrobials for human use, and prevent them from being administered to animals. Brussels is hoping this will reduce microbial resistance. EU deforestation policies, applied to Malaysian palm oil and Peruvian cocoa, for example, are no less heroic.

For domestic political reasons, Macron could push for mirroring on an even broader basis. France has innovated animal husbandry standards, for example. These could easily be applied on a mandatory and extraterritorial basis. Some in Brussels worry about the WTO-legality of mirroring, but Macron sells it as being about “fair trade.”

Macron and his supporters are betting the WTO does not have a firm grasp of PPMs. PPMs have been subject to litigation before, perhaps most famously when Mexico challenged a U.S. dolphin-safe label. Of course, PPMs come in a variety of types, and some are more legally vulnerable than others. Politically, Macron appears to be confident that, with the full weight of the EU backing him up, mirroring will be too big to fail.

There’s a wrinkle. Brussels must placate 27 member countries that differ as much in their ability as their willingness to pay for PPMs. Europe thus writes exceptions that are available to EU members but not foreign countries. As such, they are the Achilles heel of these regulations. The proposal on antimicrobials includes discriminatory exceptions.

Macron’s mirroring will also raise difficult questions about what, if any, science these regulations are based on, and how they match up to global science. Some likely answers may not be well received in France, never mind abroad. Mirroring is also sure to reflect the EU’s emphasis on the provenance, rather than the performance, of its PPMs. This, too, will be a liability at the WTO.

There’s nothing new about EU agricultural protectionism. And there’s nothing new about this protectionism taking the form of nontariff barriers. That said, mirroring is new. It’s overreach on an epic scale, backed by a political narrative that just got a boost of adrenaline from Macron’s election.

Marc L. Busch is the Karl F. Landegger Professor of International Business Diplomacy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @marclbusch.

Tags Emmanuel Macron European Union France French Presidential election Protectionism World Trade Organization WTO

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