Tuesday, June 20, 2006

New bid to drain wine lake

Wine is the next sector to be targeted for reform in the CAP with proposals to be unveiled in the next couple of days. Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel seems to be hoping that a successful wine reform will reinforce her credibility as someone who can bring about meaningful change. But she is well aware of the challenge ahead. She told the informal meeting of farm ministers at the end of May, 'There are so many cultural feelings on wine, I would consider [the reform] is going to be even more difficult than the sugar discussions.'

Whatever shape the reform takes the EU is still going to spend €1.2 billion a year on wine subsidies, but the aim is to spend less of the money on the wine that no one is going to drink and is distilled into industrial alcohol or bioethanol. As wine drinkers, especially those looking for a reasonably priced but drinkable wine, turn to 'new world' wines such as those from Australia and Chile, European wines need to become more competitive. My own consumption pattern is probably not unusual in the UK - Australian or Chilean wines for everyday drinking, and more expensive German, Alsatian or Italian wines for more special occasions.

The EU has been considering four broad options: keeping the status quo, carrying out a fundamental reform, implementing the 2003 CAP changes in the sector, or endorsing a complete deregulation of the market. Because this is the CAP we are talking about, the two more radical options are not really on the table.

The most likely mix is temporarily encouraging wine producers to 'grub up' their vines in return for funding, although such policies have not always been cost effective in the past, and extending the current restrictions on planting rights until 2013. Many of the existing cash subsidies would be cut back and overall EU production would be reduced. This would not be welcome news for traditional wine producing nations like France, Italy and Spain.

Incidentally, England does not yet produce enough wine to come within the EU regime but could do in the future if the area occupied by vineyards continues to grow, encouraged by the prospect of global warming. Many of the existing vineyards are boutique wineries, often appealing to a tourist market. English wines can be of good quality, but often cost more than a comparable wine from the continent.

For good reasons, Fischer Boel has particularly targeted crisis distillation. She stated, 'Crisis distillation is becoming a depressingly regular feature of our common organisation for wine. While it offers temporary assistance to producers, it does not deal with the core of the problem - that Europe is producing too much wine for which there is no market.'

The problems the EU faces in this area is shown by the news that French wine growers will receive extra money from their own government to supplement the crisis distillation cash awarded to them recently by the Commission. The EU Wine Management Committee agreed to allow France to convert up to 1.5 million hectolitres of table wine and 1.5 million hl of quality wine into bioethanol. Unpopular French prime minister Dominique de Villepin is calling for 'exceptional national measures' to supplement the Commission's subsidy, a move that is probaby illegal.

I have just got hold of an interesting book on The World's Wine Markets: Globalization at Work edited by Kym Anderson and published by Edward Elgar and I will report any interesting points made when I have read it.

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