EU-wide spud standards needed but unlikely

By FWi staff

DESIRABLE, but unlikely, is how most delegates to the Agra Europe Potato 2000 conference in Rome viewed the prospects of a common market organisation (CMO) for potatoes.

The lack of a regime – even in the “lightweight” form last proposed by Brussels in 1992 – was one of the great anomalies of EU agriculture, said Russell Mildon, director of specialised crops at the commission.

Potatoes were the only commodity not covered by the Treaty of Rome and, as such, the normal rules of competition and state aids did not apply.

“People can subsidise production at will, and they do,” he said.

In particular, he pointed to the pitfalls of eastward expansion of the EU, which could treble production in the next four years.

Without a set of common standards, the prospects for further market distortion through state aids was considerable.

“If we dont legislate for a common market organisation before we get into serious accession negotiations, it will be like offering a blank cheque to the candidate countries to do whatever they like. This is our last chance.”

The potential benefits of a lightweight regime were spelled out by senior Italian civil servant, Vincenzo Pilo.

It could be used to set common standards for potatoes, end state aids, provide for EU price reporting and offer financial help to set up producer groups.

Dr Pilo also advocated a system of market withdrawals, as “the only protection to producers in the event of serious commercial crisis”.

This sort of intervention was dismissed as unrealistic by NFU vice-president Richard Watson Jones.

But he believed a lightweight regime could be “tacked on” to the existing common market organisation for fruit and vegetables, which is up for review later this year.

But Mr Mildon warned that the budgetary constraints on the EU following the Agenda 2000 agreement in Berlin last year made any form of potato regime unlikely.

“A common market organisation would be nice, but given 30 years of history, I am under no illusions.”

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