Aarhus University Hospital is receiving patients across Europe on a daily basis. Patients from Sweden, Norway, Iceland, UK and Germany come to the hospital for treatment that cannot be found in their own countries.
“I think I get a couple emails a day, where people ask if we can help them” said Dilek Ergün, Team Coordinator at Aarhus University Hospital. “We have also had requests from outside the EU, such as Africa” she added.
Sending patients abroad
Aarhus University Hospital also send their patients abroad for treatment. Sweden, Norway, the US and Italy are countries that Danish patients are frequently receiving care in.
“Perhaps there are 2 or 3 patients in Denmark with one particular rare disease that we don’t know how to treat” said Ergün. “And maybe one of our doctors have a colleague in Germany for example, and that doctor may have treated more patients with that disease, or they might have medicine that we don’t know of” she added.
The standard procedure
“Usually we get an email or a phone call from the patient or their healthcare official. I ask them to send me their medical information, so that I know which department to involve. Then I send the medical information to our doctor or physician, who evaluates if we can be of any help. ” said Ergün.
When the hospital has decided to help the patient, it’s time to deal with the practicalities such as how the patient will travel to Denmark and where his/hers family will stay.
“Finally, we give the patient a time and a date for an appointment with a doctor” said Ergün.
France aims to be at the forefront of environment protection and energy transition. Since 2012, it took ambitious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by organizing the COP21 and foster renewable energies. In addition, promoting circular economy is at the core of France’s environmental policy.
It is estimated that around 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012. And 8 million metric tons of plastic ended up in our oceans.
Therefore, this is why the 2015 Energy Transition for Green Growth Act banned single-use lightweight plastic carrier bags earlier this year and disposable plastic tableware by 2020 at the latest.
Packaging manufacturers challenge France violating free movement of goods
But, not everyone is willing to welcome the new law with open arms.
A European packaging manufacturers trade group, Pack2Go Europe, argues that the ban violates EU law on the free movement of goods. It has urged the European Commission to take legal action against France for disobeying European law.
Generally, the principle of free movement of goods is a key element of the European Union’s internal market. This principle eliminates all remaining obstacles or the national barriers to free movement of goods within EU – creating the internal market in which goods could move as freely as on a national market. It creates openness in the economy.
French MEP opposes the accusation
Virginie Rozière, a French MEP in the European Parliament, in contrast with Pack2go Europe, a Brussels-based association, says that it’s not violating the internal market.
“According to EU law, overriding mandatory requirements may justify limitations to the principle of free movement of goods. Environment protection has been recognized by the European Court of Justice as constituting an overriding mandatory requirement.”
“Since the ban on disposable plastic tableware aims to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity, it is justified in light of EU rules on the free movement of goods.” she said.
Also, she disagrees with the opinion of infringing manufacturer’s rights. She said that some plastic processing companies may suffer from the ban, but it might create new business opportunities for manufacturers of cardboard tableware or organic materials.
Furthermore, she believes the ban won’t frustrate consumers.
“Tableware made of biologically sourced materials may be slightly more expensive than plastic tableware, but there are other cheap alternatives for consumers, such as cardboard tableware.” she said.
“The law is just a progress but not a solution.”
On the other hand, Zero Waste Europe, a European coalition which aims at eliminating waste in Europe, thinks this law is just a progress but not a solution.
Delphine Lévi Alvarès, the policy officer says, “It’s just a foot in the door, we can go much further than that.” The limitation of this measure is that it is not completely banning plastic packaging.
But she understands that this is not the problem of France, it is because the plastics tableware we buy with food is considered as packaging under EU regulations and France cannot ban it. And they are reviewing the packaging directive now.
“The internal market rules prevent us from banning those items on an international level,” she explains. For example, if we just ban plastic cups in coffee shops in France but not in other countries, it is a disturbance of competition.
Delphine expects someday EU countries can completely ban plastics to avoid waste. “We should not just replace it by biological and compostable items, our final mission should go for reusable instead of single use.”
NGO warns the industry taking their responsibility
She also warns of misleading consumers to think it’s okay to leave new forks or spoons all over the place.
“It’s nonsense. If people litter on the street, it cannot be recycled. It will be all sent to landfills at the end of the day.”
She claims that the industry really has to take their responsibility and appends a label to items to raise awareness of the fact that ‘It cannot be compostable if you leave in the beach’.
The Greens shows confidence towards the law
Margrete Auken, Member of The Greens, has the same view as Zero Waste Europe. “A law like the French one is only a start. But it’s very important because it sends a strong signal that it’s possible to make changes to consumption patterns.
She has heard American consumers asking for the same thing after the French ban. However, she thinks it is not realistic that the current Danish government will launch the same law.
