Populist win could dull Europe’s appetite for free trade
The chlorinated chickens are back. That’s a bad sign for free trade.
The birds are being used in a food fight by populists in Europe who are poised to make significant gains in parliamentary elections this week. Such a shift in the makeup of the European Parliament would complicate the simmering trade conflict between the United States and Europe.
Chicken meat from the United States is routinely sterilized using a chlorinated wash, a method forbidden in the European Union. The American birds are banned and often cited, with some dread, as an all-purpose justification for putting up barriers to American products.
The Trump administration has tried to put the chickens back on the negotiating table, notably with Britain as it prepares to leave the European Union. European candidates, both on the left and on the right, have seized the cluckers as a way to dramatize the stakes in the balloting that runs from Thursday to Sunday.
Among the first candidates to bring up chickens was Yanis Varoufakis, a left-wing former finance minister of Greece who is running for a seat in Brussels. During an appearance in March, Varoufakis vowed to block multinational corporations that “will want to introduce chlorinated chickens in Europe.”
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s right-wing League party, did not directly mention the birds but invoked food anxiety last week, on the eve of a rally of 11 populist leaders from across Europe.
“In some agricultural sectors, I think of meat. For example, we ask for absolute rigor in the checking of the quality of the production and of the product,” said Salvini, who is deputy prime minister and interior minister.
Food accounts for less than 3% of the $1.3 trillion in trade between the United States and Europe, far behind products like chemicals, pharmaceuticals, vehicles or machinery. But farmers are among the most powerful political lobbies on both sides of the Atlantic and trade is one area where the European Parliament wields significant power.
Populist parties like Varoufakis’ Pan-European DiEM25 or the right-wing coalition led by Salvini are expected to win enough support to deny the two main centrist parties a majority in the European Parliament, according to estimates by Teneo, a management consultant. The centrist parties – the conservative European People’s Party and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats – would have to cooperate with parties like the Greens, who are skeptical of trade deals with the United States.
“The rightist parties will play a bigger role. The Greens will play a bigger role,” said Peter Balas, a former Hungarian diplomat who is a senior policy adviser at Covington, a law firm. “It will be much more difficult in the Parliament to have a cohesive approach to trade.”
Food may be the least of their problems.
European manufacturers have been on edge for months only to see President Donald Trump put off a decision on imposing tariffs on cars imported from Europe, Japan and South Korea. The delay, for six months, averted a sharp escalation of trade tensions. It brought some relief to European leaders who feared the effect of car tariffs on wobbly economies.
But six months is not a long time to negotiate a trade deal. Trump, who has often accused Europe of taking advantage of the United States, could easily revive the threat of car tariffs if he believes the Europeans are refusing to make concessions.
European and U.S. negotiators have continued to meet behind the scenes even as China has attracted most of the attention. On Wednesday, Cecilia Malmström, the European trade commissioner, and Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, were scheduled to meet in Paris, where both were attending meetings of members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“The EU is ready to start negotiations for a limited trade agreement,” a European Commission spokeswoman said.
The European Commission has limited room to maneuver. In April, France and Belgium balked at joining the talks because the Trump administration refused, in 2017, to sign a global pact on climate change. All 28 EU states agreed that agriculture products should not be reconsidered and Congress may not approve a deal that does not help American farmers.
At campaign stops, candidates were trying to rally emotions and votes around food. Their speechifying takes some skill because that trade is lopsided in favor of Europe. The European Union sold $10.4 billion more goods like wine and cheese to the United States last year than it bought.
For example, Wisconsin cheese producers are not allowed to sell their Parmesan or feta in Europe. The names are restricted for use from regions in Italy and Greece that traditionally produce them.
“Europeans can sell their Asiago, Parmesan, feta, etc., in Wisconsin, but cheesemakers like me are blocked from selling Wisconsin cheeses by the same names in Europe,” Errico Auricchio, president of BelGioioso Cheese, said this month. Auricchio heads the Consortium for Common Food Names, a lobbying alliance that has asked Trump to ban imports of food products that Americans cannot sell in Europe.
Most parties in the race for Brussels say they favor free trade but outline conditions – such as fighting climate change – that run counter to White House policies.