Commission: Only ‘economic considerations’ could lead to tariffs on rice imports

The social dumping from Asia caused the collapse of rice prices and allowed Cambodia and Myanmar to increase their exports to the EU by about 9,000 tonnes in 2012 to 360,000 in 2017. [EPA/EFE-HEIN HTET]

An alliance of EU rice producers has called for restoring tariffs on rice imports from Myanmar and Cambodia, in part due to human rights concerns, but Commission sources clarified that the EU executive’s ongoing safeguard investigation is linked to purely economic considerations.

On Monday (19 November), several EU rice producers associations from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and France asked the member states to back the Commission proposal that aims to restore for three years the duties on rice imports from Cambodia and Myanmar.

The position of the agricultural organisations’ representatives relied on both the economic damages sustained by the main European producing countries but also on the ongoing human rights violations in the two Asian countries.

Producers organisations said that significant human rights breaches in connection with the exploitation of workforce and the land grabbing in Cambodia, as well as the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar could justify activating the safeguard clause and stopping subsidised imports.

However, Commission sources told EURACTIV.com that although the EU is engaging with both Cambodia and Myanmar, among other beneficiaries, to address serious and systematic labour and human rights issues, the rice safeguard investigation that the EU executive launched in March is the result of purely economic considerations.

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Investigation’s procedure

Following a request submitted by the Italian government and supported by seven other member states, the Commission opened a formal investigation on 16 March, assessing the possibility to activate the safeguard clause on rice imports from Cambodia and Myanmar.

The findings of this investigation confirmed a significant surge of rice imports that has caused economic damage to the rice sector in Europe, Commission sources said.

The EU, therefore, therefore, proposed to apply to indica rice imports the normal common customs tariff amounting to €175 per tonne for one year, then gradually reduce it to €150 and €125, respectively, for the second and third year.

The procedure is still ongoing and the findings of the investigation were released to the interested parties in the case, giving them the opportunity to provide their comments.

On the basis of the comments received, the Commission will then consult the member states with a view to taking a final decision on measures to adopt.

According to the rice producers, this vote is expected at the next Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Working Party scheduled on 4-5 December.

The Commission also expressed its intention to conclude the whole investigation by the beginning of 2019.

A diplomatic source confirmed that a majority already exists among member states supporting the end of tax-free access to the EU market for rice imports, and it is very likely that the tariffs will be restored at the end of the investigation.

A completely separate process

The Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme gives free access to the European market for products from the least developed among developing countries with the aim of helping to bring people out of poverty.

However, Commission sources told EURACTIV that it is also important to ensure that EU farmers and producers are not the ones who pay the price for excessive cheap imports and the regulation related to the scheme itself foresees that in such cases tariffs can be restored.

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EBA trade preferences can also be temporarily withdrawn in case of serious and systematic violations laid down in a list of fundamental human rights and labour rights conventions in accordance with the provisions of the GSP Regulation.

But it is a completely separate process unrelated to the rice safeguard investigation, which is linked to purely economic considerations, the Commission said.

EU rice producers said the reference to the human rights violations in their allegation is meant to gain a broader majority among member states, involving also non-producing countries, like the northern ones, that are sensitive to the issue of human rights.

“We want a win for the whole Europe, not only for some governments or some producers,  a victory for the whole Europe, Italian Agriculture Minister Gian Marco Centinaio told a press conference held by the rice producers’ organisations in Brussels on Monday.

He added that a Europe that won the Nobel peace prize cannot put up with violations of human rights happening all across the world.

According to MEP Paolo De Castro, who also attended the press conference, this could constitute a very important precedent, confirming that the European Parliament is supporting this process.

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