Latin American nations on Wednesday called on a World Trade Organization conference to condemn the European Union's new tariff plan for bananas, saying it flies in the face of the rules of global commerce.
Honduras and Panama have led the challenge to the banana policy
Mario Jimenez, Honduras' agriculture minister, also said it was hard to see how the WTO's Doha Round trade liberalization talks can advance unless Brussels changes tack. One goal of the 149-nation negotiations is to use freer trade to give developing countries an economic boost.
"Honduras requests that this ministerial conference condemn these new EU measures and work with us over the ensuing days of the conference to ensure that they are not installed," Jimenez said. "If these EU actions are tolerated, if our requests for support and solidarity are met with a collaborative silence, the round, the WTO system, and our developing-economy interests will be the biggest losers," he said.
Jimenez was backed by counterparts from Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Panama -- who said their banana growers would suffer because EU rules would shut them out of the market -- as well as the United States.
Mariann Fischer Boel
But the EU's agriculture chief Mariann Fischer Boel insisted that Brussels' tariff plan was fair and that Europe was not looking for a fight.
"We have been sending a clear signal to the Latin American countries that we will be willing to continue to negotiate with them," Fischer Boel said. "The EU has devoted considerable time this year to getting this right," she said. "We are quite sure it will more than maintain present possibilities for Latin American countries to get into the European market."
EU wrangles with WTO rulings
Last month, the EU announced a new import tariff of 176 euros (208 dollars) per ton for bananas from Latin American countries from January 2006. The new arrangement would replace a contested quota-tariff system that had been outlawed by the WTO after it ruled in favor of earlier Latin American complaints.
A day later, Honduras and Panama, who have led the Latin American challenge to the EU's banana policy, challenged it again. The two countries demanded consultations with the EU -- the first step to a formal complaint -- saying the proposed new tariff went against WTO rulings and would drive bananas from Latin American developing nations out of the European market.
Jimenez said the EU was behaving as if the WTO rulings had never happened, but Fischer Boel said Brussels was fully aware of the need to respect them. The EU also planned to put in place a monitoring system that could adapt the tariff system if the Latin Americans are found to be losing out, she said.
"We think this has all been done in a very transparent way, a very neutral way," she added.
EU nations have been struggling with the need to respect the WTO's decisions and pressure to maintain their preferential banana trade deal with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) grouping of developing countries, as well as keep growers afloat in Europe's overseas territories.
The six-day WTO conference in Hopng Kong has been accompanied by protests
Ministers from ACP members Belize, Cameroon, Dominica, Ivory Coast, Jamaica and Saint Lucia told the Hong Kong conference the proposed system was fair and respected the development goals of the Doha Round, and that they feared the Latin Americans really want to crowd them out of the market.
The European Union had to revise its previously planned 230-euro banana tariff after the WTO struck down an earlier offer, saying it was too high to allow fair competition from Latin American exporters. Latin American banana producers export an annual combined 3.4 million tons of bananas -- or around two-thirds of total imports -- to the 25-nation EU. The first 2.2 million tons are currently covered by a quota that sets a tariff of 75 euros per ton but the rest are slapped with a tariff of 680 euros.