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EU urged to make trade fair as elections near
French voters have grilled candidates for the European parliament over their plans for creating a more ecologically and socially responsible Europe. With less than two weeks to go before crunch elections, the bloc's policies on fair trade with developing countries is under increasing scrutiny.
Monday's public debate in Paris coincided with the official launch of EU campaigning, where the ruling Republic on the Move party (LaREM) and the National Rally (RN) of Marine Le Pen are neck and neck in the polls.
Organised by the foundation Commerce Equitable, a group of fair-trade companies, the debate sought to put pressure on candidates to rewrite the rules on trade with farmers from the world’s poorest countries.
Despite growing public pressure from EU citizens, there is still no real strategy among the 28 member states on how to promote fair trade.
"Fair trade doesn't exist," comments Joachim Munganga, a Congolese coffee producer and president of Sopacdi, a cooperative of small organic producers, who opened the floor.
"Despite our best efforts to use natural substances and processes, it costs us more money to produce fair trade coffee than what we actually earn," he told RFI.
Born into a family of producers, Munganga who lives in South Kivu in the east of Congo, says he has known nothing but coffee his whole life.
His message to European candidates was this: "What will you do to ensure that me, my son and grandson will still be in business in years to come?"
Growing environmental awareness
Organic producers in the Global South earn roughly 1 dollar per kilogram of coffee produced, explains Emmanuel Rwakagara Nzungize, director general of Virunga Coffee, also in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"Coffee that is branded organic and as being fair trade is more expensive to make than conventional coffee, whereby farmers can earn between 1.6 to 2 dollars, twice the amount for fair trade coffee," he told RFI.
In the Global South as in Europe, there is a growing consciousness to protect the environment, spurred on by figures such as Swedish student Greta Thunberg.
In response, the candidate for Les Républicains, Cristina Storoni, defended the idea of a European standard when it comes to fair trade.
Leading the European list for France Unbowed (La France Insoumise), the far-left party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Julie Garnier called for greater social protection for producers, while the Green party represented by Benoit Biteau called for EU subsidies to be scrapped for farmers that exploit producers in the South.
Biteau argued that farmers in Europe are subjected to very strict food standards that prevent them from selling all their produce. This creates a surplus, and ultimately leads to dumping on poorer countries.
Hard law vs soft law
"More transparency is needed" to avoid dumping, says Pascal Durand, from the ruling Republic On the Move party, whose list is called Renaissance.
"It can't just be dependent on the good will of a few companies who then exploit this good will for financial gain," he told RFI, referring to companies that claim to be sustainable but in fact continue to do business as usual.
Part of the difficulty in getting them to adopt fairer practices is because the EU parliament doesn't force them to.
At the moment there is contention in the EU over whether to enforce a soft or hard law on issues of human rights explains Durand. "When you ask pedestrians to respect a red light, you don't tell them to decide if they should cross the road or not. They simply stop," he says. "It has to be the same way for topics, which touch the core of our humanity. We must have a hard law."
Referendum on Macron
There was plenty of good will and good intentions from the candidates, including a radical demand from the France Unbowed representative Julie Garnier for the EU to scrap its recent trade deal with Japan, which critics say is aggravating climate change.
Garnier also took the ruling party's candidate Durand to task over the government's record on social protection, drawing a strong rebuke from him that Mélenchon's party was trying to turn the EU elections into a referendum on Macron's government.
Voters in the audience were not impressed.
"Politicians were just talking about politics," said Frank Derys, the head of a non-profit organisation fighting against Monsanto, a major American producer of pesticides and genetically modified seeds.
"Chemicals in agriculture is one part of the problem, and I thought that it was something they didn’t talk much about," he told RFI.
Voters in France will have 34 lists to choose from on 26 May. Candidates have less than two weeks to convince them.