The Czech Republic is on its way to introduce a protectionist food law despite warnings that this could be in violation of the EU’s free movement of goods.
The lower house of Czech parliament passed an amendment to the food law on Wednesday (20 January) under which stores larger than 400 square metres will be required to sell a mandatory minimum share of food products made in the Czech Republic, starting in 2022.
The quota is to be 55% next year, with the aim to gradually grow this to 73% in 2028.
The proposal was tabled by the right-wing Freedom and Direct Democracy party (ID) and pushed through by government coalition parties ANO (Renew) and the Social Democrats (S&D) with support from the Communist party (GUE-NGL).
The aim is to gain self-sufficiency in foodstuff production and to support local farmers.
Before the vote, agriculture minister Miroslav Toman (Social Democrats) called on MPs to be “a little bit nationalistic” when it comes to Czech foodstuffs.
Free movement of goods the EU’s ‘strongest asset’
Although the European Commission was reluctant to comment at this early stage, a spokesperson told EURACTIV that the “free movement of goods and services in the internal market is our strongest asset in ensuring supplies across the EU, and is also our best tool to ensure recovery for all,” adding that “local restrictions of whatever type are counterproductive”.
“It is of utmost importance that national emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the Treaties,” they added.
The Commission will analyse the Czech legislation once adopted. “We cannot speculate at this stage,” the spokesperson added.
However, an EU source told EURACTIV that, if adopted, such measures would clearly create “privileged marketing conditions for Czech food products”, thus discriminating against other EU food producers and going against the free movement of goods principle.
They added a warning that such measures would risk disrupting integrated European supply and distribution chains as they go against freedom of establishment.
Eight EU countries, including Germany and France, have already expressed objections to the bill, according to the daily Hospodarske noviny, saying the quota might constitute discrimination against foreign products.
‘Useless political gesture’
Commenting on the issue in iRozhlas.cz, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said that he “did not initiate this proposal and did not support it”.
“I consider it as a useless political gesture that is in breach with EU’s internal market principles,” Babiš said.
Opposition parties’ representatives called the law is “ridiculous”, adding that it is “one of the worst in history”. Critics say that the bill will only help large food conglomerates, including Agrofert holding, the former company of Babiš.
It has also been criticised by the Confederation of Commerce and Tourism, the Chamber of Commerce and the Confederation of Industry, as well as the Food Chamber, with associations warning that the new law could negatively impact food prices, quality and availability.
However, the amendment has been praised by the Agrarian Chamber, who represent large agro-businesses.
“We hope that the Senate will send this Lex Agrofert back (to the Lower Chamber),” said Tomáš Prouza, president of the Czech Confederation of Commerce and Tourism. However, the Lower Chamber has stronger powers than the Senate, so it can enter into force without the Senate’s consent.
Agrofert spokesperson Karel Hanzelka said that holding has nothing to do with the approved amendment.
“We do not expect that the new legislation could give us an advantage or change our market position,” Hanzelka said.
During the first wave of the Covid crisis Bulgaria tried to oblige the mostly foreign supermarket chains to give priority to local products, but it had to back down following pressure from the Commission.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]