COVID-19 And Closed Borders: Italy's Agriculture At Risk

In the country hit hardest by coronavirus, a shortage of seasonal workers who couldn't cross the border has set of a spiral of trouble for farmers across Italy.

Rosarno, a Senegalese immigrant picking oranges in Calabria in February
Stefano Liberti

VERONA — Andrea Fasoli can't harvest his produce. From his fields in the province of Verona, the small-farm owner is sounding alarm bells about the agricultural sector, which is being hit extra hard by the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic, which has killed more people in Italy than any other country, is also keeping people shuttered inside, closing borders and preventing virtually any movement. Seasonal workers who come regularly to Italy, especially from Eastern Europe, have stayed at home, leaving Italian farms without sufficient manpower.​

Fasoli cultivates the white asparagus of Mambrotta, a prized output from his land. Due to its special characteristics, the vegetable must be harvested by hand with a particular knife, which requires the constant work of multiple farm hands. "Every year, I hire 25 agricultural workers, all from Romania. They come here for the harvest period, from March until the end of May. This year there are only five of them, who arrived before the borders were closed."

The consequence is ripe asparagus without the workforce to harvest them. "Today, my family, the few workers who are here and I are doing what we can. But I don't know for how long we can carry on. We'll probably be forced to let the products rot in the fields."

A sign of what's to come.

Throughout Italy, many farmers are facing the same dilemma as Fasoli. This year, about 370,000 workers — mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland – will be missing, according to Coldiretti, the country's largest famers association.

"We're a sign of what's to come, because we're already harvesting," notes the Veronese farmer. "Today, workers are missing for asparagus harvest, but tomorrow they'll be missing in apple orchards, for planting season and for all the other crops," asserts Fasoli. "It's going to get really get bad."

The bleak situation could further deteriorate in the face of possible interruptions of the production supply chain, warns Giuseppe De Filippo, manager of the Futuragri farming cooperative in the southern city of Foggia. "We risk business shutting down next month," said De Filippo, who sells asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes and melons farmed by Futuragri members. "In addition to the lack of workforce, we also face the issue of packaging sheds. We're adopting all safety standards and keeping the necessary distances. But if one of our workers tests positive for coronavirus, our warehouses will rightly be closed."

The agricultural production sector is suffering significant damages. Although the sector has succeeded in guaranteeing food supply chain, turnover is declining due to a series of factors. Restaurants have closed, and the demand for fresh products has dropped as consumers are more likely to stock up and purchase dry goods.

The emergency "Cura Italia" decree provided several measures to support the sector: 100 million euros to support agricultural or fishing companies forced to suspend their activities, 100 millions euros for access to financing, advance payments from the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy and a 50 million euro increase of the EU's FEAD budget to ensure food distribution to the poor.

White asparagus from Italy — Photo: Futuragri Facebook page

The threat on the horizon is frightening and affects us all. What if the country can no longer produce food due to lack of workers? Now more than ever, this crisis makes clear the incontrovertible fact that Italy"s food industry is largely based on foreign workforce, who today are unable to cross borders.

"The situation is serious, emergency solutions must be put in place," says Romano Magrini, head of labor policies at Coldiretti. "That's why we ask to reintroduce vouchers in agriculture as well as the possibility of employing workers facing redundancy or people working in other paralyzed sectors such as tourism and food service."

The threat on the horizon is frightening and affects us all.

According to Magrini, it would only be "a temporary measure to give a new breath of life to agriculture." Also, worthy of consideration to fill in the manpower gap are the thousands of foreigners whose asylum applications have been denied.

Unprotected, often forced to live in informal and undignified settlements — all the more dangerous in this period — they could be legalized as workers. That's the proposal coming from the left-wing agro-industry union Flai-Cgil and others such as Terra! and Oxfam.

A petition has been submitted to President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella and several cabinet ministers for the regularization of such workers, stipulating a seasonal employment contract. The written plea reads: "It would be a fair measure safeguarding the national interest during this difficult period in which any damage to agriculture and its function of protecting Italian food security would cause dramatic harm."

Stefano Liberti is an Italian journalist and film director, whose work includes the documentary "Soyalism" and the book "Il grande carrello".

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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