Powerful European farming lobby Copa-Cogeca is losing legitimacy even as it stymies the EU’s green agenda and hoovers up public funds
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A single lobby group has dominated the European Union’s agricultural policy for more than half a century. Established in 1959 at the inception of the Common Agricultural Policy, which was founded on the post-war ideal that Europe should never go hungry again, Copa-Cogeca has assumed a role as the self-proclaimed voice of European farmers and agri-cooperatives in Brussels.
On the strength of its history and claim to represent all farmers, it enjoys privileged access to the EU at all levels of its policy making.
In the past year, Copa-Cogeca has used its position to oppose environmental reforms proposed by the Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy, including successfully postponing a law to slash pesticide use, and attempting to derail a law that would restore European ecosystems.
Lighthouse Reports’ investigation into the group, including interviews with nearly 120 farmers, insiders, politicians, academics and activists, as well as a survey of 50 Copa-Cogeca affiliates, casts serious doubt on the lobby’s membership strength and legitimacy in the farming community.
Smaller scale and younger farmers in particular said they do not feel represented by Copa-Cogeca. Arūnas Svitojus, the president of a Copa-Cogeca affiliated union from Lithuania, told us: “The decisions go through the big countries, big farmers, big unions. And that’s difficult for smaller farmers, family farmers. There’s no equality.”
Jean Mathieu Thevenot, a young farmer from the French Basque country, said: “Most of the youth farmers I know and work with are disconnected and in complete disagreement with the vision of Copa-Cogeca, which has a lot of power in the EU but advocates in favour of the status quo and industrial agriculture.”
The results of our survey revealed Copa-Cogeca and its affiliate unions’ membership data to be opaque, sometimes inflated and – where figures are available – in decline.
Our first challenge was to build a picture of Copa-Cogeca’s membership strength across the EU, so we began by searching the websites and annual reports of its affiliate members. A breakthrough occurred when we read Eurofound’s 2016 report into representativeness in the agricultural sector, a survey of union member strength in all 27 EU countries.
This report gave us a baseline from which to compare the few membership figures we had been able to find, even though Georg Adam, a Eurofound-commissioned researcher we spoke to, cautioned: “In some cases you cannot really trust information given by trade unions. Sometimes they have inflated data because they want to demonstrate their strength so they may double their membership numbers.”
We contacted 50 Copa-Cogeca affiliates to request up-to-date membership figures, but only 9 responded. Despite this, we could see that their membership had declined significantly since 2016 in several countries including France, Ireland, Poland, the Netherlands and Finland.
Next, we built a cross-border team of journalists in five EU countries – all of them major agricultural economies including Spain, Romania, Poland, the Netherlands and Denmark – to investigate their national Copa-Cogeca affiliates. We decided to focus on reaching out to farmers because we wanted affected communities to tell us how well represented they felt by their unions. Farmers make up nearly half of the approximately 120 sources we spoke to for this investigation. Meanwhile, journalists from Politico Europe contributed vital reporting from inside the corridors of power in Brussels.
In Brussels, Politico sat down with Copa-Cogeca secretary-general Pekka Pesonen for a frank interview in which he conceded that the group’s claim to represent all 22 million European farmers was more of an aspiration than an actual representation of its membership. “Technically speaking, it’s less than [that],” he said – but exactly how many, he couldn’t say.
Our Spanish, Polish and Romanian partners discovered that their governments pay a combined €1.4-million a year in public money for certain national unions to participate in Copa-Cogeca, which compounds the advantages enjoyed by powerful but unrepresentative organisations over numerous others who are excluded.
In Denmark, Danwatch reported on the strange case of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council (L&F), a union which claims to be growing its membership numbers when official statistics show a steep decrease in the number of farmers in the country.
And in Poland, where around 1.3 million farmers are nominally members of Copa-Cogeca’s affiliate KRIR, which receives considerable sums of taxpayer money for its operations, the Supreme Audit Office concluded in 2021 that, “due to the lack of records, agricultural chambers had no knowledge of all the members whose interests they are supposed to represent.”