EU approves duty-free Tunisian olive oil imports

Olive producers in Italy are worried that the new measure will harm their competitiveness. [Gabriele Cantini/Flickr]

The European Parliament has agreed to waive taxes on olive oil imports from Tunisia to the EU, in a bid to boost the country’s economy. The move has prompted anger from Italian MEPs. EURACTIV Italy reports.

The European Parliament last week (10 March) adopted a European Commission proposal to support the Tunisian economy by increasing olive oil imports, by 500 votes to 107, with 107 abstentions. Under this deal, Tunisian producers will be able to export up to 35,000 tonnes more olive, oil duty and tax free, in 2016 and 2017.

To soften the impact of this decision on European producers, the Parliament made two amendments to the Commission’s original proposal, introducing stricter requirements for traceability and prohibiting the measure from being repeated. But many Italian MEPs fear this decision will unfairly penalise olive oil producers in the EU.

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The olive sector directly employs over one million people in Tunisia, said Marielle de Sarnez, a French ALDE MEP (Mouvement Démocrate) and rapporteur on the proposal, who argued that tax-free imports would provide essential aid to the country.

The objective of strengthening the Tunisian economy after the 2015 terrorist attacks has never been questioned, even by critics of the proposal. What they contest is the idea that this cannot be achieved in another way that would cause less harm to European olive producers.

Italians speak up

While he agreed that the Parliament’s amendments improved the Commission’s proposal, the S&D group’s agriculture coordinator, Italian MEP Paolo De Castro (Partito Democratico), said the measure was “inappropriate both in its nature and its timing”.

According to De Castro, the EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini, has committed to ensuring that the extra imports be spread out across the year, so as not to flood the market at certain times.

For his EPP compatriot Salvatore Cicu (Forza Italia), it is out of the question “to support a decision that goes against the interests of our businesses”, particularly at a time when a number of Italian regions are already struggling with crises of their own. “Puglia was hit by a Xylella epidemic, Sicily is struggling to make its activity commercially viable, and in Sardinia, small producers still lack easy access to the market,” he said.

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Mara Bizzotto, an Italian Northern League MEP (EN&F), described the measures as “absolutely scandalous”, and said they would have a “devastating effect on Italian olive producers and for all products made in Italy”. Beside her concern for the Italian olive sector, she also believes the measure will lead to an increase in fraud in the olive oil trade.

Italian Democratic Party MEP Michela Giuffrida called on Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan to activate the safeguard clause in the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement. “I have asked for strict customs controls, protection for our products and the rapid reinstatment of taxes on imports from Mediterranean countries, which are harmful to the agricultural economy of Southern Europe, particularly to Sicily,” she said.

Giuffrida also criticised MEPs that voted for the proposal: “How can we approve an agreement that will have negative consequences for only a certain number of member states, and very particularly on the agricultural sector, without even carrying out an impact assessment.”

Members of Italy’s Five Star Movement wrote a letter in which they criticised the MEPs from the Democratic Party, who supported the motion. Before entering into force, the amended text must be approved by the Council.

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