EUBULLETIN has talked with Dr. Ladislav Miko, the Deputy Director-General for the Food Chain in DG Health and Consumers of the European Commission, about the current agenda and policies of his somewhat less-known EU institution in the area of customer protection, health and food safety.
EUBULLETIN: The issue of genetically modified foods is one of the main stumbling blocks in TTIP negotiations between the European Union and the United States. Generally speaking, whereas they are embraced and accepted in the US, the majority of policy-makers in Europe seem to be against the GM foods. How can this phenomenon be explained?
Dr. Miko: It’s not policy-makers, it’s European population, which is against the GM foods and policy-makers just reflect the majority view of the society. And, therefore, the difficulty is not so much in the scientific discussion, the problem is that we are living in a democratic world and if the majority of people simply do not see a need for GM foods in Europe at this time, there is very little incentive for politicians to push it forward. Obviously, there are the trade-related issues but this by itself is not sufficient argument for European population to accept it. That was also the reason why former Commission President Barroso said quite clearly that GMs are not going to be discussed within the TTIP. And we are trying to keep this line all the time, even though the pressures from the US side, I have to admit, are quite big.
EUBULLETIN: Another very big issue in your agenda is imported foods. Many people in the post-communist EU Member States complain that their shops and supermarkets sell a much higher proportion of imported foods, especially when compared with France, Germany and other more developed Western European countries. What can be done to tackle this problem?
Dr. Miko: First of all, it is very important to realize what is the reality of today in Europe. In a very enlightened form, I would say that a country like the Czech Republic will never be able to produce oranges. Consequently, it is clear that lots of the foods that the Czechs like simply need to be imported because: number one, they are not able to produce it or, number two, they are not willing to produce it because they can get it cheaper from elsewhere. So, this is not only an issue of competition between the local producers and those who export to the Czech Republic but it is also about the specialization of the production.
On the other hand, we also need to say that there are products, which we are exporting because we are producing much more than we need. And this is a thunder in the European face because we do what is most beneficial and most profitable for the agriculture at home and from the gains you get you buy what you need from outside. So, there is no simple answer to your question.
EUBULLETIN: Well a good example is again the Czech Republic, which imports lots of products from Poland, where you can see this tension between using various measures to support local producers, on the one hand, and, on the other, keeping one of the four fundamental freedoms in the European Union – freedom of movement of goods.
Dr. Miko:I think there are approaches which are in line with the free trade and the common European market space and which still allow to promote the local production, first of all, vis-à-vis the local market, the farmer’s market and so on, and which are also supported from the European side. Second, there is a possibility to apply another instrument, which is the geographic or the traditional brand’s production of the food that is typical for a particular region.
EUBULLETIN: For example, like the champagne in France or the Budweiser in the Czech Republic?
Dr. Miko:Well, what you can’t use is the exclusion of the access to the market for the importers – that’s against the free market. But if you say, for example, this is the traditional Budweiser product and the people feel that they want to support the Budweiser products, they will naturally reflect that in their buying. But you cannot say that other products are not allowed in the market where Budweiser sells its products. But this is sometimes used as a kind of ‘short-cut’, which the national or local governments use when they have the feeling that they simply don’t want to allow other producers to their market.
But blocking an access to a local market of one EU Member State is impossible and this would ultimately be against the benefit of the European Union’s large single market. It is a very complex area and we should really keep the markets open but we have instruments how to show to the local people where the products come from and leave them to decide.