Enrico Somaglia of EFFAT: “What some call red tape is for us, a red line”

Enrico Somaglia of EFFAT: “What some call red tape is for us, a red line”

According to Enrico Somaglia, the deputy general secretary of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT), the recent farmers’ protests that have taken place across Europe’s capital cities point to the growing frustration at the unequal distribution of agri-wealth.


Europe’s farmers have blocked the continent’s capital cities and seized the political agenda in recent weeks, as mounting anger over a series of disparate issues – including retail prices, trade agreements and environmental regulation – boiled over. But trade unionists and progressives have been divided over how far their cause should be supported.

According to Enrico Somaglia, the deputy general secretary of the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT), the rural unrest points to growing frustration at the unequal distribution of agri-wealth. But, as he tells Equal Times, this must not be instrumentalised by landowners and far-right groups to block green reforms and the EU social agenda.


Some people have characterised the recent protests as an uprising against ‘green tape’, others as a rebellion by small farmers against free trade. Which do you think is true?

It’s a mix of the two. The agricultural sector’s first problem is the imbalance in wealth redistribution that affects vulnerable people across the food chain, predominantly small farmers and, even more, agricultural workers. This is a sector with winners and losers, where multinationals, retailers and shareholders of food giants make good money – and then put pressure on small farmers and agricultural workers. It’s linked to long-standing systemic issues like a concentration by agri-food monopolies across the food chain, which sees small farms facing major problems and even disappearing.

It is also linked to the EU’s free trade agenda, which uses the farm sector as a bargaining chip in trade deals to promote market entrance for other products. Agriculture is also very exposed to speculation in food commodity markets. As we saw with Ukraine, in every crisis we get a spike in food commodity indexes. It’s detrimental to small farmers who have to buy these products to feed their animals and also for vulnerable European households and food deficit countries. It pushes millions of people into hunger. These longstanding issues are never addressed. If the Commission looked into them, it would help to win social acceptance for the Farm to Fork strategy and the European Green Deal.

There’s also a part of the farmers community which is resistant to change and identifies the Green Deal and Farm to Fork as the enemy. The big intensive farms have an interest in keeping the same business model. Others are instrumentalised by the big players. It’s very easy to address all your frustrations to the EU and Brussels bureaucrats. As a trade union representing agricultural workers, we defend the Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy. We believe they can help us make the sector more sustainable and, from a social point of view, they should be an opportunity for dignifying the sector.

Were agricultural labourers involved in the recent protests?

No. Our position was that we didn’t want to be instrumentalised. We knew that right wing groups were doing that, so we put out a statement saying that although we share some of the farmers concerns, the Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy were not the issue. Also, when farmers leaders refer to ‘administrative burden’ or to ‘red tape,’ well, many refer to red tape when it comes to workers’ rights, but they have to respect these, including the new Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) social conditionalities. What they call ‘red tape’ is for us, a red line.

Farm-gate prices – the price that retailers pay farmers for their produce – fell by 9 per cent last year while input costs soared. Are you not sympathetic to the plight of small farmers?

Yes, in EFFAT we also have some small farmer organisations among our members, so we’re sympathetic. We understand that the CAP doesn’t redistribute wealth across the food chain, that 20 per cent of the farmers still get 80 per cent of the wealth. We need different standards for payments. The unfair trading practices directive should also be revised to really deliver for the most vulnerable actors in the food chain. The Farm to Fork strategy should also be repurposed to tackle the huge power of the retailers and food giants. Keeping the existing imbalances doesn’t work and it feeds frustration.

Greece announced it would extend a tax rebate on agriculture diesel by a year. Is that welcome?

These are all short-term measures linked to national circumstances. We also have a problem of tractor fuel taxes in France but we are missing a holistic and comprehensive approach from the EU. I don’t think this is going to calm the huge frustration in the farming community.

During the protests, EU President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Our message is we hear you”. But the only people she spoke to was the farming lobby Copa-Cogeca, and the concessions that came out of that meeting was a freeze on CAP greening rules and the scrapping of pesticide limits. How do you assess this?

The Commission gave a very bad signal. It is a negative signal to undermine the Green Deal. It wasn’t the only one either. Over the last few months, the Commission has withdrawn its proposal for sustainable food systems, proposed a renewal of the license for glyphosate and now, apparently, killed the sustainable use of pesticides regulation. They are basically doing exactly what the far-right is demanding.

Do the protests show that militant and disruptive protests get results?

Yes, they have a huge mobilising power, that’s clear. They know how to make noise and they are able to change the agenda.

But should trade unions be thinking about more protests like this?

I don’t think we have to learn from others about mobilising and protesting. Everything trade unions have obtained for working people was through struggle and protest. But it’s clear that sometimes we’re not heard enough. That’s something that raises reflections.

Is it ironic that farmers facing losses from water scarcity and other extreme weather events – particularly in the Mediterranean – are being used to force through climate-damaging practices that will exacerbate the problem?

Absolutely! If you think of pesticides, farmers are also the first victims of cancers linked to their use. So, it is ironic that some farmers leaders advocate against their own health. But the farmers community is very heterogeneous. Many are extremely advanced in agro-ecological practices and support our demands around the redistribution of wealth and power and on food speculation and trade deals. But the Commission is only listening to one part of the farming community, which is running behind a far-right narrative and doing exactly the wrong thing.

How significant is the Mercosur trade agreement to these protests?

For us, Mercosur is extremely significant and it would be meaningful if the Commission would at least exclude the agricultural sector from it. It really doesn’t make sense from an environmental, or trade perspective. Trade levels are already quite high and the level of tariffs is quite low. Increasing certain imports from Mercosur to Europe would be detrimental for farmers and farm workers here because of their different environmental and social standards. It would not have any added value for the Mercosur countries either as it would accelerate the deforestation of the Amazon. Unfortunately, small farmers in the Global South are not among the winners of this trade agreement. Trade agreements make sense among partners on a roughly equal footing. Otherwise, they often become a neoliberal instrument.

The far-right has had a big presence on the protests in some countries. How much of a concern is that ahead of European elections?

It’s a huge concern. They’re very happy when there’s a cost-of-living crisis, or a migration crisis, because they know they can come out with an easy solution that instrumentalises anger. But they’re no friends of unions or working people – or even the employers. They pose a risk to European democracy – of a return to authoritarianism – and for the whole social and environmental agenda. They are all about fake narratives. The far-right parties voted against progressive measures to make the CAP more equal for small farmers. On the [parliamentary] agriculture committee, they voted against social conditionality.

At the moment, they’re benefitting from a lack of coherence and social acceptance for these environmental policies, and from a Commission which appears to be far away. We are afraid because there is limited time to change their narrative which is becoming dominant and is already driving the European agenda. If pesticides and sustainable food systems legislation are put at risk for being ‘over-regulation from Brussels,’ it’s up to democratic and progressive groups and trade unions to reverse this trend and build a different narrative.