An EU vote approving the use of a controversial weedkiller for another five years triggered an immediate backlash from Paris and Rome, and is poisoning German politics on the eve of grand coalition talks.
After more than two years of fierce political debate over whether glyphosate causes cancer, EU countries on Monday voted to renew the license of the world’s most common herbicide thanks to a dramatic U-turn from Berlin.
Germany ultimately gave the green light after months of abstaining on the issue. Most recently, Berlin’s envoys said that their hands were tied because Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives had been exploring a coalition deal with the fiercely anti-pesticide Greens. Those talks fell apart a week ago, freeing Merkel to approve glyphosate.
The EU vote in a food safety committee attended by national officials came as a relief to farmers across the Continent, who see the weedkiller as vital to preserving bumper crop yields. At the height of the debate, it often looked as if environmental campaigners would win the political battle by arguing that glyphosate was both carcinogenic and harmful to the soil.
While northern and eastern European countries largely voted in favor of a new glyphosate license in Brussels on Monday, France and Italy sought to block it.
Any hopes that the vote would lay the glyphosate debate to rest were immediately confounded by French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina, who said Paris and Rome would still ban glyphosate over the next three years.
Activists outside the European Commission in Brussels protesting against glyphosate | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images
“I asked the government to make the necessary arrangements so that the use of glyphosate is prohibited in France as soon as alternatives have been found,” Macron tweeted after the vote.
A ban by France is a bold move from Macron. While he will win support from a solid caucus of green-minded voters, he risks a stinging backlash from French farmers using more than 600 glyphosate products. Martina said Rome would also seek to eradicate glyphosate domestically by 2020.
Bad blood in Berlin
The domestic political fall-out in Germany was equally startling.
Just as politicians from Merkel’s conservatives are seen to be inching toward talks on renewing a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, the two factions came to blows over the glyphosate vote.
J’ai demandé au gouvernement de prendre les dispositions nécessaires pour que l’utilisation du glyphosate soit interdite en France dès que des alternatives auront été trouvées, et au plus tard dans 3 ans. #MakeOurPlanetGreatAgain
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) November 27, 2017
Moments after the food committee made its decision, German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks from the Social Democrats angrily asserted that she had been double-crossed on Berlin’s position by conservative Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt.
In an unusually damning statement, she said Schmidt had confirmed in a text message to her that Germany would abstain. Simultaneously, a different order to vote in favor of renewing the herbicide was sent to officials in Brussels attending the vote.
“No one who is interested in trust building between partners can behave like this,” Hendricks said, adding that Germany should have abstained due to ongoing disagreements between the environment and agriculture ministries.
Andrea Nahles, leader of the SPD group in the Bundestag, called Schmidt’s move “a massive breach of trust” and said: “I really wonder whether Merkel has her people under control.”
Martin Häusling, a Green lawmaker from Germany in the European Parliament, laid the blame for the decision on the fact that his party was no longer likely to play a part in the next coalition government.
“The decision in favor of the controversial herbicide glyphosate, which is suspected of causing cancer, is inflicted on Europe by the desolate state of the government’s formation in Germany … The behavior of the Federal Minister of Agriculture Christian Schmidt lacks foresight and is scandalous.”
Schmidt’s office said that the bill approved on Monday had already factored in provisions on biodiversity which Hendricks had backed. His office recalled that Hendricks had said last year that “the federal government can approve a prolongation” of glyphosate as long as the EU “protects biodiversity.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has promised that his country will ban the weedkiller regardless | Thibault Camus/AFP via Getty Images
Schmidt did not specifically refer to the dispute over text messages.
The clash between Hendricks and Schmidt is not the first sign of left-right tensions that could muddy the waters in German politics as a grand coalition comes into increasing focus.
Der Spiegel on Monday reported that a fissure between the SPD and Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) created problems over the way the country should vote on who should host the European Banking Authority after the U.K. leaves the EU. The magazine reported that the SPD minister at the meeting did not support Dublin’s candidacy as the CDU had wanted.
Monday’s decision sparked an angry reaction from environmental groups, who have argued for years that policymakers should have paid closer attention to an assessment carried out by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which concluded that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer.
Both the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency, by contrast, determined the chemical was safe.
Matthew Karnitschnig and Jakob Hanke contributed reporting