Banana split still taxing EC

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The Independent Online
BRUSSELS - EC agriculture ministers were yesterday facing the prospect of another long night debating a deal that everyone believed had been concluded in December. Disagreements over monetary union, social dumping and competitive devaluations are but nothing to the banana battle, writes Sarah Lambert.

On one side are the free-traders, led by Germany, who argue that the single market should open Community markets to unlimited imports of cheap so-called dollar bananas from the Caribbean plantations. Against them are France and Britain - an unusual trade alliance - Spain and Greece, who argue that the EC has commitments to back producers in territories such as the Canary Islands or former European colonies such as the Windward Islands. The result: deadlock.

December brought a breakthrough compromise: dollar banana imports into the Community would be limited to 2 million tons a year and a 20 per cent import levy charged; beyond that the tariff would rise steeply. Any rise in market demand and the levy would be readjusted according to a special mechanism. To agree on this alone required big concessions from France and Britain.

Germany and Denmark continued to resist, but all a decision requires is a 'yes' from a weighted majority of the other member states. All that stood between the compromise and its adoption was the legal text. But when EC agriculture ministers gathered this week to sign the historic deal, prompted by the creation of the single market in January, Belgium and the Netherlands brought up unexpected objections.

Ministers were last night pinning their hopes on a change of heart by Belgium or the Netherlands. European banana-eaters also have a vested interest in seeing the deal go through, because if it does, bananas will be cheaper.