Russia ratchets up trade tensions with E.U. over produce


Russia has ratcheted up trade tensions with the European Union on fruit and vegetable imports, demanding that countries sign separate deals in addition to a wider E.U.-Russia agreement from 2008, officials said on Friday.

This week, the E.U.Ds health chief warned the bloc's farm ministers that they should guard against attempts at fragmentation across the 27 member countries, in what some diplomats referred to as familiar divide and rulem tactics by Russia .

At least four E.U. countries have been asked by Moscow to sign bilateral arrangements with extra pesticide-related import standards that go beyond last yearns E.U.-Russia agreement.

That agreement took months to negotiate and was supposed to end a lengthy dispute over pesticide residues in E.U. plant products, especially fruits and vegetables, a highly valuable export trade.

Italy brought the matter to the attention of farm ministers this week and has refused to sign ? as has the Netherlands , officials say. Lithuania faces pressure from Moscow to fall into line; Latvia is thought to have signed a bilateral deal already.

Revenue from fruit and vegetable products accounts for the much of the value of E.U. farm exports to Russia , at around D1.6 billion, or $2.1 billion, a year.

Apart from Russia threatening to suspend plant-based imports if a country does not sign, E.U. exporters also run the risk of being removed from a list of approved operators, officials say.

The commission, which administers food safety policy on behalf of E.U. countries and also negotiates such agreements with non-E.U. importer countries, insists that the 2008 memorandum of understanding already properly governs plant exports to Russia .

Russians animal and plant health watchdog, Rosselkhoznadzor, disagrees, saying the memorandum was only a framework agreement so separate arrangements are needed with E.U. suppliers.

For seasoned E.U.officials, the tactic of targeting countries individually with complaints about safety standards, instead of dealing with central Brussels authorities, is rather familiar.

In 2005, Brussels averted a threatened blockade of all plant and vegetable exports to Russia ? everything from cut flowers and potted plants to seeds and potato starch ? by agreeing to replace national safety certificates with a single E.U. version.

The dispute started with a Russian import ban on vegetable products from particular countries ( Estonia , Germany and the Netherlands ) over a field pest, the Califomian flower thrip.

A year earlier, Moscow blocked meat exports from several E.U. states, including Denmark , Ireland and France .