Brussels is in a decisive period
“It’s a very interesting moment in Brussels because we’re in the process of reviewing the waste directive,” Delphine says.
The policy officer explains that banning disposable plastic tableware in France will definitely influence other European countries as the commission is working on the plastics and circular economy strategies recently. The other main point of the act is circular economy – maximizing the value creation by reducing the amount of waste.
Annette Schneider Nielsen, the environment counsellor of the Permanent Representation of Denmark to the EU, appreciates the intention of the law.
The healthy debates make other member states take the law as an example and start thinking what kind of framework they want.
“We have to be much more ambitious in the future.”
Delphine is positive towards the zero waste development in Europe, “It’s well-engaged and we can see many good ideas.” And more proposals submitted by the MEPs are going to be discussed in the coming months.
“But we have to be much more ambitious,” she emphasizes. Zero Waste Europe will continue to communicate with the commission and improve environmental regulations and framework in the future.
Virginie Rozière agrees her country is definitely one of the most environmentally friendly EU countries. She believes that France can encourage other EU countries to conduct campaigns against plastic goods by giving the lead and proposing even more ambitious plastic-free goals.
France becomes the first country to ban all disposable plastics tableware by 2020. And the ministers announced that 50% of the material going into plastic disposable items must be organic by 2020. By Winsome Lau & Hyein Jeong The measure will ban sales of single-use plastic cups, plates and glasses unless they are made of bio-sourced materials that can be composted in a domestic composting unit.
The French ministers have said that 50% and 60% of the material going into plastic disposable items such as goblets, coffee cups, plates and cutlery must be organic by 2020 and 2025 respectively.
However, there are opposite views towards the law. Some organizations such as Pack2Go, a representative of European packaging industry claimed that it violates the EU law of free movement of goods and destroys the right of manufacturers.
This law is part of the France’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act which has been already voted and approved by the European Union last August.
By now, the French government already issued 85% of the implementing acts, for example lightweight plastic carrier bags have been banned in July 2016. The Minister for Environment, Energy and Marine Affairs recently stated that 15,000 “green” jobs have been created thanks to the Act. There are now 400 energy-plus local authorities, 153 “zero waste” local authorities and 111 pesticide-free municipalities in France.
Two years after the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights conducted a survey concerning the levels of gender-based violence in EU member states, what measures have been taken to end violence against women?
By Amy Melki & Hyebin Yoo
The European continent, which has historically held some of the leading nations in the world, is still a very powerful actor in the field of world economics and politics. With the rise of the European Union, Europe’s influence on world affairs has only strengthened through the alliance of 28 member states, like Germany and France to name a few. As first-world countries, the European Union member states pride themselves with their efforts to reach high standards of living for their citizens. However, despite their “first-world” status, even the most advanced EU member states struggle with the presence of human rights violations within their borders. Violence against women is an issue that is still very evident across European Union member states.
According to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the term “violence against women” refers to any act of gender-based violence that results in physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women whether occurring in the public or private life.
“Violence against women is one of the biggest and most widespread violation of women’s human rights,” Said Irene Rosales, a member of the European Women’s Lobby, which is an independent organization working on the EU level.
Through its research the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has concluded that one in every three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15; one in five women has experienced stalking; and every second a woman is being confronted with one or more forms of sexual harassment. With such results surfacing, the question at hand is; what is the European Union doing to combat violence against women across its member states?
On 6 April 2011, the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The Istanbul Convention, as it is also known, is the first instrument in Europe to set standards that specifically prevent violence against women and girls, protect its victims and punish perpetrators. The Istanbul Convention, which entered into force on 1 August 2014, is open for the signing and ratification of EU member states as well as EU competences. This Convention also provides for the signing and ratification by the European Union and allows the EU to accede to it to the extent of its competences.
Since its entry into force, 26 EU member states have signed and ratified the Istanbul Convention, including Belgium and Denmark. Although the Istanbul Convention has brought the European Union one step closer to reaching a violence-free Europe, it is difficult for the EU to implement such policies in individual member states without overstepping its role. The EU cannot force its member states who have signed the Convention to fund or implement the policies set out in the Convention since it is a political agreement and there is no legally binding instrument.
Shocking results were revealed from a survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights concerning levels of violence against women in European Union member states that placed Denmark at the top of the list with a high of 52% and Poland at the bottom of the list with a low of 19%.
“I think that harassment has increased because pornography in our society has increased,” Said Pascale Maquestiau, a member of Le Monde Selon Les Femmes, which is an NGO working to combat violence against women.
With the release of these results, many theories were formed concerning the accuracy of the data collected from member states while conducting the FRA survey. Skeptics criticized that the high ranking of Scandinavian countries like Denmark is actually a reflection of their high level of gender equality. The bases of this theory emerges from the strong belief that women in Scandinavian countries actually report attacks held out against them, whereas women from other European Union member states do not feel as safe and protected to file police reports on such attacks.
