Greek agriculture minister: EU must change stance on trade agreements

Evangelos Apostolou [R] [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report Rural development in the reformed CAP.

The European Union should change its negotiation tactics regarding trade agreements with third countries and better defend member states, Greek Minister of Agricultural Development Evangelos Apostolou told EURACTIV Greece in an exclusive interview.

Evangelos Apostolou is a Greek Syriza politician who is currently serving as Minister of Agricultural Development and Food under Alexis Tsipras government.

Apostolou spoke to EURACTIV Greece’s Editor-in-Chief, Sarantis Michalopoulos. 

What is the position of the Greek government on the Russian embargo? Do you think that there should be an initiative to solve the issue with Moscow?

The imposition of the Russian embargo on agricultural products from the EU has created huge problems for Greek exports of agricultural products. In 2013, the codes [of products] that Russia has banned accounted for 74% of our total exports of agricultural products to Russia, which was the first worldwide export destination for kiwifruit, fresh peaches, strawberries, cherries, nectarines and bass.

Therefore, any attempt to solve the problem is entirely legitimate and necessary. Although the problem must be addressed at the EU-Russia level, the development of bilateral Greece – Russia relations can contribute towards finding some alternative routes to the Russian market.

Following meetings of the Greek ministry of agriculture leadership with Russian officials, we submitted a draft road map for the development of bilateral relations in agriculture. This will include, among other things, cooperation on issues like promotion of agricultural products, which are not under the exports embargo.

During a meeting of Mr. Kassimis [Secretary General of Greece’s Ministry of Agriculture] with the Director of International Cooperation of the Russian Ministry of Agriculture, on 11 February 2016 in Moscow, cooperation issues were again discussed.

They specifically discussed the implementation of the Roadmap in the areas of knowledge transfer, veterinary and phytosanitary inspection, the wine sector, scientific cooperation between research institutions, joint investments in the agricultural sector, as well as issues of cooperation in the organization of events under the “Greece – Russia 2016” year, and the participation of businesses of the two countries in sectoral trade expositions.

What are your thoughts for agricultural policy after 2020? You have announced the creation of a working group for the future CAP. Has it started its operations?

The group on the CAP has already begun its work. It is monitoring the evolution of CAP in the first year of its implementation and provides us with opinions on the issues that are raised. Our goal with this group is to issue proposals for reform both for options on a national level and EU regulations. Our thoughts for the future CAP are being formed now, but the basic principle is to move forward to a fairer CAP, with a more balanced distribution of aid and enhance both the sustainability and profitability of farmers.

Greek farmers have to spend much of their income on production costs. What are you going to do about it? 

Production costs are a result of many factors. Regarding the factors that concern our ministry, we are trying to take action for the benefit of farmers. In this context, we orient Rural Development Program (RDP) toward investments that reduce production costs such as irrigation and energy.

Also via RDP, we promote the actions of producer groups, which on the one hand saves costs due to economies of scale, and on the other hand can enhance the bargaining power of farmers, and thus the added value they could enjoy from the market.

Finally, considerable amounts have been allocated to the training of farmers and agricultural consultancy that can help farmers be aware of the financial management of their farms in order to become more profitable.

There is currently a discussion at EU level about how the crisis in agricultural markets will be addressed. What are Greece’s goals in Brussels, and what are we asking in favor of Greek farmers?

The crisis in agricultural markets is a very important issue. The EU needs to take immediate and appropriate measures to alleviate the European farmers, and consequently of the Greek farmers.

The balance of trade in agricultural products between Russia and our country shows that fruit and vegetables have significantly contributed to the impressive widening of the trade surplus before the embargo. Because of the Russian embargo, however, the sector has been hit hard, and despite the fact that the implementation of the EU emergency measures support for fruit and vegetable producers until June 30 2016 is in the right direction, additional measures for the sector are essential.

In addition, regarding the dairy sector, following the end of quotas, the problem of sustainability and the reduction of production have intensified mainly due to the small size of the farms in our country, the increased costs of production and increased milk imports from countries on competitive terms. Therefore, measures for relief in this area are necessary. The issue of the crisis in agricultural markets has been very high on the EU policy agenda.

The discussion has already started in the last Council of EU Agriculture-Fisheries Ministers on 15 February, which will continue in the next Council on 14 March. Our country has submitted a complete and comprehensive package of proposals, both general, covering all sectors, and special, on the fruit, vegetable and dairy sectors.

We asked for the greatest possible flexibility of the European Commission in approvals of new promotional programs under the new relevant regulation and the adoption of emergency measures to promote an increased budget in the internal market and in third countries. With regard to bilateral economic and trade agreements of the EU with third countries, there should be a differentiation of the negotiation tactics of the EU towards greater balancing of the defence of interests of member states and EU producers who face a competition from lower costs and production standards of third countries.

It is also important to develop a European export credit tool to encourage exports along with the use of financial instruments for granting soft loans.

In addition to these, it is necessary for the fruit and vegetables market to update and increase prices for withdrawal under EU Regulation 543/2011 of the Commission, the increase of the volumes of all product categories under the regulations relating to the implementation of emergency measures to support fruit and vegetable growers and the ability to transfer quantities from one product category to another. It is also necessary to reform the fruit and vegetable entry price system from third countries, and the creation of a safety net for producers’ incomes to address market crises.

What is the strategic goal of the Greek government for agriculture and rural development in the new CAP? According to the latest MoU, Greece should have presented a strategic plan for the primary sector by December 2015.

The main goals of the national agricultural policy are to develop a sustainable production model that will ensure the income of farmers, increase the added value of products and lead to increased competitiveness of Greek agriculture. It also aims at strengthening the internationalisation of our products.

In this context, we expect that we can lay the foundations for the next five years to be a positive transformation period of our countryside, towards sustainable and healthy development.

Some of the measures to improve competitiveness of agriculture are the following:

Creation of competitive farms, individual and/or integrated in collective schemes (cooperatives, corporate), in conjunction with the geomorphological and social-economic conditions in which they operate, the products they produce, and markets they are targeting.

Shift of farmers’ age composition by favoring younger generations and strengthening of active farmers who show increased professionalism in agricultural production.

Promotion of cooperatives and other collective forms to development pillars of the agri-food system and rural areas.

Use of water resources and energy in terms of sustainability, technical efficiency and economic rationality. The promotion of good agricultural practices and their proper implementation in agricultural activities while optimizing the use of EU funds.

Consolidating the playing field in trade of agricultural products and facilitate businesses in commercial activity.

Optimising synergies and the effectiveness of the individual functions of market-oriented exports.

Customs procedures except for the necessary controls to facilitate the operation of enterprises operating in the field of foreign trade.

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