Saturday, April 12, 2008

EU awaits official WTO ruling

Leaked documents suggest US can impose sanctions

The year 2008 has brought another loss to the European Union in its more than a decade-old tariff dispute with Latin American banana producers and the US, as a leaked interim report from the World Trade Organization (WTO) clearly sided with the US on who can then levy sanctions on European imports equal to damages incurred by US companies.

Have patience, do not react and this too shall pass! The mantra advocated by many in the labyrinths of power in Brussels seems to have slipped badly as 11 years down the road the “Banana Wars” of the late 1990s came back knocking on the doors of the European Commission.

Joining the fray, the US had said in a statement: “The US request relates to the EU’s apparent failure to implement the WTO rulings in a 1996 proceeding initiated by Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and America.”

After the 1996 WTO ruling, the EU had committed to bring its tariff-quota regime for bananas in compliance with the ruling no later than January 1, 2006, said the US statement, lamenting the fact that “the EU banana regime put in place on January 1, 2006 features a zeroduty tariff quota that is allocated exclusively to bananas from African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Bananas of Latin American origin do not have access to this duty-free tariff rate quota and are subject, instead, to a 176 Euro/ton duty.”

During a press conference later, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Mariann Fischer Boel had wondered why in the first place the US was interested in the banana sector as it is not a banana producer, but then she answered her own doubts with the mention of Chiquita, a major banana company, as the possible cause for US to intervene.

The Commissioner, however, added that the EU will look into the matter and take appropriate steps. Chiquita, based in Cincinnati in the US, could not be contacted for their immediate reaction but it had said in its annual report last year that the tariff added USD 75 million in net costs in 2006.

European banana sector sources told New Europe that other US exporters, including Del Monte and Dole, are also affected, adding that the European Commissioner has her facts correct that no bananas are grown in the US, but in the trade circle of today’s era of globalisation everyone is aware of the large farming interests of these leading world exporters globally, especially in the Latin American region.

The US statement pointed out that WTO ruling had said “the EU’s regime discriminates against bananas originating in Latin American countries and against distributors of such bananas, including several US companies,” adding “The EU was under an obligation to bring its banana regime into compliance with its WTO obligations by January 1999.”

The EU’s tariff-only banana policy took effect in 2006, after a nearly five-year transition from a license-and-quota system that the US and Latin American producers had fought since its introduction in 1993.

The WTO ruled against the old system in 1997 and upheld US sanctions of European goods in 1999.During negotiating for a single tariff system to modify its complex web of duties and quotas for imports, the European Commission had suggested EU duties of 230 Euro and then scaling them down to 187 Euro, but WTO panels had rejected the proposals arguing that those were discriminatory against Latin American (Latam) nations.

Out of that deadlock emerged the figure of 176 Euro, but the conflict simmered on.Even after the introduction of the new EU single tariff system, there was widespread dissatisfaction, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere got into the driver’s seat to find a political solution based on a thorough monitoring of the EU banana imports and various price systems in force.

But, after waiting nearly for a year, Ecuador decided to go ahead with the WTO route culminating in a victory late last year. On November 23, 2006 Ecuador was joined by Colombia as a third party. Panama and the US followed and more countries are set to join in the fray according to sector insiders.

The EU’s current banana import policy significantly differentiates access treatment as a tariff-quota volume of 775,000 tonnes is exclusively reserved for bananas of ACP origin. ACP bananas within the quota enter duty-free (i.e., at a 176 Euro/tonne margin of preference), with unlimited ACP over-quota access authorised at a tariff of 176 Euro/tonne.

On the other hand, an “autonomous” tariff of 176 Euro/tonne (a rate more than double the previously-applicable rate of 75 Euro/tonne) applies to all other bananas.Bananas are the most important agricultural product in Ecuador, and its exports account for 25 percent of all Ecuador’s agricultural exports. Some 22 percent of all banana output is aimed for the European Union market but this share to EU 27 today is down by 3.3 percent.

On the other hand, in Europe it is a “sensitive” commodity and there is a protection regime for the sector.While bananas grown within the bloc have shrunk to only 11 percent of the total EU supply, highly-subsidised production is important to the Spain’s Canary Islands, the French overseas departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe and Portugal’s Madeira and Azores islands.In 2007, Europeans ate some 4.9 million tonnes of bananas, making the bloc the world’s biggest banana market but consumption per capita remains two kilogrammes below the average consumed in the US.

Over two-thirds of the fruits consumed come from Latin America, earning a total of approximately 637 million Euro in tariffs for EU coffers and a further “duty-free” 16.3 percent from Africa and Caribbean countries.

It’s interesting to note that only on Colombian bananas is there a taxation of 200 million Euro, and social pundits along with market observers agreed that this money could be utilised to aid rural communities, such as Colombia, where former presidential candidate and Colombian-French citizen Ingrid Betancourt is kept as a hostage.

Bananas are set to be prominent in the upcoming finalisation of Association Agreements with Central American and Andean countries while appearing on the radar of WTO Development Round but according to reliable WTO sources in Geneva, the latest leaked ruling can be appealed against by the European Union only when these are finalised and published.

No comments: