The HDC’s “agricultural” exception

Home page Belgium – Friday, 18 September 2015 – Emmanuel HUET – The Future

The HDC’s project: to make agriculture an exception in the eyes of the world markets. From the smallest local municipality all the way up to Europe, the aim is to change the rules.

The agricultural crisis on one side and a public opinion in favour of the farmers on the other. The moment was right for Benoît Lutgen, chairman of the HDC, to explain his party’s thinking for a new agricultural model. Based on the image of European culture which benefits from the status of being an exception at world market level, Benoît Lutgen suggests that the same “exceptional” status should be created for agriculture. “Agriculture cannot be considered as merchandise, equivalent to any other merchandise on the market. Through the various international agreements, we are allowing agriculture to change from being an exception to becoming just another element in the free market, putting pressure on our farmers with the resulting damage of which we are all too aware.”

Milk, meat, cereals and other agricultural products circulate in a global market that lacks both coherence and humanity. “It is not acceptable to find a product on the market which guarantees neither human rights, nor the same health conditions resulting in unfair competition which impacts our farmers.”

The HDC therefore suggests that we should refocus on an agriculture of proximity by acting at the different levels of power. This will begin with the municipal and provincial councils, followed by the regional and federal parliaments before, hopefully, moving all the way up to European Union level. “We must ensure that agriculture is considered an exception to market forces.”

Targeting public procurement

At local level, the HDC would like to ease the conditions for the award of public contracts (school lunches, local authorities, hospitals, etc.). “It must create special conditions which enable proximity to become one of the criteria in the specifications for orders or calls for tender.” But this will involve a legislative arrangement which will also have to be validated at European level. Not so simple…

And at Belgian level? “It will require a very much stronger consensus to bring it before the federal Parliament. In this desire to make agriculture an exception, Belgium must be asked to be act as the spearhead at the European Council, and in a series of negotiations on the international stage.”

An ambitious project to bring agriculture back to a more human scale, to introduce a new equilibrium into international trade laws? Benoît Lutgen agrees that “some will consider it utopian. For me, it’s simply a question of democratic health. It will take more than a few days to redraw the lines. But the quicker we begin to act, the quicker we inform the public at large then the sooner we will be able to get things moving.”

The absurdity of market forces

“Because of their impact (environmental, societal, etc.), it is essential to take the necessary measures to move as near as possible to total food sovereignty.”

Since Belgium is an exporting country, the HDC knows that encouraging isolation can only be harmful. “But it is essential to take those steps which mean that tomorrow, we will be able to enforce respect for our agriculture through the prices paid for its products.”

Because a Europe where only “the only market forces rule; is absurd!”

With this agricultural exception, the HDC would like to activate the levers that increase levels of local consumption and that at both federal and European levels, encouraging the development of short supply chains by considering agriculture as an exception. “We are not looking for total protectionism. It wasn’t what was done for culture: we simply protected our history and our heritage.”

We therefore need to put social, health and environmental customs ‘lock gates’ in place. With the aim of “promoting a respect for standards which ensure quality production and establish a normative framework on which we can rely for the protection of our agricultural model.” Based on a preference for local produce which would then be legitimate.

The cultural exception, an inspiration

In its trade negotiations with the United States, the European Union succeeded in removing culture from the discussions.

Thus Europe protected itself from the risk of importing low-cost culture from overseas capable of killing local culture.

The cultural exception is a political concept that makes each country’s culture an exception in international treaties, notably as concerns the WTO. It is thus possible to tax or impose customs duties on cultural products (e.g. cinema).

The HDC sees this as the model on which to base their plans for agriculture. Objective: to develop our agriculture and protect it from the violence of world markets.