Privileged access for Copa-Cogeca and industry in DG Agriculture
This article is a case study of our investigation on the Copa-Cogeca, the lobby group representing dominant farmers' trade unions and cooperatives in Brussels, and its lobbying against a serious greening of the 2021-2027 Common Agricultural Policy.
Copa-Cogeca enjoys a close relationship with DG Agriculture; indeed, their respective offices are located right across the street from one another. The European Landowners Organisation (ELO) is also located at the same address as Copa-Cogeca. Documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory illustrate the nature of the close relationship between the public officials at DG Agriculture, and the lobby group; this goes beyond the typical institution-lobbyist connection.
To further its lobbying Copa-Cogeca often collaborates with industry associations such as pesticide lobby group ECPA, food lobby group FoodDrinkEurope, or commodity trader lobby group CELCAA. For example in April 2019 Copa-Cogeca, FoodDrinkEurope, and CELCAA had a joint meeting with DG Agriculture.
This was just one month before the European elections. At the meeting the lobbyists and officials held a joint brainstorm about a “high level agri-food event with important trade angle”, to be held in autumn 2019 targeting the incoming MEPs. The lobby groups indicated that they preferred an exhibition-style event within the European Parliament, “to showcase the importance of trade for agriculture and food and to ensure presence of MEPs”.
The lobby groups were clearly expecting DG Agriculture’s support for such an event. Sure enough, DG Agriculture officials replied that they would help arrange several Commissioners to appear: “our Cab[inet] will liaise with the cabinets of those Csrs [Commissioners] to prepare the ground”. In addition, it is noted that while DG Agriculture would not contribute with money, they “expressed availability to help where possible in the organisation of the event.”
While it is unclear whether this event happened eventually, a previous event with the same set up did take place one year earlier. This event featured the participation of Phil Hogan, then-Agriculture Commissioner, as well as “lead negotiators from DG AGRI and DG TRADE”. Hogan became Trade Commissioner in the Von der Leyen Commission until his resignation in August 2020.
Apart from frequent bilateral lobby contact, in meeting officials or on the phone, Copa-Cogeca can rely on ample face time with DG Agriculture officials through the so-called Civil Dialogue Groups (CDGs) (also termed Commission expert groups). These groups serve to provide DG Agriculture with advice on new policy and legislation, including on the CAP.
Expert groups of the Commission had previously come under fire, as numerous of these groups were dominated by industry ‘experts’, and therefore were in fact mere lobby platforms. In 2011 and again in 2014 the European Parliament decided to freeze the budgets of all of these groups, demanding that an end should be made to industry’s domination over them.
As Corporate Europe Observatory reported in 2014, in DG Agriculture’s expert groups, “80 per cent of the members came from large farming organisations and the food industry (eg supermarkets, commodity traders etc)”. Copa-Cogeca alone occupied a stunning 442 out of the total 943 seats. If a group’s meeting was scheduled at a time not convenient for COPA members, sometimes the Commission would reschedule.
After an investigation, in 2015 the European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly concluded that DG Agriculture should explain how it had improved balance between economic and non-economic interests in its groups. The 80 per cent economic versus 20 per cent non-economic had not changed. She also advised to limit the size of the groups, to avoid smaller organisations being marginalised.
The response from the Commission was that it has an ‘open door policy' where anyone can apply to become part of a Civil Dialogue Group. This completely ignores the structural inequalities (financial, power) between different farm groups, between industry and NGOs, etc.
Up until today, the situation has not fundamentally improved.
In the Civil Dialogue Group on Direct Payments and Greening, the Copa-Cogeca delegation fills no less than 28 out of 72 seats. Copa-Cogeca, allied organisations and industry together occupy 68.4 per cent of seats in the arable crops group, and 73.6 per cent in the milk group.
In 2019 Copa-Cogeca chaired no less than eight out of thirteen CDGs. This gave them considerable influence over the agenda of these meetings, as well as for instance what external speakers are invited. In a meeting about the functioning of these Civil Dialogue Groups in December that year, several participants expressed discontent with the situation, and asked for a Code of Conduct for the chairs and vice-chairs of the group, “to avoid abuse of power during meetings”.
Chairs are supposed to be neutral and not act on behalf of their organisation in the groups. Organisations with just one member in a group, would not even try to obtain a position as chair, as they would not be able to fully participate.
In this meeting, the Commission mentioned the option to “rationalise the number of meetings”, to improve efficiency. This would have been welcomed by civil society organisations, who have limited capacity to take part in such groups. But the obtained documents show that Copa-Cogeca argued in the opposite direction.
In January 2018 the organisation wrote bilaterally to DG proposing for instance that “more regular meetings between the Chairmanships of the CDGs should be organised” on international issues. They also suggested building in “more flexibility” when it comes to the number of meetings, for instance in case of a “relevant policy reform”. This would again add to the number of meetings.
Attached to the proposals was Copa-Cogeca’s own internal meeting agenda, noting it would like to “strongly encourage the Commission to take due note of the calendar of internal meetings of Copa and Cogeca to prevent potential conflicting dates”. The organisation expressed great appreciation to DG Agriculture, expecting “the continuation of the contacts with DG AGRI services, which we strongly believe contributes to the success of EU policies.”
In another bilateral meeting with the Commission in February 2018, Copa-Cogeca even questioned the role of NGOs in the Civil Dialogue meetings, and proposed a dedicated workshop just between Copa-Cogeca and DG Agriculture, “to discuss about the future of CDGs”. In November 2018, at yet another bilateral meeting with DG Agriculture on this topic, Copa-Cogeca demanded “active involvement as regards the composition of the CDGs after 2020”. This means the organisation is determined to keep these groups within their control and not lose ground to NGOs for instance.
In response to DG Agriculture’s suggestion to have more virtual meetings using web-conferencing, the organisation replied that this could be explored “as an option for urgent ad-hoc meetings”, but underlined that “lobbying remains a face-to-face activity”.
Célia Nyssens, Agriculture Policy Officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), confirms that “the reform of these dialogue groups has not changed as much as it was supposed to. They are still very much dominated by Copa-Cogeca and economic interests.” Nyssens finds that these meetings could have been made more useful, but that Copa-Cogeca is blocking changes to that end. For instance, NGOs like EEB have been calling for a reduced number of participants to these meetings to allow for a more interactive format and meaningful debate, which Copa-Cogeca opposed.
In February 2019 another ‘stocktaking meeting’ on the civil dialogue groups took place, to which all its members were invited. The participants’ list attached to the meeting report revealed the balance of power at that point: out of 44 stakeholder attendees, three were farming/farmer unions with differing views and three environmental or health NGO representatives. The rest of the seats were occupied by Copa-Cogeca (11) and a large variety of industry associations.
Sieta van Keimpema (EMB) says that the civil dialogue meetings should have ensured a true dialogue and an opportunity for the Commission to obtain information. Instead, “the days were filled with presentations, time for discussion was extremely short”. Henri Lecloux also says that in the meetings of the CDG on milk, the time was taken up to a large extent by presentations by Copa, Rabobank (member of Cogeca), and Eurocommerce representing the supermarket chains.
Another evaluation of these expert groups is under way, but Van Keimpema says that “Copa-Cogeca and the industry do not want to give up their seats, and we are not even able to bring so many people.” Signs that DG Agriculture intends to change the approach regarding the composition of the groups have yet to appear.