Spanish protectionism through the European backdoor?

Halfway through December 2016, the European Parliament voted for a resolution that could have major repercussions for the import of citrus. On the initiative of Spanish MPs, the proposal was made to sharpen the regulations regarding Citrus Black Spot (CBS), and to demand cold treatment for the citrus. According to proponents, the measure is necessary to protect the citrus cultivation. According to opponents it is veiled protectionism.

Summed up, the resolution states that citrus imported into the EU first has to undergo a cold treatment, which means the fruit has to be stored at a temperature of 0.55 degrees Celsius for 24 days. Or an alternative treatment has to be executed that would first have to be approved by the European Commission. According to proponents, this measure would limit the spread of the false codling moth, and keep the moth out of Europe. The false codling moth is a small insect that is originally from sub-Saharan Africa. However, the moth has also been found in the US and Europe by now. The larvae of the moth feeds on citrus and stone fruit, among other things.

Veiled protectionism
Other noises could also be heard within the parliament. Belgian parliamentarian Louis Michel was one of those people opposed to the measure. He indicates that the same strict requirements are in place for imported fruit as for European fruit. “By enforcing the preventative cold treatment for a period of 24 days for the import of citrus, the Commission accepted a rash measure that excludes every other effective measure, it is insufficiently substantiated and it will cause prices of citrus in shops to soar.”
A Dutch member of the European Parliament, Annie Schreijer-Pierik, also expressed scathing criticism. “Ridiculous, we certainly mustn’t do this. This appears to just help Spanish cultivators. Oranges and fruit juices will become unnecessarily expensive because of this, and they won’t taste as good.” The measure also doesn’t help cultivators in Latin America and Africa, and the danger of the disease is still only limited right now, according to her. Similar noises could be heard from trade. “The consequences are large, because if these regulations are actually implemented, there will be considerably less citrus on the market between June and October,” Michel Jansen from Total Produce told the NOS news. “A shortage of oranges, higher prices and fewer products in shops.”

Strategic citrus sector
The accusation that it is mostly a kind of protectionism, is confirmed by proponents of the proposal when reading between the lines. For that, the threat of the moth to the citrus cultivation is indicated. “The citrus sector is of strategic value for Valencia and Andalusia, and we cannot permit that any measures are taken that unnecessarily threaten the continuity of European production,” said Euro MP Clara Eugenia Aguilera Garcia. The Spanish MEP took the initiative for the change. She earlier said in Spanish media: “It is essential that we impose effective measures to prevent calamities such as happened with the xylella fastidiosa in Southern Italy from occurring at the citrus plantations in Valencia, Andalusia or other cultivation areas in Europe.” She also pointed out that the sector only has a few pesticides left at its disposal in its struggle against diseases and pests.

Marina Albiol Guzmán agreed with her MP colleague: “This proposal directly relates to the citrus sector, a strategic sector in Southern Europe.” She points out that the threat of phytosanitary risks from third countries is underestimated. Both MPs have Spanish nationality. Despite political persuasion, it became apparent after the vote that all the Spanish MPs voted in favour of the amendment of the law. Because a majority of parliament turned out to be in favour, the European Commission has called for a tightening of controls.

South Africa wants prevention
On the global citrus market, Spain runs the show. In 2015, the country had a market share of 25 per cent. South Africa came second with 17 per cent, and Egypt had 16 per cent. The measure mostly hits South African cultivators hard. According to figures, the country is good for 70 per cent of the orange import in Europe.

According to Deon Joubert from the Citrus Growers Association, South Africa has been using the cold treatment proposed by Europe for 25 years already. However, he says the sector dedicates itself more to prevention than to disease control. Diseases are prevented through various projects. With this treatment, sterilisation is used, but it is mostly suited for export to far-off destinations, such as markets like Japan. The short transportation time to Europe makes this method unfeasible.

Import stop
Additionally, the measure is feasible for oranges, but for some types of citrus, such as lemons and easy-peelers, the treatment is too much. According to the South African, better means exist to prevent the spread of the moth. Inge Ribbens also confirmed that there are alternatives when asked by “This cold treatment measure means an import stop in practice, because certain varieties cannot even withstand it. With this resolution, people started from a cold treatment report from 1969, which did not take into account alternative options at all. Scientific research shows that there are plenty of alternative, effective treatments.”

For that matter, there are also doubts about the spread of the moths throughout Europe. Inge Ribbens indicates that the largest share of the citrus comes nowhere near production locations, and that contamination is therefore practically out of the question. “The only risk that could arise is that Spanish companies pack the import fruit in the production areas, but they should be the ones to take responsibility for that themselves. It should not be the case that they take no steps, but they let others be affected by it.” Deon Joubert also objects to this. The largest share of the contaminations that were ascertained in recent years, were not found in citrus, but in bell peppers and flowers.

Spain versus South Africa
It therefore appears as if the tightening of the procedure is a way to obstruct South African exports. In recent years, Spain demanded stricter inspections of South African citrus more often, especially for fear of the import of Citrus Black Spot. This has been going on for several years already. For example, in 2013 the European Commission established a maximum of five interceptions of South African citrus contaminated with CBS. A year earlier, 27 contaminations were discovered. The South African sector started working on it, and managed to reduce the number of mentions of CBS from 15 in 2015 to 4 in 2016.

The export of South African oranges has been stable, at around a million tonnes, for years already. The Netherlands is an important destination for this citrus, good for more than 230,000 tonnes. Despite the setbacks of the exporters on the European market, Europe remains the largest sales market. In 2016, Europe’s market share even increased to almost 42 per cent in South African export, and that includes the UK, and despite a smaller total volume of citrus. “In 2012/13, we were faced with the doom scenario that export to this market would completely be lost as a consequence of Citrus Black Spot. This year, just four cases of CBS were reported, which is a world of difference compared to the last three years, in which we had 35 reports in 2013, 27 in 2014 and 15 in 2015,” Deon Joubert says.

It is still uncertain whether cold treatment will actually be required. Although the European Parliament agreed to the plans, it can still be rejected by the European Commission. The MEPs who made the proposal, however, trust the Commission to accept the resolution. That would mean the new regulations would come into effect from the 2018 season at the earliest.

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