Reporting an attack such as domestic abuse, rape or harassment is an extremely sensitive issue for victims of the attack. It is difficult for victims of rape or sexual harassment to be able to gather the courage to file police reports on the accounts they have experienced. If member states do not have a safe and secure environment where the victim is not subjected to further harm, many cases of violence against women will go unreported. This unwillingness on the part of a victim of gender-based violence or domestic abuse to report such a crime compromises the accuracy of any survey conducted on the matter and particularly the survey conducted by the FRA.
“It has always been undermined, and the reality of the problem has always been considered as a private issue,” Said Rosales. “There is a wide acceptance in society towards this phenomenon.”
In a press release by the European Commission in March 2016, the European Commission proposed that the European Union “accedes to the Convention within its competences and alongside the member states,” referring to the Istanbul Convention. The press release explained that the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention will also bring additional benefits such as a mandate for better data collection at EU level.
“Currently, there is not enough data to show the extent and nature of violence against women,” stated the European Commission press release. “EU accession to the Convention would oblige Member States to collect and send accurate and comparable data to Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU. Better understanding the phenomenon will help tackle it.”
Finding solutions to eliminate violence against women across EU member states is not only a human rights issue, it also has its economic advantages. According to the Istanbul Convention, gender-based violence against women costs approximately 226 billion euros per year. If European Union member states reduce gender-based violence against women by 10% they would be saving approximately 7 billion euros each year.
Outside organizations such as Le Monde Selon Les Femmes work to combat and raise awareness concerning all forms of gender-based violence against women as well as empower women in society. The goal of this feminist NGO, which is based in Belgium, is to reach equality between men and women through its advocacy in Belgium’s government. Pascale Maquestiau, a member of Le Monde Selon Les Femmes, explains her thoughts on the current situation in Belgium.
“I thought—in Belgium certainly we have a good law about that,” Said Maquestiau referring to the punishment of aggressors in situations of rape or harassment. “So I tried to find something and I understood that we don’t have a good law and we don’t have good prosecution. It is not a problem for the people [in Belgium] and for me that was incredible,” Said Maquestiau.
Belgium, which ranked among the top 10 EU countries with the highest percentage of violence against women according to the FRA survey released in 2014 still struggles from the problem of sexual harassment, rape and domestic abuse.
“Which kind of society do we have? It is very difficult for girls to live in Belgium when we don’t have repression for aggressors in the street. Why?” Said Maquestiau.
As an advocate, Maquestiau sets up workshops to train and raise awareness among young women and men concerning the issue of violence against women and domestic abuse. In her opinion, working with men is fundamental to solving the issues of rape, sexual harassment or domestic abuse.
“All the time people want to help the women who lived through sexual abuse or rape, which is important, But, its important also to work with men,” Maquestiau said. “All the time we repair women, but we do not solve the problem.” added Maquestiau.
Frederik Bramm has spent over 2.5 million Danish Kroner on treating his Lyme disease without state support since 2010.
Bramm, 23-year-old, experienced severe leg pain in August 2009, shortly before becoming unable to lift them.
“I cannot explain what it felt like,” said Bramm. “I fell down when I walked and my left leg was not working normally. I also suffered from headaches and began throwing up from one day to the other,” he added.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection commonly transferred from ticks to humans. The infection happens when the insect bites into its hosts and draws blood. While not all ticks carry diseases, the one that settled under Frederik’s sports watch later proved to be life-changing.
Bramm received an official diagnosis for Lyme disease in Florida, United States after Danish doctors said they were unable to treat him. His treatments involved antibiotics, minerals and vitamins in United States, Spain and Germany.
“I could not walk and was bedridden 24 hours a day. I was completely disabled,” said Bramm.
His condition has improved since he began treatment in Germany. However, the disease has taken a toll on his bank account and created tension within his family due to economic strains.
“I have spent millions to get to where I am today and there is no reimbursement from the Danish state to be seen,” he said.
Today, Bramm travels frequently to Washington DC, United States to continue his treatment. He said that he had flew over five times in 2015.
“[The Danish state] promised me that they would continue pay for my treatments, but they haven’t done that” he said.
European Union’s plan
Bramm’s experience is not uncommon in Europe, and stories like his did not go unnoticed by the international authority. In 2011, the European Parliament passed a Directive to make cross-border healthcare more accessible to EU citizens.
The Directive states all EU citizens like Bramm are entitled seek medical care in member states other than their own, and be reimbursed for it by their home country. However, member states are allowed to implement the Directive differently according to their national law.
“[The Directive] has clarified patient’s right with regards to cross-border healthcare, it has been transposed in all member states,” said Annika Nowak, member of cabinet for Vytenis Andriukeitis, Commissioner of Health and Food Safety in European Union (EU).
“However, we see still throughout three years of transposition time that very few people know about their rights… there is no real increase in using this right,” said Nowak. “[The Directive] has changed the legal framework and legal clarity, but not necessarily the usage of the right,” she added.
A study published by European Commission in 2015 showed that member states face two main challenges in implementing the Directive; The first challenge being that patients have a hard time obtaining information about medical care abroad; The second being that some patients need to provide prior-authorisation for cross-border healthcare from their home country before they can be reimbursed.
“Some member states have been really active doing their job and some not at all,” said Laurent Louette, Communication Officer at European Patients’ Forum.
Lack of information for treatment abroad
In order to better inform EU citizens of their cross-border healthcare right, each member states have set up information centres called National Contact Points (NCP) to answer public questions about cross-border healthcare.
However, less than 20 per cent of Europeans feel that they are informed on their cross-border healthcare rights, while only ten per cent know about the existence of National Contact Points, according to a 2015 survey by Eurobarometer.
“All member states have established National Contact Points, so the basic information is available in all countries… the level of quality or usefulness varies,” said Nowak.
When asked about the report that few Europeans know that NCPs exists, Nowak said that the European Commission relies heavily on member states and patient organisations to promote the National Contact Points’ public exposure.
“We take care of the administration of the EU regulation much more,” said Søeren Enggaard Stidsen, senior advisor at Denmark’s National Contact Point when asked how does he advise patients in getting cross-border healthcare.
Stidsen recommends patients to ask their local authority as to whether they can be reimbursed for their medical care or not before travelling abroad, as it is up to their government to decide how to implement the Directive.
“It is a matter of legal tradition and willingness of member states to implement the Directive,” she said.
‘We are people, not numbers’
One of the cross-border patients who do not know about the existence of National Contact Points is 27-year-old Italian Anna Zaghi who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis.
Multiple Sclerosis is a neurological condition that affects the nervous system, potentially causing cognitive and physical impairments.
In October 2013, Zaghi moved to Brussels to intern with an European NGO that supports patients with Multiple Sclerosis. However, her condition requires treatment in form of infusions once a month.
“My neurologist in Italy didn’t want to adress me to anyone who could support me when I move to Brussels,” said Zaghi.
“She basically told me, ‘Anna, what if I had to listen to every single request patients make me?’ I think she should. We are people, not numbers,” she added.
“Maybe I should have insisted with my doctor, but really I was in a mental state, and felt like I couldn’t do it. I felt powerless. I was scared to start questioning the system,” she said.
“I asked to have treatments on Fridays, so that I could rest on weekends. Often I came to Italy on Thursdays, went to the hospital on Fridays, and went back to Brussels on Sundays,” said Zaghi when asked about her monthly trip back to Italy.
Her plane tickets back to Italy were paid by the NGO she worked with in Brussels. “I was lucky I found the support on the other side,” she said.
Zaghi said it is difficult for young people with chronic or rare illnesses to move abroad. “I’ve heard so many people who gave up the desire to go abroad because they feel like they can’t. It’s not fair,” she said.
Zaghi added that there is not enough information for patients to understand how the system really works.
“I don’t think we should put the blame solely on NCPs, they are member state agencies for most of them, so it’s really up to the government,” said Louette.
“Even though it’s only maybe a small number of patients, we believe it is a very central Directive for patients’ rights in Europe,” Louette added.
Some countries might ask patients to seek permission from their home country before granting them healthcare, which is also called “prior authorisation,” irrespective whether the patients are in critical condition or not.
The European Commission has stated that countries can only ask for “prior-authorisation” if the medical service that they are providing is “highly specialised and cost-intensive,” the problem is that there is no consensus on what constitutes “highly specialised and cost-intensive.”
“The EPF recommend more sharing of information between countries, but also more focus on NCPs across Europe. The patients groups should also bring up the issues to a national level, and basically say: you’re not doing the job, this is what you should do,” said Louette.
“Nobody wants to travel to country A or B to receive treatment. That’s why there is a small demand, and hence some member states are not interested in it. It’s an issue, for patient with rare diseases or chronic illnesses, who need that possibility,” Louette added.
“Just because there’s a small number of patients like these, doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to this treatment,” said Louette.
The European Commission proposed a revision of a directive to fight social dumping, but Denmark and 10 Eastern European countries have raised concerns.
By Sebastian Dall and Charlotte MacKay
Shortly after the European Commission, on 8 March, proposed a revision of the directive on cross-border workers, the national parliament of Denmark and 10 Eastern European countries showed concerns towards the “equal pay for equal work at the same place” warrant, arguing that is was national competence.
