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BRUSSELS — The European Union’s biggest farming lobby claims to represent all the bloc’s agricultural workers, but Stela Zămoiu doesn’t believe it speaks for farmers like her.
Zămoiu, 61, remembers when the land around her was full of smallholders. Today, her three hectares in eastern Romania are surrounded by large, industrial farms. When she dies, she expects her property to be swallowed up by one of her neighbors.
“The village has grown old,” she says. “After the elders die, the land goes to the children, and they sell it … I don’t know if there will be land that won’t be taken by big farmers.”
She could use help, she says — from the Romanian government or the EU — but doesn’t see it coming. “Politicians take into account only what they hear from big farmers,” she says. “They represent themselves. Not us.”
Some 2,000 kilometers away in Brussels, Pekka Pesonen, the head of the Copa-Cogeca farming lobby, doesn’t disagree. European agriculture needs to become profitable, the 60-year-old Finn says over a long lunch with POLITICO. And for the most part, that means bigger farms.
Pesonen — who leads an organization that describes itself as the “united voice” of EU agricultural workers — says he’d like to see small-scale farmers like Zămoiu survive. “But then, is it realistic at the moment?” he asks. “No, it’s not. Because the market just doesn’t reward this.”
Europe’s farming and cooperative movements, Copa and Cogeca, merged in the early 1960s, creating a single lobbying powerhouse that has wielded huge sway over policymaking ever since. On its website, the group claims to speak for “over 22 million European farmers and their family members.”
There’s just one problem with that assertion: It isn’t true. Nor are the policy decisions Copa-Cogeca advocates for always in the interests of all of Europe’s farmers, according to interviews with nearly 120 farmers, insiders, politicians, academics and activists.
“It is nearly always the representation of a certain type of agriculture,” said Thomas Waitz, an Austrian ecological farmer who represents the Greens Party in the European Parliament. “And these are the big farms.”
The importance of European farming policy is reflected in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a system of subsidies that accounts for a third of the bloc’s budget. Since its inception in 1962 in the wake of the hungry years that followed World War II, the CAP has incentivized the industrialization of European agriculture — an endeavor that Copa-Cogeca has steadfastly supported, to the detriment of small or environmentally conscious farmers.
The 22 million people Copa-Cogeca refers to isn’t the number of members; it’s the number of people in the EU who work regularly in the food production sector, according to the European Commission. But not all of those are members of Copa-Cogeca.
For a start, not all farmers’ unions support the organization. The Association of Private Farming of the Czech Republic (APF CR) left Copa in 2021, for instance. Other national associations never joined, and some farmers eschew membership of unions altogether.
Even some of the lobby’s member organizations complain they don’t feel properly represented. “The decisions go through the big countries, big farmers, big unions,” said Arūnas Svitojus, president of LR ZUR, a Lithuanian union. “That’s difficult for smaller farmers, family farmers.”
Take Romania, for example, where Copa-Cogeca is represented by the Alliance for Agriculture and Cooperation, an umbrella group of national unions. Together, its 3,500 Romanian members own approximately 25 to 35 percent of the country’s farmland but account for just over 0.1 percent of its total number of farms.
Only nine Copa-affiliated unions, out of the 50 contacted by Lighthouse Reports, responded to requests for their most up-to-date membership figures. Where numbers are available, they depict a drop in membership by more than a fifth since 2016.
Pesonen allowed that the figure on the group’s website was more of an aspiration than an actual representation of its membership. “Technically speaking, it’s less than 22 million,” he said.
Exactly how many, however, he couldn’t say.
In Brussels, Copa-Cogeca’s claim to representation has earned it backstage passes to the EU institutions — the Commission, the Council and the Parliament — and it has used those to push back against stricter environmental regulations.
The U.K. think tank Influence Map has identified Copa-Cogeca as one of the most engaged and “hostile” when it comes to lobbying against biodiversity policies. The European Environment Agency estimates agriculture accounted for around 11 percent of EU greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, a percentage that has not budged since 2005.
Pesonen has nothing against organic farming, plant-based diets or a shift toward greener farming practices, he told POLITICO, “but fundamentally, it has to be sustained by the market itself.”
EU subsidies are dwindling and younger generations are abandoning family farms in favor of better-paid careers, says Pesonen. Copa-Cogeca’s mission, therefore, is to boost profit margins, whatever it takes.
