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France issues call to 'buy French' as coronavirus erodes single market

A French farmer, wearing a protective face mask, gives a driving lesson to a new young farm worker for his tractor in Anneux, France, March 27, 2020.
A French farmer, wearing a protective face mask, gives a driving lesson to a new young farm worker for his tractor in Anneux, France, March 27, 2020. REUTERS - PASCAL ROSSIGNOL

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the Eurozone’s economy, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire issued a rallying cry to the nation’s supermarkets on 24 March: ‘Stock French products!’

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Supermarkets in France have heeded the call for what Le Maire termed "economic patriotism". French supermarket chain Carrefour has already moved to source 95% of its fruits and vegetables from within France. The supermarket industry’s trade body, La Féderation du Commerce et de la Distribution, told French business daily Les Echos that once fresh foreign produce runs out on French supermarket shelves, it won’t be replaced.

“Delegating our food supply […] to others is madness. We have to take back control,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech just two weeks before Le Maire announced the economic measures.

But for a continent that has built an intricate agro-food market connected by cross-border supply chains, France’s plea to focus inwards for its food supply is a cause for concern for Brussels.

Supply chains broken by closed borders

The coronavirus pandemic is already causing disruption to the agro-food sector in Europe, with potential ramifications for years to come.

Europe’s response to the pandemic began on the back foot, as Brussels scrambled to unite its member states. The bloc that so prides itself on frictionless, borderless trade and freedom of movement became fragmented as European countries re-erected their borders in a bid to slow the virus’s spread. This caused pile-ups at countries’ borders, as vehicles loaded with goods faced delays of up to 15 hours.

However, it’s not just short-term food supplies that are at stake. A representative from Copa Cogeca, a European agricultural interest group, told Reuters that farmers need to be equipped with fertiliser and seeds in order to start planting next year’s crops, or risk a food supply crisis that lasts into next year.

The European Union will also have to re-evaluate its supply chains, prioritising wheat products such as flour and pasta, demand for which has skyrocketed.

Supply chains falter after restaurants close

After restaurants and bars closed across Europe, the demand for high-quality cuts of meat and seasonal vegetables such as strawberries or asparagus fell, putting pressure on some supply chains while the importance of others has almost totally evaporated. Restaurants in France consume 40% of the country’s asparagus production, and their sudden closure has left farmers with a huge excess of produce.

Producers across Europe fear seeing asparagus rot in the fields, faced with the dual difficulty of maintaining short supply chains for a client base that effectively no longer exists.

Laurent Grandin, the president of Interfel, the interprofessional national organisation for fresh fruit and vegetables, told Les Echos, “With such a short production chain, supplies of asparagus can quite simply grind to a halt if nothing is done to make sure it remains available for sale.”

France’s farming ‘army’

The closure of borders has also blocked travel for seasonal agricultural workers, who often come from eastern European countries. In an interview with French TV station BFM-TV, France’s agricultural minister Didier Guillaume suggested that unemployed French workers should come out of the nation’s mandatory lockdown to join “the great agricultural army”, and lend a hand to the sector by working in the fields. While official voluntary workers, they would earn the right to financial aid from France’s "partial unemployment" scheme.

Farms across Europe are seeing only a fraction of the labour force they need arriving for work. One German farmer told Reuters that he is short of 500 seasonal workers to help him produce his usual 6,000 tonnes of asparagus this season. Without the seasonal workers needed to help with the harvest, many producers simply won’t be able to get food onto the supply chain, meaning that exports across the single market are likely to drop.

Saving the single market

A joint statement from FoodDrinkEurope, which represents Europe’s food and drink manufacturing industry, and other major actors in Europe’s food supply chain, urged EU member states to keep the common market open.

"Our ability to provide food for all will depend on the preservation of the EU Single Market," it said.

On 23 March, the European Commission asked member states to set up “Green Lanes”, which prioritise the passage of goods across borders with a maximum delay of 15 minutes.

Even before the pandemic, agricultural heavyweights in Europe – France, Italy and Spain – were urging the European Union to grant more protections to their national products.

Now, as the coronavirus promises to threaten those treasured national industries, countries are implementing their own measures to keep their food sectors alive, while Brussels struggles to revive the single market.

France is leading the way among European member states in putting French farming interests first during the pandemic.

For the region’s gastronationalists, the coronavirus pandemic could turn out to be an opportunity to loosen Brussels’ grip over agricultural policy, and  may even hint at the beginnings of a larger shift towards economic nationalism across the bloc.

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