Europe’s latest magic trick: turning farmers into villains…

Like a classic Panto villain (and in season, too!) an army of ‘evil, greedy European farmers’ comes crawling out of the woodwork, to thwart all the EU’s honest, well-intentioned plans…

Remember that time – almost exactly 20 years ago, to the day – when Malta became one of the first countries in the world to introduce a ban on ‘smoking in public places’?

Well, I do… partly because I happened to be a cartoonist for the Malta Independent, at the time (not a very good one, perhaps; but there you go) and I distinctly remember, if not actually ‘drawing’ a cartoon about the 2004 smoking ban… at least, mapping one out in my head.

This is what it would have looked like, had I possessed the artistic talent to actually commit the damn thing to paper (instead of merely filing it away in my memory banks somewhere, under the heading: ‘Unfinished Work’).

In the foreground, we see a man being booked by a warden, for ‘smoking a cigarette while seated at a cafeteria table’ (with the warden tut-tutting something like: ‘Don’t you know that smoking is not only bad for your health; but also, bad for the environment?!”)

And in the background…  well, if you’re old enough to remember Malta in 2004, you can probably fill out the details for yourself.

Thick plumes of black smoke, emanating from the twin smokestacks of the Delimara power station – then still running on fuel-oil – and the obsolete plant at Marsa (then still fully operational, in all its foul-smelling, sulphuric glory).

A permanent cloud of smog, rising from the thousands upon thousands of motor-vehicles – cars, lorries, vans, trucks – that steadily belch out exhaust fumes on our streets, 24 hours a day.

Not to mention the Maghtab landfill, of course: which, at the time, was suspected of leaching toxic (possibly, even radio-active) substances into our aquifers…

In any case, you get the point. There were (and still are) a heck of a lot of other things, in Malta, that were more far ‘harmful to our health, and the environment’, than the mere effects of ‘passive cigarette-smoking’.

Yet government chose to clamp down only on the latter… while simultaneously disregarding all the other, more serious environmental hazards (if not actually encouraging them: like we did, and still do, with cars…)

And in so doing, government also achieved a couple of teeny-weenie little advantages, for itself. For instance, the 2004 smoking ban allowed the Maltese government to create the instant illusion that it really DID care about ‘our health’, and ‘the environment’… when, quite frankly, it never lifted so much as the tiniest of fingers, to address any of the real threats to either.

More importantly, however: this strategy allowed for the creation of a whole new category of Public-Enemy-Number-One – ‘the cigarette-smoker’ – who could be conveniently blamed for pretty much ALL the government’s own failings, when it came to ‘safeguarding public health’.

Ingenious, huh? Small wonder, then, that the same, ultra-successful strategy would be resuscitated today… only not just by the government of Malta, this time; but by the entirety of the European Union (including, I am sorry to say, the majority of the European press).

Take, for instance the ongoing farmers’ protests, currently raging in various parts of the EU. For some weeks now, international press reports have come complete with little ‘explainers’, which helpfully answer such basic questions as, erm… ‘What the heck are farmers even protesting about, to begin with?’

This one is from Time Magazine (but pretty much all the others, from BBC to Euronews, frame it exactly the same way):

“Currently, the farming sector accounts for 11% of the E.U.’s greenhouse gas emissions, which the EU hopes to curb by revamping its existing Common Agricultural Policy, a yearly subsidy system worth nearly $60 billion. The new policies, which are part of the European green deal that aims to make the bloc climate-neutral by 2050, would include an obligation for farmers to devote at least 4% of arable land to non-productive features. They must also carry out crop rotations and reduce fertilizer use by at least 20%.

“But many farmers argue these measures will make the European agricultural sector less competitive against imports. On Thursday, farmers union representatives told reporters they were ‘fed up in general’ with ‘too much administration’ and rules telling them how they should farm.”

Got that, folks? So according to nearly all Europe’s mainstream media, the EU – which, as we all know, always represents ‘The Greater Good of All Mankind’ – is valiantly trying to protect our vulnerable planet, from the harmful effects of Climate Change….

… but lo and behold! Like a classic Panto villain (and in season, too!) an army of ‘evil, greedy European farmers’ comes crawling out of the woodwork, to thwart all the EU’s honest, well-intentioned plans… and so selfish are these new-fangled ‘villains’, that they refuse to relinquish even the tiniest portion of their own farmland – a mere 4%, for crying out loud! – to ‘foster European biodiversity’.