Jens Arnholtz a researcher in migration of workers says that Denmark has an entirely different reason for showing apprehension toward the revision than the Eastern European countries. The current directive states that the term ‘minimum wage’ is defined by national traditions and practices. The European Commission has since deleted that paragraph, which means that cases of minimum wages will be done in the European Court of Justice.
“The European Court of justice has ruled cases before in favor of companies which would not be the way a Danish court would view it,” Arnholtz says.
As the only Western European country raising concerns towards the revision, Ole Christensen, a Danish, social democratic member of the European Parliament were often has asked why.
“It has been a challenge to explain why Denmark is against equal pay for equal work, but I have close contact to the spokesmen and I believe it will be there in the final draft,” Ole Christensen says.
On 20 July the Commission responded to the concerns saying that the revision would not breach the national competence on pay but only ensure fair competition between Member States; the Commission has gone forward with the proposal.
The European Union has tried to minimize wage differences between posted and local workers since 1996, but European parliaments are differing greatly on social equality.
By: Charlotte MacKay and Sebastian Dall
In 2014 there were approximately 1.9 million European workers posted throughout the 28 EU member states, and between 2010 and 2014 the number of postings increased by about 45 percent, according to an EU Commission report.
Today, Eastern and Western European countries are clashing over a proposed revision of the posted workers directive which argues for “same pay for the same work at the same place.”
For years European companies have been using employees from other countries with lower salaries to reduce the cost of labor, but the idea of having ‘equal pay for equal work,’ as the EU Commission has put it, does not sit unanimously among the 28 member states. The posting of workers is part of a fundamental right of the EU to move labor across borders and therefore a proposal to revise the current directive has caused a turbulent discussion.
A posted worker is an employee who has been sent by a company to another country to work on a temporary basis. Current European legislation expects these employees to be paid at least the minimum wage of the host country, but explains that workers do not have to be paid the same as local employees. This exploitation of workers has been coined social dumping.
In 1996 the European Commission established the first directive on posting workers which laid a foundation for the free labor movement of people. Currently, the directive stipulates that it is the responsibility of the Member States to lay down the rules that govern posted temporary workers.
The revision of the Posted Workers Directive that was introduced on 8 March this year is pushing to prevent social dumping by demanding a general principle of equal treatment for posted workers. Instead of using the “term minimum wage” the European Commission wants to use the term “payment” to ensure the same remuneration for working overtime and other bonuses.
“Europe is the cause of the social dumping and Europe needs to be the place for the solution,” says Esther Lynch, the Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. “I think it is really important that this Commission moves forward even though a number of member states have raised some concerns about it.”
More specifically, the new directive will include:
A broader set of remuneration rules;
An equated salary to local workers if posting is longer than 24 months; and
Equal rights for domestic and cross-border temporary work agencies.
“I think there is a real will in this parliament to try to make this revision work to benefit the workers,” says Jean Lambert, member of the European Parliament’s committee on employment and social affairs for the Greens.
Shortly after the revision was presented, 11 national parliaments raised concerns toward the proposal; 10 being from Eastern Europe and the eleventh from Denmark.
Jens Arnholtz, a researcher on migration of workers, argues that Eastern European countries are against the revision because they see the low salaries as a market advantage. If equal pay for equal work was a reality for Eastern European workers, they would not be able to go to the Western part of Europe to work because they often compete on only price.
Although posted workers earn about 50 percent less than the locals in some areas and sectors, according to the European Commission, the money they earn while working abroad is still a more reasonable income than the even lower wages they earn in their home country. With that being said, Eastern Europe still does not agree with the equal pay warrant because they feel it is a matter of national competence and not the EU’s responsibility.
On the contrary, Lynch argues that workers from Eastern Europe are not competing on pay and that they are just as skilled, motivated and dedicated as workers who are from Western Europe.
In addition, Lambert contends that the debate should not be about East and West. “This is about how you prevent the exploitation of workers; this is about how you prevent bad employers not playing by the rules,” says Lambert “For us, this is important.”
Neglected social rights
In November 2004 the Swedish Building Workers Union blocked the way of 35 Latvian posted workers in the town of Vaxholm. For months the Union demanded that the Riga-based company ‘Laval un Partneri Ltd.’ sign a collective agreement reassuring higher salaries for the Latvian workers who were being paid less than the Swedish workers.
Laval un Partneri Ltd filed a case against the Swedish union for hindering the workers to do their job or as it was called: “breaching the freedom to provide services.” The European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the free market demanding the Swedish Building Workers Union and the Electricians Union, who joined the blockade out of sympathy, to pay the Latvian firm 260,000 euros as compensation.
In some countries in the EU, such as Denmark and Sweden, there is no minimum-wage system because of strong unions demanding collective agreements. For this reason, these agreements often set low standards with bonuses for overtime and pensions, as seen in the Laval-case.
