Grape growers fight to keep planting limits

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Grape growers are lining up support from EU national governments and the European Parliament to protect limits on vine planting that are due to expire by 2016, a liberalisation move they claim will destroy one of Europe’s premier industries.

The planting debate is gaining momentum as a high-level group organised by Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş searches for a compromise and lawmakers weigh amendments to the EU’s common market organisation, or CMO, that for years has allowed government intervention to support and stabilise grape growing.

Backed by national governments in major wine producing countries, vintners are pressuring Parliament and national leaders to reverse a four-year-old decision to lift restrictions which, unlike production quotas, limit how many vines can be planted. Though the planting rules  are due to expire in 2016, national governments can maintain restrictions for two additional years.

Stéphane Le Foll, France’s agriculture minister, said last week he had lined up the support of the German, Italian and Spanish governments to defend planting rights, EurActiv France reported.

Agricultural organisations say ending planting restrictions could further weaken a sector that is already battling cheap imports, overproduction and declining demand for a glass of wine. Land under cultivation in the EU fell 12% from 2001 to 2011, International Organisation of Vine and Wine figures show.

‘Rural exodus’

They also say those bucolic landscapes covered in vineyards have add-on effects – tourism and rural preservation - that Europe can ill afford to lose. The debate is also full of emotion - the regional wine growers association, AREV, adopted a resolution in May defending planting rights, calling vine cultivation one of the “key vectors of European civilisation.”  

“The day you take out vines you are going to have a massive rural exodus,” said Daniela Ida Zandonà of the European Federation of Origin Wines (EFOW), one of the groups fighting to keep planting rights.

Zandonà says 15 EU governments representing major wine growing regions as well as smaller producers like Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Bulgaria want to preserve limits.

Vineyards are among the last areas of farming left to be liberalised after years of Commission efforts to erase protections for dairy and other farm products. The end of the planting restrictions stems from reforms in 2008 that also phased out sugar price supports.

But support for extending planting rights is far from universal. Vintners in emerging wine producing countries want room for expansion. The bottling and distribution industries believe the restrictions are an anachronism in an increasingly competitive global wine market, and see as counterproductive the wasteful practice of ‘grubbing up,’ or paying growers to get out of the wine business.

‘Exceptional and extraordinary’

José Ramón Fernández, secretary-general of the Comité Européen des entreprises vins (CEEV), is among those who wants the sun to set on planting rights.

“You don’t have any such limitation on any other sector in agriculture in Europe – it is exceptional and extraordinary,” said Fernández, who added that an EU-wide restriction hurts European market development.

CEEV instead prefers policies to improve coordination and development of Europe’s supply chain, making it more efficient and responsive to market changes.

“This is not a regulation, it is a prohibition,” said Fernández, who is participating in the Commission-backed high-level group, adding “we are open to consider solutions.”

The Commission’s original justification for liberalisation blames surplus wine production in part on violations of the planting limits and claims that lifting restrictions would “permit competitive producers to respond freely to market conditions.”

The EU needs to end limits at some point – whether it is 2016 or beyond - under a European Court of Justice ruling saying the 1976 wine CMO envisioned a limited timescale for planting rights and other preferences.

Searching for common ground

Cioloş has urged both sides to find common ground. His high-level panel met in July and is due to meet again on 21 September in Sicily and is expected to make recommendations by year’s end.

As a result of the talks, EFOW supports some exemptions from planting limits for countries with emerging wine markets. “We understand that there should be a rule for countries that want to develop their wine sector, that only makes sense,” said Zandonà, whose organisation includes members from France, Italy, Hungary, Portugal and Spain.

MEPs are due to consider changes to the CMO regulation as well as future shape of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) this autumn.

Both sugar producers – who face an end to prices supports starting in 2016 - and vine growers are standing behind French MEP Michel Dantin (European People’s Party), who wants to extend help for the sugar and vine sectors. At an agricultural committee hearing on 20 June, he warned that "rapid reduction of support would lead to closure of farms."

Timeline: 
  • 21 Sept: High-level group due to meet in Sicily (Italy) to discuss planting rights
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