And all the while, naturally, they have to be reminded (by the European media, please note) of just how ‘good’ the eternally-benevolent EU has always been to them, in the past - how it showered their sector with subsidies running into 60 billion euros, no less! – only to be repaid for their generosity, with this unsightly, undignified ‘public display of rank ingratitude’…

All of which, I am the first to admit, makes for very satisfactory, melodramatic narrative – if nothing else, because the ‘bad guys’ are so easily identifiable, by their aggression and ‘rough country manners’ (the equivalent of ‘eye-masks’ and ‘bags of swag’, from the old Batman cartoons…)

But like all classic superhero stories, this one turns out to be kind of, um… how can I put it? … WRONG.

Right, let’s get a couple of things out of the way first. The real reasons why European farmers are so irate, at the moment, are – as their Maltese counterparts put it, during their own display of ingratitude last Friday – ‘many and various’.

In the East of Europe, the concern appears to primarily be ‘imports from Ukraine’: which has been allowed to flood European markets with its own (much cheaper) produce, as compensation for the loss of so many other markets (mostly, in Africa) as a result of the Russian invasion.

In the West, however – especially, in France – the main cause for complaint is that the EU is currently in the process of finalising an international trade deal (focusing mostly on agricultural imports) with the ‘Mercorsur’ bloc in South America: a trade zone featuring almost all that continent’s (rather sizeable) countries.

Among many other things, we are told that: “For Mercosur the planned deal will eliminate 93% of tariffs to the EU and grant ‘preferential treatment’ for the remaining 7%. The deal will allow increased access to the European market for Mercosur's agricultural goods, notably beef, poultry, sugar and ethanol.”

And this is where most – if not all – of the current grievances actually stem from. For while European farmers have to abide by strict standardisation practices, mandated by the EU – including, but not limited to, the amount of pesticide used in crop-cultivation – South American farmers have none (or very few) of these obstacles to contend with.

So while European farmers are expected to lower their own pesticide usage (to stick with that example, for now) to 20%... the EU is negotiating a deal that would allow countries like Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Columbia to flood the European market with produce that has possibly been cultivated using much MORE pesticide, than that.

And that’s just one aspect of the deal. Another is the issue known in European circles as ‘carbon mileage’: best explained by this excerpt from an interview with representatives of the ‘Kooperativa Rurali Manikata’ (Mario Cardona and Malcolm Borg) in September, 2019:

“Ever since we joined the EU, the market for local agriculture has become very precarious […] Because if you want to influence, say, the price of ‘qarghabaghli’; all you have to do is go to Sicily, flood the local market with Sicilian ‘qarghabaghli’, and… from one day to the next, the price plummets.

“Now: it is also true that the consumer has benefitted from this, in terms of more variety, and better prices… but it all comes at an environmental cost. The further away you import your fruit and veg from, the more transport is involved in getting them here: and that means more carbon miles.”

More ‘carbon miles’, naturally, means ‘more CO2 pumped into the atmosphere’: this time, by the thousands upon thousands of ‘trains, planes, automobiles, and cargo-freighters’ that would have to be involved, in transporting all that South American produce, all those thousands of miles, to Europe.

And all for what? To replace a steady source of homegrown food that we already had – right here, on our own doorstep! – but were willing to just throw away (along with Europe’s ‘food-sovereignty’, of course), for a deal which will clearly benefit South American countries, far more than ourselves.

And that’s not to mention the cost to the environment, in terms of deforestation: particularly, in the Amazon rainforest (which is not called ‘the Lungs of Planet Earth’ for no reason, you know…)

Once again: while European farmers are asked to sacrifice 4% of their own land, governments all over South America are busy chopping down ever-greater swathes of virgin rain-forest: mostly, to accommodate all the pasture and grazing-land that will be needed, to produce all that South American beef (which will, in turn, soon outprice all the local products, on the market today… forcing European farmers into bankruptcy, in the process).

There. Suddenly, those ‘evil greedy European farmers’ don’t look quite so much like the ‘classic Panto villains’ they are currently being made to resemble… do they, now?