During the same period as the Laval-case, the European Court of Justice ruled two other cases of social dumping in favor of the firms Viking and Rüffert, making it more difficult for the unions to legally combat social dumping by collective bargains and strikes.
Since these cases, the European Commission has tried to fight what a recent report by Guillaume Balas from the committee on employment and social affairs called an “asymmetry between economic freedoms and social rights.” In the report the French social democrat says that social rights have been neglected and calls for “a system that ensures predominance for social rights over economic freedoms.”
Altruistic or self-concerned?
The European Commission often refers to social dumping in terms of unfair competition, which raises the question of whether the revision is a way to stop the exploitation of workers or a ploy for the Western European countries to be able to compete with cheap labor from Eastern Europe. Ole Christensen a member of the European Parliament for the Social Democrats says that both parameters are important.
“It is to help everyone. We need a fair competition no matter if you are Romanian, Polish or Danish without keeping people out of the different countries,” he says.
Jean-Claude Juncker has many times said that “social dumping has no place in the European Union” and “the same work at the same place should be remunerated in the same manner.”He even mentioned it in his State of Union Speech in 2015.
“We have to step up the work for a fair and truly pan-European labor market. Fairness in this context means promoting and safeguarding the free movement of citizens as a fundamental right of our Union, while avoiding cases of abuses and risks of social dumping.”
The future of sustainable dairy farming in Europe is hampered by neoliberal forces and the overproduction of cheap milk, the culmination of global market problems.
Johannes Pfaller is a milk producer from Bavaria in the southern part of Germany. He started to work on his family farm when he was 10 years old, and is now a big volume purveyor in Germany with 120 cows.
However, the low milk prices for farmers in recent years is jeopardizing his family farm.
“In Germany the prices went from 40 cents to about 20 cents in 2 years, so the price has halved,” says Pfaller. “The price goes down, so my income is low. I sell more because I hope I can keep the income. That is what every farmer is doing. When you have a low milk price and you produce less, your income decreases even more.”
Pfaller explains this crisis as similar to being stuck in a hamster wheel. With the decrease in milk demand after the Russian embargo on dairy exports, accompanied with a slowdown in the Chinese market among other factors, an increase in the production of milk only worsens the fate of the dairy milk farmers in Europe.
Factors contributing to the European Milk Crisis
The European dairy crisis has continued for at least two years now since there was a food embargo towards the EU from Russia, according to Søren Bisgaard, Food Attaché for the Danish Representation to the European Union. This was an answer to the sanctions from the EU due to the situation on the Crimean peninsula. The Russian embargo significantly influenced the price of many products because it was the second largest export market for the EU. After the embargo, Belgium milk became cheaper by 36.3%.
Since then, many European farmers from Finland, the Baltic countries and France have urged for the complete abolition of the sanctions. But European officials insist that lifting the sanctions won’t solve the problem.
“Russia is an important market for the European Union, but the Russian government over the years has been taking lots of protective measures, presenting them as sanitary concerns or some kind of rules that are not right, such as the poor quality of the potatoes in Poland and Hungary overruled by the WTO recently in our favour,” said Daniel Rosario, spokesperson for the European Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development.
“So even if the sanction disappears, all these restrictions are still in place, because they largely don’t comply with some kind of quality requirement.”
The second reason is less demand from China. China had bought a lot of milk powder from the EU but suddenly stopped. New policy changes in China focusing on the safety of milk and dairy products blocked access to China’s market. This has impacted negatively on EU exports of dairy products. In addition, the growth of China’s economy this year hit a record low in 25 years. The slowdown in the Chinese economy had a negative effect on world trade and slowed the development of the economy in the European area.
According to a source from the Commission of Agricultural and Rural Development, there had been a lot of expectations from China’s market, and they couldn’t imagine how such a big market just slowed down.
But these are only a few factors which gave rise to the dairy crisis, and the whole situation is much more complicated. Prices for agricultural products have fallen not only in Europe but also worldwide, while production and labour costs remain high. This causes a loss in revenue for farmers.
“It is too simplistic to say that it was the Russian ban that caused this. It was the end of the dairy quotas as well, and in a way it was kind of the perfect storm with all these factors — the Russian ban, the European quotas in the sense that it changed the rules of the game, and the overall global situation of overproduction, the slowdown in exports to China and other countries” said Rosario.
The EU Response
The European Union has implemented several packages in the midst of the crisis, including aid and policy instruments from the Common Market Organisation (CMO) regulations. These include public intervention, which allows the buying-in of butter and skimmed-milk powder (SMP) into public storage, and private storage aid, which provides aid for storage of butter, SMP and cheeses under the ownership of a private operator.
