EU, Russia seek to defuse vegetable ban crisis

NIZHNY NOVGOROD – EU and Russian leaders yesterday opened a two-day summit, amid concerns at Moscow’s ban on EU vegetable imports following a deadly E. coli outbreak, BBC News reported. Brussels has condemned last week’s measure as “disproportionate”, but Russia says it wants to know the source of the outbreak before lifting the ban. The outbreak has so far left at least 26 dead, most of them in Germany.

Ahead of the bi-annual summit in the city on the Volga river, Dutch Agriculture Minister Hans Bleker downplayed hopes for a quick resolution of the rift between the two sides over last Thursday’s ban on vegetables. “We will see in the next hours, the next two or three days what will be the complete results,” Bleker told reporters, after holding urgent talks in Moscow on Wednesday. He added that he had “no expectations that there will be an end to the export ban within a couple of days”.

Russia imports about one-fifth of its vegetables from the EU, which makes it the bloc’s largest market for the produce. The EU has warned Russia that its ban is contradicting the spirit of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – which Moscow wants to join. However, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has countered that he would not “poison” his people for the sake of the WTO.

On Wednesday, EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos raised EUR 210 M its offer of compensation to farmers who have lost income due to the E. coli outbreak. Ciolos was forced to act after coming under pressure from major producers. The EU had initially offered EUR 150M.

Ahead of the EU-Russia summit, Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said the issue of what he termed ‘EU coli’ would “not pass without attention,” EurActiv reported. Chizhov stated that before any lifting of the Russian ban, “there should be a clear picture of what it was and how it appeared. Perhaps at some point it will be proven that the source is limited geographically”. He said he was “confident” that the EU would be able to do this. He stressed that the Russian ban was not meant to be “eternal”. Specifically, even if E. coli outbreaks were to persist in parts of Europe, he said that if “[certain] countries and the EU health authorities produce credible guarantees that, for example, Spanish cucumbers are OK, I wouldn’t exclude that the ban could be reduced and regionalised”.

‘Traditional’ issues and WTO accession

Ambassador Chizhov noted that many items at yesterday’s summit were “traditional”. These include global issues such as the world’s economic recovery and climate change, as well as bilateral EU-Russia issues such as the negotiation of a new EU-Russia basic treaty, and progress towards a visa-free travel regime between the EU and Russia. Russia’s ongoing and longstanding negotia­tions to join the WTO were also to be discussed.

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