“I have to provide a lucrative option for the young farmer to get into the sector, to make a living like the other sectors,” he said. “It’s not enough to say that agriculture is profitable. Because if you make just a tiny fraction of income compared with other sectors, it’s not good enough.”
While Pesonen says his group is not opposed to the Commission’s Green Deal effort to cut the bloc’s emissions to net zero by 2050, his lobby has pushed back against many of its measures.
Copa-Cogeca knows farming needs to change, Pesonen said, but not overnight. The Commission also needs to commit to big investments, new technologies and put market economics at the center: Food can be produced without pesticides, but that costs more. Are consumers willing to pay?
The group has promoted its policies using a level of access the likes of which most other lobbying groups can only dream. Its connections in DG AGRI, the branch of the Commission responsible for agricultural policy, and the Parliament’s agricultural committee give it insights and influence over legislation as it’s being drafted.
There is “a mutual understanding” between DG AGRI and Copa-Cogeca about the challenges facing the farming sector, said one former DG AGRI official who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about his previous employer.
During the official’s tenure, Copa-Cogeca “always had such a dominance on the discussion” during consultations carried out by the Commission with interest groups, the former official said.
“Historically, producers — so Copa — were given more seats than consumers or other representatives of the society, like NGOs,” the former official said. “Frequently, those meetings were ping pong games between the Commission and Copa.”
The Commission eventually introduced civil dialogue groups in 2014 to bring more NGOs into the consultations. But NGO representatives were still in the minority and faced bullying and intimidation, according to one of the first to attend, Faustine Bas-Defossez, now director for nature, health and environment at the European Environment Bureau.
Not only were the civil dialogue groups packed by Copa-Cogeca representatives, but almost all of these were men, she said. Bas-Deffosez recalls one occasion where she and the one other woman present — another NGO worker — were referred to as “these women” by a Copa-Cogeca representative. Pesonen denied any knowledge of the incident but said that Copa-Cogeca “does not tolerate sexist behavior.”
The lobby also enjoys a privileged position at the Agriculture and Fisheries (AGRIFISH) Council where ministers from EU governments meet to decide farming policy. The group is traditionally invited to brief the gathering. At times, the president of Copa, currently Christiane Lambert, has even joined the discussions.
“Copa and the EU institutions worked hand in hand” was how Daniel Guéguen, Pesonen’s predecessor as secretary-general, put it in his book “Lobbyist: Revelations from the EU Labyrinth.”
“Almost all of our specialized staff were high-quality technical experts, and a significant percentage would leave Copa within five to seven years of their arrival to join the Commission’s DG AGRI as civil servants,” he wrote.
King of the heap
Pesonen cautioned with a wink that not everything in Guéguen’s book should be believed but acknowledged that personal ties between the lobby and the Commission do facilitate early access to documents.
“That’s the whole essence of the exercise,” he said. “This is why we have thousands of people working here in Brussels. The king of the heap of manure is the one who gets the documentation and the information first.”
Pesonen also confirmed that Copa-Cogeca sometimes drafts amendments to legislation on behalf of members of Parliament but dismissed this as normal in the course of lobbying.
“Where do you think all these thousands of amendments come from? Only from the chambers and the MEPs themselves?” he said. “No. I would say that at least one-third of them originally come from somewhere else” — from industry groups like Copa-Cogeca or the NGOs that oppose them.
Copa-Cogeca’s influence on Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development is partly the result of “direct conflicts of interests,” said Jeroen Candel, an associate professor of food and agricultural policy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Many of the lawmakers sitting on the committee are farmers or landowners who receive EU farm subsidies.
“There are clear signs of political capture in EU agricultural policy,” said Candel. “In any other economic sector, the fact that people who directly benefit from these policies are able to actually decide about these policies will be an absolute no-go.”
On at least one occasion, Copa-Cogeca has revealed a heavy hand. In March, one of the group’s policy advisers sent an email to Alin Mituță, a member of the European Parliament who is the shadow rapporteur on school schemes on milk, fruit and vegetables.
The email not only revealed the farm lobby had access to confidential negotiating documents but also laid out a set of demands and threatened Mituță with “unpleasantness” if they were not met.
“It’s not normal to have access to internal documents, and moreover, to make recommendations on documents that are pending in negotiation as was the case with us and, worst of all, to send you a veiled threat,” said Mituță, who lodged a formal complaint over the matter with the European Parliament.
“There was an unfortunate choice of words,” Pesonen told POLITICO. The policy advisor apologized to Mituță the morning after sending the offending email, he said, adding that no further action was necessary as this had been an unfortunate mistake.
Copa-Cogeca’s connections to agriculture policymakers haven’t gone unnoticed. When EU Vice President and Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans introduced his key Farm to Fork agricultural reform, he handed the file not to DG AGRI but to DG SANTE, the arm of the Commission responsible for health and food safety.
This was a “very courageous” move, said the former DG AGRI official. DG AGRI “didn’t like it at all because they had this thinking that this is not a teammate, [it’s] someone from outside the circle, who’s not been Minister of Agriculture, not a farmer or not an agronomist either, [daring] to say something about the sector.”
“In the Farm to Fork [Copa-Cogeca] had absolutely zero influence because the conception of documents was done elsewhere,” the official said. “They were not used to it, and they were surprised. Everyone was.”
Outside of Brussels, Copa-Cogeca’s promotion of high-tech, industrial agriculture is alienating many of the farmers it claims to represent.
“What we want is exactly what they don’t want,” said Miklós Attila Szöcs Boruss, president of Eco Ruralis, a Romanian association of peasant farmers, which is not a member of Copa-Cogeca. “They want digitalization, they want robots on the field, they want precision farming. But 0.1 percent of farmers can benefit from these because of costs.”
Many young farmers do not see technology as a fix, according to interviews by Lighthouse Reports and national media partners that collaborated on this investigation.
“Most of the young farmers I know and work with are indeed disconnected and in complete disagreement with the vision of Copa-Cogeca,” said Jean Mathieu Thévenot, a 30-year-old farmer from the French Basque country. Both Thévenot and Eco Ruralis are members of La Vía Campesina, an international organization that represents small and peasant farmers.
“We are also trying to fight this mainstream idea in Brussels that new technologies are gonna fix every problem in farming — that with GMOs, robots and drones and everything connected, you can control everything in the farm from your office and your phone,” said Thévenot.
Like others, he believes Europe needs to move away from fertilizer- and pesticide-dependent intensive agriculture and instead focus on protecting the region’s biodiversity and limiting farming’s impact on climate change in order to safeguard long-term food security.
“The kind of agriculture they promote is dangerous for food sovereignty, for young entrants,” Thévenot said.
It’s not just young, environmentally conscious farmers who are looking askance at Copa-Cogeca. Dissent is also growing among the group’s affiliates who represent small- and medium-scale farmers.
They told POLITICO’s reporting partners that they feel ignored and marginalized by the lobby, their voices often drowned out by those of industrial, large-scale farmers and agrochemical companies.
“Our voice was never fully listened to, even though we were long-standing members,” said a spokesperson for the Association of Private Farming, explaining why the Czech union left the group in 2021.
First among its objections was Copa-Cogeca’s opposition to an effort to limit CAP agricultural subsidies for large farms and what it described as the group’s “scornful” unwillingness to discuss the issue.
“For two years we have been asking for the possibility of direct negotiations with its management to explain and re-evaluate the positions,” the group said in a statement. “If the Copa’s current positions in this direction are actually passed, it will be the traditional farmers on family farms who will ultimately lose the most.”
Responding, Pesonen said he also faced criticism from larger farming groups that Copa-Cogeca doesn’t go far enough in pursuing its agenda. Explaining the dilemma, he said: “If everybody criticizes us, usually we are in the right position.”
For those feeling marginalized by Copa-Cogeca, the problem is that there aren’t any other groups with the lobby’s reach or influence, said an EU official familiar with the Green Deal file.
The official described hearing from farmer organizations that they dislike coming to the meetings of Copa-Cogeca.
“The problem is that there is no alternative and if they want to be heard or be in touch with the Brussels bubble,” said the official. “This is the platform they have. That’s really unfortunate.”
Susannah Savage reported for POLITICO and Thin Lei Win for Lighthouse Reports.
Additional reporting by Beatriz Ramalho Da Silva, Jonathan Moens, Lionel Faull, Ludo Hekman and Tomas Statius (Lighthouse Reports); Jonathan Tybjerg (DanWatch, Denmark); Javier Melguizo (El Confidencial, Spain); Andrei Petre and Matei Bărbulescu (Libertatea, Romania); Ludo Hekman (NRC, The Netherlands) and Szymon Opryszek (OKO.Press, Poland).