On 7th September 2015, the Commission announced a support package worth €500 million to sectors affected by the Russian embargo. Of this, 420 million went directly to member states to address the cash-flow difficulties farmers were facing, the functioning of the supply chain and the stability of the market.
An additional package of exceptional measures was made available by the Commission on 14 March, 2016, including the activation of Article 222 from the Common Market Organisation, enabling organisations and cooperatives in the dairy sector to establish voluntary agreements on their production and supply; a temporary increase in state aid to a maximum of €15,000 per farmer per year in with no national ceiling; and doubling the quantity intervention ceilings for skimmed milk powder and butter from 109,000 tonnes and 60,000 tonnes respectively to 218,000 tonnes and 100,000 tonnes.
On 18 July 2016, the European Commission presented a new package of measures worth €500 million from EU funds, including conditional adjustment aid implemented at a Member State level out of a menu proposed by the Commission worth €350 million, and a EU Milk Reduction Scheme of €150 million to incentivize a reduction in milk production.
And the EU Milk Reduction Scheme had received participation from 52000 farmers from 27 Member States, Commissioner Phil Hogan announced on 29 September 2016. It had received almost full subscription (98.9 %), with applications made offering to reduce production in the final quarter of 2016 by 1.06 million tonnes.
“This incentive for farmers to produce less was a huge take up in the member states,” said Rosario. “It shows that it was a well calibrated measure that is having an effect, and people are supporting it and using it, and that is the best way to check whether a measure is good or not.”
The plight of the European farmers
“In the EU it’s not transparent at all where the money goes,” said Sieta van Keimpema, the Vice President of the European Milk Board and Chairman of the Dutch Dairymen Board. “It’s a lot of money coming from Brussels, but in the Netherlands only two cents go directly as subsidies to the farmers. The rest of the billions are separated into different industries and retail. They’re saying agricultural subsidies go to the farmers, but looking into the details there’s not a lot going to the farmers.”
The income of farmers like Keimpema and Pfaller has gone down by at least 40% because of the low milk prices for farmers, and now 40 to 60% of their income is composed of subsidies. If those subsidies go away and the prices don’t go up they will have no way to support their farms and make a living.
“In the Lisbon Treaty, the goal of the agricultural policy is to stabilize markets and ensure that everyone who works as a farmer gets a yearly higher income, and they are not doing a good job these last few years,” Keimpema adds.
And more and more dairy farmers are leaving the market. According to Keimpema, 10% of dairy farmers in the Netherlands are expected to stop next year, as opposed to not more than 3% annually in previous years.
“Many farmers have no power to support their farm anymore and have stopped production, so Germany has 3-4% less milk than half a year ago,” said Pfaller. “But now when the milk price goes up, the farmers are going ahead again to produce milk. Make speed, more and more milk, but I am sure in 12 months, the next crisis will come again.
EU officials hope that the new milk reduction scheme will help European dairy farmers manage the crisis. According to the scheme they will get paid if they have not produced extra milk. The fate of European farmers does not only lie within the hands of the EU, but is intertwined with the future of the global market.
According to the European Commission last week, 52 thousand farmers around Europe applied for the new EU Milk Reduction Scheme released earlier in July, paying farmers not to overproduce milk. Nevertheless, many European farmers still consider the future of global dairy farming is at risk.
It’s not normal when the price of milk is cheaper than water in the local supermarket.
This fact has not gone unnoticed by President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who has acknowledged this two consecutive years in a row in his annual State of the Union speech to the Parliament on both 14th Sep. 2016 and 9th Sep. 2015.
The situation of the dairy crisis faced by consumers and producers of milk in Europe has gone on for two years. But it’s a milk problem with global repercussions.
According to Commission sources, there isn’t only a European oversupply as other countries such as New Zealand are large producers as well. The global milk production, with Europe being the largest producer with approximately 156 billion liters annually, greatly exceeds the global demand.
“We have looked at the different systems worldwide, and we see that as soon as the chain is overproducing, farmers worldwide are in crisis,” said Sieta van Keimpema, the Vice President of the European Milk Board and Chairman of the Dutch Dairymen Board.
“So not only the European farmers but farmers in Africa today are in crisis because we are dumping our overproduction in those regions, and that’s giving a lot of trouble.”
With the continuing overproduction of European milk, the crisis shows no signs of ending in the imminent future.
Greenpeace and other NGO’s are pushing the EU for measures against microplastic pollution. Bans were already made in the US and the Netherlands, with the UK on the way. But the EU is still considering if a ban is necessary and exploring the possibility of other measures.
By Gacia Trtrian, Peter Skovbjerg Jensen and Nadja Dam Jensen
Everyday tiny pieces of plastic get washed out in the drain and end up in the ocean. The so called microplastics are found in many everyday things like clothes, cosmetics and tyres. They’re even found in most kinds of toothpaste.
