EC's battle over bananas goes to court

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THE BANANA battle may be over but banana importers are determined to win the war. They announced yesterday they would be taking the European Commission to court in an effort to squash a decision they argue will cost jobs and business. The German government has suggested it may follow suit.

After a long night of debate during which allegations of unfair play were traded, the EC finally, early on Saturday morning, agreed to accept rules governing the import of bananas. The deadlock began when Belgium and the Netherlands, on taking a second look at a compromise deal agreed last year, had decided it was unacceptable. Denmark, which with Germany had originally opposed the deal, now found itself as current holder of the EC presidency with a responsibility to find a way through the impasse. So Copenhagen changed position to create the weighted majority in favour needed to break the stalemate.

But importers from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg said yesterday they would be complaining to the European Court of Justice that the agreed compromise contravenes single-market law. The Belgian ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge handle about 1.6 million tons of Latin American bananas a year and complain that the new regime, which takes effect in July, could cost 500 jobs.

Before the destruction of EC trade barriers on 1 January, bananas were imported at varying tariffs. Germany, the EC's biggest consumer, bought cheap 'dollar bananas' produced by large Caribbean and Latin American plantations run by the big multinationals, such as Dole and Chiquita. But banana-lovers in France, the UK, Portugal, Spain and Greece enjoyed the fruits of their former colonies, produced and sold more expensively. Belgium and the Netherlands, as the main handling ports for 'dollar bananas', had a vested interest in maintaining a free market.

The compromise sought to square the circle between those who believed the EC had an obligation to small producers and those who argued that preferential trading terms went against the spirit of the single market. The deal agreed at the weekend allows for 2 million tons of 'dollar bananas' a year to be imported at 100 ecus per ton but shipments over that limit will be charged 850 ecus per ton. It is likely to push up banana prices in Germany and Benelux countries and reduce them elsewhere as the single-market effect evens out disparities.

Germans in Hamburg woke up yesterday to blink at the full-size, colour banana picture across the front page of a city newspaper to illustrate the headline 'Germany loses the banana war'.

(Photograph omitted)