The opposition between agricultural policies and competition laws is not new. The two blocks have been at odds with each other since the implementation of the Rome Treaty. For one side, agriculture should be fully exempt from the control of competition laws, because of its incompatible specificities with market operations (climate hazards, food security, lack of resiliency of short-term agricultural supply, recurring systemic crises, information asymmetry…). For the other side, competition laws are a prerequisite to a capitalistic free-market system that has a direct bearing on consumers’ interests, and no unique character should obstruct competition laws…
Pursuant to these principles, the Brussels authorities regularly prosecuted European agricultural operations, when they tried to organize and influence their negotiations with manufacturers and distributors. In fact, this was the case in 2006, when the French General Federation of Beet Producers (CGB) established France-Betterave––an action group rallying 75 percent of producers––and attempted to weigh on prices during negotiations with manufacturers. The organization was accused of dominant market position and its effectiveness was reduced.
Yet, we must ask the right questions: Who holds the dominant position? In the case of the French sugar beet sector, 26,000 producers were facing seven manufacturers. The situation is identical in many agricultural activities. It enables Henri Brichart, President of the French National Federation of Dairy Farmers (FNPL), to declare during a debate held in Paris on March 11, that farmers are not in a position to negotiate their prices, since they cannot switch to a different client if they do not agree with prices. “I concur with the market if I have a credible alternative and if my commercial partner does not abuse his dominant position. Farmers are not afraid of the market if the market includes the leverage of its economic players” added Brichart.
For the past few years, we have seen derogatory measures to competition laws in certain fields, such as cultural activities. According to some experts, such measures made it possible to safeguard the book industry. So, when will we see an “agricultural exception”, whose stakes are at least as important as cultural stakes?