Several countries like the United States and the Netherlands have already made bans on some microplastics, while Canada and the United Kingdom are currently working on bans. However, the European Union is yet to make proposals for a ban.
Many NGO’s are pushing the EU to take measures on the problem. Some companies have even taken their own measure to limit the release of microplastics. The EU, however, is waiting for results of several studies, before they can begin the process of making legislation.
Oceans full of plastic
Plastic pieces smaller than 5 mm are defined as microplastics or microbeads. Some manufactures use these tiny pieces of plastic, also called microbeads, in their products to achieve different effects. These effects include scrubbing, in creams, and whitening effects in toothpaste.
Other kinds of microplastics come from more indirect sources like clothes made from synthetic fabrics, artificial grass of football fields and car tires. Microplastics are released from these sources as they disintegrate.
While a lot of countries have focused on limiting and banning the use of bigger disposable plastics, microplastics have not received as much focus. Like bigger pieces of plastics, microplastics are seen as a threat to the environment that also damage the marine and coastal life.
“We already know that 700 species of marine animals are adversely affected by bigger plastics, presumptions are that about 1 to 1.5 million animals die from plastics every year.
Microplastics are instead found at the base of the food chain where they affect smaller animals like oyster and mussels. But because it affects the base of the food chain, it will also affect higher levels in the food chain,” says Colin Janssen, Lab Director of the Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Professor at Ghent university in Belgium.
Microplastics can sometimes be seen in your toothpaste as small beads. Photo: Nadja Dam Jensen
Greenpeace wants more measures taken
Greenpeace is one of many NGO’s that have worked towards measures being taken on the problem. The focus of Greenpeace has especially been on microplastics in consumer products. They argue that especially microbeads used in toothpaste and body scrubs are unnecessary and should be banned.
While Greenpeace have already secured a Government commitment in the United Kingdom, where a ban is expected by the end of 2017, they are still working towards getting the EU to commit to a solution.
“This places the EU slightly behind the curve of some national governments stepping up on this issue, though it’s good to see it being taken seriously,” says Fiona Nicholls, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK in an email.
“We’re continuing the campaign, calling for the ban to include any household products which could send plastics down the drain, past filtration systems and into the sea.”
EU still looking for major source
The European Union will be working towards a targeted strategy on plastics and microplastics, mentioned EU Commissioner of Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, in a speech at an Our Oceans conference on September 16.
Though the EU is criticised for being behind other countries in making legislation, the EU insists that more research is needed before taking measures against microplastics.
“We believe that it is a problem. But in order to take measures we first need to clearly define what the problem is. Is the problem microplastics in general? Is it microplastics in cosmetics? Microplastics from car tyres? We need to figure out the major source,” says Policy Officer of Directorate General Environment, Michail Papadoyannakis.
Greenpeace does agree that more research is needed on the topic of microbeads.
“There’s definitely more research needed in many areas around the harm which microplastics can cause to marine life and to humans – but it’s the latter area which is much less known.”
Nicholls also stated that though there is enough evidence about the impact of microplastics on marine life, more can be done to provide scientific evidence of the microplastics ending up in the food chain and in seafood consumed by humans.
Dick Vethaak, toxicologist and former EU researcher, says that there is not enough research for the EU to take useful measures.
One reason why not enough research is being done to see the effects of microplastics on people, and not just marine life is because, Dick Vethaak says, “the microplastics problem is seen in the EU as an environmental problem, not as a human health problem.”
A clash of scientific opinions
There is ongoing debate in the scientific community on the kind of research being done. The main focus of the debate is the sponge-like quality of microplastics.
Some scientists claim that microplastics act as a sponge, absorbing toxins from their surrounding environment.
They claim that when these tiny pieces of plastic enter into different organisms, including people, the chemicals absorbed are then released in the stomach and into the organism.
The methods of research done to support this claim are criticised by other researchers in the community.
Colin Janssen is one of the researchers who disagree with the research methods being used by researchers supporting the claim.
He says that the absorption property of the microplastics would not show if research was done on samples collected from realistic concentrations of microplastics and realistic concentrations of chemicals, instead of controlled labs. “The assumption of the danger of microplastics associated with chemicals, is in our opinion not correct,” he says.
Ban may not be solution
The European Union is still not sure whether there will be a ban on microplastics or not. They are still considering which measures would be most helpful in solving the problem and preventing more plastics from contaminating the ocean.
“We now have a quite good picture about microplastics in cosmetics and also a broad overview of microplastics in other products and sources. What needs to be done is to make a further analysis of these additional sources. So not only in cosmetics, but also in paint, car tires, synthetic textiles. We need to analyse these sources more. This is what we want to do now in the context of the strategy for plastics,” says Michail Papadoyannakis from the EU commission.