Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Analysis

Visegrad lobby makes food quality an EU issue

  • Juncker (r) did what he could to convince Slovak PM Fico that his country was part of the "core" of Europe (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission offered on Thursday (27 July) to pay for member states' studies into an alleged practice that has been dubbed “dual food quality”.

The leaders of several Central and Eastern European countries have complained that food and other consumer products, offered in their countries, are of inferior quality when compared to identical products in western European countries.

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In particular, the Visegrad group of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, have been active in raising the political profile of the issue.

On Thursday, they achieved their goal, as EU commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker publicly rallied behind the Visegrad countries.

“We know that in Slovakia, as in some other countries, this is a major issue,” he said after meeting with Slovak prime minister Robert Fico in Brussels.

“Slovak consumers, they have the absolute right to have the same quality of products,” he told press.

“I don't like the idea that there would be some kind of second category citizens in Europe, so we are working on that,” said Juncker, noting that the problem is a “European issue”, not just a Slovakian one.

Fico said, through an interpreter, the “most important result” of his meeting was that the commission “agrees there is a serious problem, that it exists, that it is not ridiculous.”

Fico, on Thursday, gave as an example that chocolate with “the same price, the same wrapper” in Austria, was sold with inferior quality in the Visegrad countries.

“The quality is not the same in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. These are things that harm Europe,” he said.

But there are two categories of dual food quality possible, and they are being blurred in the discussion.

There could be products that have the same name in different countries, and the labels indicate they have different ingredients.

Czech researchers found, for example, that a package of fish fingers had 65 percent fish meat in Austria and Germany, but 58 percent in Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.

Consumers are not being misled on an individual basis, since the product label declares what is in the packaging.

It is not immediately clear if this practice is illegal. The EU commission has promised it would publish guidelines this September for national authorities, on how to interpret the EU's directive on unfair trading practices.

A second category of dual food quality could be if, after tests, it emerged that products whose labels claim that they are the same in both countries, in fact have lower quality in one of the countries.

In that instance, the case of misleading consumers is probably very clear.

Commission sources told EUobserver that while “anecdotal evidence” has been found of cases that fall in the first category, there is no robust evidence yet that there is a systematic problem in both categories, let alone an intentional east-west divide.

The commission will finance member states' studies into the dual quality issue. Spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told EUobserver that this was the commission's idea, but because it was a new offer, she could not yet reveal the budget that will be made available.

All of the above is without mentioning that "quality" can mean different things. Some would say it is a good thing if a bottle of beer had more alcohol in it, while others would prefer less.

The studies conducted so far lack a common methodology. Therefore, the commission has asked its in-house scientific research body, the Joint Research Centre, to produce one, and the actual extent of the problem will not be known until several months from now.

Political win

Regardless of that, as prime minister Fico hinted at himself in his speech, that is actually besides the point.

More important, politically, is that the EU has taken the concerns of the Visegrad countries seriously.

The campaign for equal food quality does not take place in a vacuum, it happens as the EU is finding its way forward after turbulent times.

In 2015, three of the four Visegrad members were outvoted on the mandatory quota for the relocation of asylum seekers, and more recently, the fourth, Poland, was at the receiving end of fierce criticism over the rule of law. This caused a big rift with other EU countries, and with the commission.

By taking the dual food issue seriously, regardless of its existence, the EU hopes to send a political message.

In fact, it was not concealed in public statements by Juncker, or his counterpart at the European Council, Donald Tusk, whom Fico met later in the day.

Both Juncker and Tusk respectively stressed that Slovakia “wants to be part of”, or “will remain within” the core of Europe.

Juncker even joked about the call for action at EU level, and the possibility to grant the commission more powers.

“It's the first time that a prime minister coming from the Visegard four is asking the commission to have more competences," said Juncker.

“You are improving your case,” he said with a laugh.

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Dual food quality: a recipe for east-west EU friction

The accusation by some eastern European leaders that food companies were shipping inferior products to the eastern part of the EU has put the European Commission in a bind - leading to a months-long struggle to find a response.

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