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Is the European Parliament Becoming a Populist Playground?

If, as some say, the European Parliament’s true purpose is to bestow democratic legitimacy on the EU, then recent developments should be cause for alarm. From bestowing market economy status on China to the on-going debate over glyphosate, MEPs seem to have allowed populist temptations to derail the decision-making process of the European Union.

Last week, Beijing came out guns blazing against the EU’s new trade rules against Chinese imports, deeming them a product of “Cold War thinking.” The European controversy over China’s role in the global economy – namely, whether it qualifies for the coveted “market economy status” which shields countries from being slapped around with tariffs – dates back to 2016, when MEPs rebelled against the European Commission by voting against awarding Beijing that privilege. The vote followed a heated debate during which lawmakers expressed serious doubts, citing how China subsidizes companies and dumps exports in the European market to the detriment of local industry. In the end, it was a myopic focus on the continent’s China-phobic manufacturers that tipped the terms of the debate.

Yet supporters said that granting China market economy status would have allowed Beijing to invest more money in the continent’s sluggish economy, which would spur infrastructure investment and job creation. Pro-free trade member states like the UK and Sweden charged that slapping duties on cheap imports from China would drive up the cost of raw materials and raise prices for European consumers. Yet now, due to the Parliament’s opposition, the EU has come up with a new anti-dumping compromise that promises to please neither the European steel factories nor Beijing. Not only did this move alienate China, but it further isolated Brussels at a time when Washington is riven with nationalist feeling.

It wasn’t always like this. In 2012, MEPs were applauded for fighting the good fight when they rejected the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in an act of defiance against the Commission and special corporate interests. Although most MEPs felt there was a need to standardize international regulations to protect targets of piracy and IP threats, they – and many of their constituents – worried that the treaty could lead to censorship and loss of privacy online. The Commission’s efforts to ratify ACTA had run up against a series of protests whose pinnacle was the Parliament’s emphatic NO to the implementation of the treaty.

Although it was a resounding success for the otherwise embattled institution – which was struggling to chart a path for itself in the cacophonous European decision-making process – the Parliament seems to have internalized the wrong lessons. Instead of keeping the interests of consumers at heart (as it did with ACTA), the EP is now tacking left into populist terrain and embracing the worst impulses that have bubbled up in the wake of the financial crisis.

The MES spectacle was by no means an isolated incident at the Parliament this October. Last week, the Parliament’s Agriculture and Environment Committees held a joint hearing to discuss the European Commission’s proposal to renew the license for the popular weed killer glyphosate. Farmers and, most importantly, regulators are among those clamoring for EU member states to back glyphosate’s renewal, saying that the way they make their living – and feed the continent – is at stake. But thanks to a sustained drumbeat of misleading accusations, Agriculture and Environment MEPs appeared impervious to their arguments. The hearing laid bare the Parliament’s growing alignment with anti-establishment voices at the expense of reasoned debate.

Unlike ACTA, the case for glyphosate is much more clear-cut. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) have already given the molecule a clean bill of health, assessing the substance as unlikely to cause cancer and opening the door for the renewal of its license. Yet faced with declining trust in experts, increasingly seen as corporate shills, the EU has been dragging out the decision over the renewal, raising fears among the farming community that they face an existential threat. The fact that key member states such as France and Austria have insisted they will vote against the relicensing did precious little to assuage fears.

A more well-rounded debate would have pointed out that the single, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) study that pronounced glyphosate “probably carcinogenic” was poorly explained to the public. Not only was that study examining the molecule’s potential outside of real world circumstances – for instance, without looking at the actual exposure that farmers and consumers face on a daily basis – but it was also incomplete. The committee did not consider a decades-long study commissioned by the U.S. government that tracked 89,000 farmers and their families, whose conclusions stated clearly that no identifiable link between glyphosate and cancer was found.

Since the IARC study came out, a conspiratorial mind-set has gripped the minds of activists and decision makers alike, who have embraced a rather peculiar explanation as to why all of the world’s regulatory agencies have given a clean bill of health to the molecule. Its acceptable now for high-ranking members of government and MEPs to argue, with a straight face, that Big Agro’s deep pockets have subverted the regulatory process and that only the IARC study was insulated from such undue influence.

Which explains why MEPs decided to invite to last week’s hearing a number of activist presenters like Christopher Portier, a key player in IARC’s decision to list glyphosate as carcinogenic and a former staffer from the Environmental Defense Fund. Few seemed to object to the statistician’s own conflict of interest: for years, Portier worked as a litigation consultant for some of the loudest anti-glyphosate law firms in the U.S. Out of seven presenters, only two represented those with the most authority to speak on the matter: that is, EFSA and ECHA scientists – who took pains to explain that their assessments are correct and free of industry interference.

In the end, similarly to the MES debate, MEPs turned what should have been a technical or economic question into a political one. While the Parliament’s vote is largely symbolic, it does however speak volumes to the institution’s readiness to pander to populist impulses, no matter the economic cost of making such decisions. Much like the mythical Ouroboros, the European Parliament’s reaction to rising anti-establishment feeling has been to eat its own tail and play the starring role in its own erosion.