Seeds of a conflict

As a follow up to my earlier post on the complexities that may hold up the signing of the extended EU-Moroccan Free Trade Agreement, Korski and Leonard from the European Council on Foreign Relations in an op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune today outline conflicting issues at play in EU-Egypt agricultural trade relations. The issue here arises from the e.coli outbreaks due to bean sprouts in northern Germany and Bordeaux earlier this year that killed at least 48 people and hospitalised hundreds more.

Apparently, investigators from the European Food Safety Authority found a link between these outbreaks and imported Egyptian fenugreek seeds used to produce bean sprouts. As a result, the Commission imposed a ban on the import not only of fenugreek seeds but all beans from Egypt until 31st October.

According to the article, the ban could affect up to 10 per cent of Egypt’s agricultural exports if kept in place for a full year. The Commission notice announcing the ban puts the figure at the much smaller 0.88% of Egypt’s agricultural exports to the EU, but this may refer just to the impact if the ban is maintained until end-October, suggesting much greater damage if the ban continues past that date. Although the EU is not alone in taking this action (Switzerland and Russia put a similar ban in place), raising trade barriers at this time runs directly counter to the promise of partnership and increased market access made by the EU following the Arab Spring.

Korski and Leonard, from their foreign policy vantage point, are critical of the EU ban, describing it as bureaucratic and technocratic with the implication that it would not have happened if EU policy towards Egypt were properly coordinated such that foreign policy concerns could overrule apparently technical decisions.

This seems to me to ignore the seriousness with which the EU takes food-related health scares, unless we can make the explicit argument that a complete import ban is disproportionate to the risks posed by continued imports. This is a judgement I am not competent to make, and it would be very interesting to hear some expert views on this.

It is worth recalling that, under EU food safety legislation, while the EFSA makes the risk assessment, the appropriate way to manage that risk is a political decision taken by the European Commission alone, and it may well be that it over-reacted this summer in the light of the alarm over the consequences of the e.coli outbreak for agricultural markets.

The issue now has got further politicised in Egypt. The next step to reassure the EU that resuming imports is safe would be to send an inspection mission from the Food and Veterinary Office. But the Egypians are so hostile to perceptions of foreign interference that they have to date made such a mission impossible.

Korski and Leonard conclude their op-ed with a series of suggestions to get out of this crisis. They propose that the EU would announce a compensation fund to help affected Egyptian farmers. The EU in the past has provided aid to exporting countries to help get their sanitary and phytosanitary controls up to standard, but providing compensation to third country farmers as a result of a food safety ban on their imports would be an interesting precedent.

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