EC puts skids under German banana case

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The Independent Online
GERMANY will have difficulty taking the European Commission to court over new rules regulating the banana trade. 'The legal argument just doesn't hold water,' a senior Commission official said yesterday.

At the same time, the Commissioner responsible for agriculture, Rene Steichen, said the Commission was also considering whether there was a case for bringing Chiquita and other multinationals to book for taking unfair advantage of their dominant position.

The new banana regime, an attempt to harmonise the European Community's banana imports in the wake of the single market, has been harshly criticised as protectionist by Germany. Almost alone in the EC, Germany has a free market in bananas, buying from the competitive large-scale Latin American producers owned by brands such as Dole and Chiquita.

The rest of the EC imports bananas from former colonies and overseas territories, or from Caribbean and Pacific producers whom the EC has a treaty obligation to protect. Under the new rules, agreed with some bitterness last week, the so-called free-market 'dollar' bananas will be subject to a levy of 100 ECUs ( pounds 83) per tonne for the first two million tonnes of imports. Amounts over and above that will be charged at a heavy 850 ECU/tonne tariff.

Bananas have long been the Becher's Brook of Common Market agricultural politics. The signing of the founding Treaty of Rome was delayed by German objections to the banana regulations. The Commission's defence yesterday of their new regime was occasioned by the vitriolic reaction of the German press. Bonn has argued that any change to the rules must be unanimously approved.

Mr Steichen said yesterday that it was clear that the consent of a weighted majority of member states, as was the case last Friday, was enough. He accused the media of gross exaggeration and said he believed the new plan would mean cheaper bananas in formerly protected markets such as Britain and the stabilisation of prices at 1991 levels in the previously free German market.

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