It seems there has been a common trend within the European Union (EU) in the last years: the rise of “anti-EU-ism”. While it appeared to be unique to the United Kingdom, it quickly spread to other member states, including the Netherlands. As you may have noticed, this wave of Euroscepticism is accompanied by campaigns based on the 2008 financial crisis and the arrival of newcomers. Obviously, it is easier to point fingers, create fear within society, and blame others. As a solution, Eurosceptic party leaders promise to make their respective nations great again, aiming for self-sufficiency through protectionist measures. In other words, they promise isolation from globalization. But what are the implications of exiting the Union on our current food security and environmental standards? Do leaders suggest that an ex-EU member can have a greener and healthier future by increasing its protectionist measures? This post will try to illustrate the potential consequences of leaving the Union by using Brexit as the most suitable example, and suggests that this should be taken into consideration when voting in the following Dutch elections.

Isolating ourselves from globalization will not necessarily resolve all negative consequences of our capitalist system. Keep this in mind when you vote
Let’s start off by admitting that the Union was primarily initiated on economic objectives and that scepticism toward deregulation is not necessarily unfounded. Economic globalization has had many consequences, in which deregulation threatened production standards in all sectors. Regional customs unions, such as the EU, start off by reducing barriers to trade between members. An internal market created through deregulation with varying standards does indeed threaten a “race to the bottom”. When barriers are removed, employers invest in the countries with lowest standards in order to reduce their costs of production and improve their competitive position. While this is by no means an irrational fear, the EU legislates to avoid this “downward policy competition”; it creates a common floor with minimum requirements. These standards include food safety and quality; animal health, welfare, nutrition; and planet health1. These legislations create a bridge between national and regional policies, and in turn, create common standards among all members. Once the legislation is in force, its implementation through the Commission and enforcement through the Court of Justice of the EU gives effect to these minimum standards. When these standards are implemented and enforced the way legislation envisions it, the EU can be seen as a successful body, managing the pressures of global competition and upholding certain rights and safety standards.

When listening to election campaigns, keep in mind that member states are free to apply higher standards in different policy areas, including food safety regulations. The Union is not holding member states back from surpassing standards—it merely stops member states from undermining them. So, will a member state really be able to set higher standards when it exists the Union, meaning the EU can no longer “be an obstacle”? I would argue that nations can do this, even as active members of the Union, meaning the EU isn’t actually an obstacle.

Let’s look more specifically at why the food industry bodies in the UK, that had been Europeanizing for the past 50 years, opposed Brexit in order to see whether similar implications could apply to the Netherlands;
- Minimum standards: Union membership introduced numerous laws concerning the production of food. Laws related to the environment have been especially beneficial to public health regarding air pollution, water quality, and toxic chemicals. The UK may possibly lose these benefits in the next years by hurrying into new trade deals. This may result in pushing aside sustainability standards, climate change commitments, humane production, investment in international development, fair dealing, consumer protection, and give into the immense pressure to deregulate in our globalized system. A heavily criticized example that suggests this kind of trend is the UK-US trade deal, which would result in the UK accepting weaker US standards of food—much below European standards. This will include the import of cattle injected with growth hormones and chlorine-washed chicken2. This is basically what the Netherlands has been trying to avoid with its infamous ‘plofkip’ discussions. It is also crucial to know that the UK as a trading partner on its own is in a weaker position than when a part of the EU. Consequently, it is likely to accept lower conditions in exchange for having a deal. This is likely to trigger a race to the bottom, which was previously not possible under EU’s minimum standards. Why would this be any different for the Dutch?

- Food Security Infrastructure: Leaving the Union means leaving the food security infrastructure that was built over the last decades. The current infrastructure includes the European Food Safety Authority, the Joint Research Centre, the Health and Food Audits, and the Rapid Alert System3. These keep the food industries in member states alert with regards to the minimum standards. Leaving the Union results in leaving these institutions. What will replace the mechanisms to safeguard the natural world? Replacing these lost agencies will be more expensive. Refusing to replace them will drop standards and inspections. To respond to this concern, the UK has outlined a 25-Year Environment Plan4, in which it claims to be more ambitious than the standards set out by the Union. But it seems doubtful. I ask again: why now? Why was this worry not introduced before Brexit?

- Access to the EU Market: The agricultural sector, similar to that of the Netherlands, has been heavily subsidized up to now. If not replaced by the government, farmers will remain concerned about their possibilities in an uncertain trading environment. After all, the UK is losing access to its biggest market for its exports5. This would also have the same consequences for Dutch farmers, who are the number one exporters of the Netherlands.

- Food Prices: Re-imposing barriers to trade by exiting the Union may result in food becoming more expensive in the UK, since about 30% of its food is imported from the Union6. These costs will of course most likely be covered by consumers. Moreover, with an obstacle to the free movements, the cost of labour in agriculture is also likely to rise, further increasing food prices. If food prices increase and quality standards decrease simultaneously, the quality of diet in the UK is likely to deteriorate. Moreover, imposing barriers to trade is also likely to reduce emphasis on climate change, biodiversity and soil erosion. This will have huge consequences on food, health and the environment for the coming generations in the UK. Why would the effects be any different for future Dutch generations?

- Food Waste: Re-introducing barriers may also result in rotting fresh food at borders7. Think of the 30% of food that is imported, that will have to be controlled at customs. In addition to increasing prices, it also has consequences on the freshness of food. Let’s not forget that enormous amounts of food are already thrown away for not looking a certain way. Delaying imports will surely further add to the plight of food waste.

A rather unhealthy image, right? Nonetheless, these points do not claim that the Union has the perfect framework for food and environmental standards either. The Union is well aware that it is far from ideal, which is why it also claims that it urgently needs a comprehensive food policy reform8. The EU Food Safety and Nutrition by 2050 reform includes further improvements to supply chains and focuses more on informing consumers about the environmental and social impacts of food in the Union9. Despite its current weaknesses, one should give credit to the starting point of European food law: the General Food Law Regulation adopted in 2002 (Regulation (EC) No 178/2002), which is an effective starting point, setting out the general principles, requirements, and procedures of food law, covering all stages of food production and distribution— or as the Union says, “from farm to forks”10.

The sketched future scenario appears to be the opposite of the green vision promised by Theresa May in the UK. Who can be blamed for these shortcomings once fingers can no longer be pointed at the EU? The Union may not be the perfect model; yet, one cannot deny that it protects its member states from being exposed to the downward pressure imposed by deregulation, simultaneously safeguarding certain standards and rights. Whatever one’s motive is for anti-EU propaganda, one should not forget what the implications for human health and our planet’s wellbeing are. Isolating ourselves from globalization will not necessarily resolve all negative consequences of our capitalist system. Keep this in mind when you vote!

Alle bijdragen van de studenten in deze serie zijn te vinden onder de tag 'radboud honourslab'.

1. OVERVIEW - Food Safety - European Commission (n.d.). Retrieved April 01, 2018.
2. Savage, M. (2018, February 17). Revealed: Rightwing groups plot to ditch EU safety standards on food and drugs. Retrieved April 01, 2018.
3. Kasbekar, A. (2018, February 16). Top food safety challenges of 2018 in Europe, the US and beyond. Retrieved April 01, 2018.
4. Gove, M. (2018, March 16). Green Brexit: A new era for farming, fishing and the environment. Retrieved April 01, 2018.
5. Harvey, F. (2018, February 20). 'Frictionless' EU trade is vital post-Brexit for UK farming to survive. Retrieved April 01, 2018.
6. The UK in a Changing Europe. (2017, July 28). Retrieved April 01, 2018.
7. Sembhy, R. (2017, September 03). Sainsbury's CEO warns post-Brexit rules could leave food rotting at UK border. Retrieved April 01, 2018.
8. The EU needs a comprehensive food policy (2017, December 11).
9. Future of EU food safety and nutrition policy - Food Safety - European Commission. (n.d.). Retrieved April 01, 2018.
10. General Food Law - Food Safety - European Commission. (n.d.). Retrieved April 01, 2018.

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