In the run up to the WTO trade talks next week in Mexico, the European Union has called on the WTO to rule on the 'legality of the Australian quarantine regime' applied to imports of a large number of food products of EU interest.
Talks between the two trading powers held earlier this year broke down, leaving the EU with 'no alternative other than to challenge this restrictive trade practices through the WTO dispute settlement system'.
"Despite Australia's constant claims to be the leading force of free agricultural trade, its own quarantine system continues to block unjustifiably the import of a number of agricultural products into Australia," said EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy.
Australia is a leading member of the Cairns group of agricultural exporters which pushes for free trade in agricultural products. According to the EU, Australia seems to consider that this freedom 'only applies to its exporters, and not to those wishing to import perfectly safe products into the Australian market'.
The Member States maintain that although analysing potential lost trade is difficult, trade statistics show that EU exports of fresh vegetables to Australia in 2002 were 8,000 tonnes, whereas exports to Canada, a comparable market in size and wealth, were over 300 per cent greater at 35,000 tonnes. Total fruit and vegetable exports to Australia (plus New Zealand) in 2001 were only €16 million out of a total of €3,369 million for all EU fruit and vegetable exports.
The European Union insists that because Australia is free from many animal and plant diseases prevalent in the rest of the world, the country believes its 'conservative approach to quarantine risks' is justified.
"The EU does not dispute Australia's right to set an appropriate level of protection. The EU does however consider that Australia should not unfairly protect its own market and producers by imposing quarantine rules which block imports without scientific justification, often for many years," said the EU in a statement this week.
According to Europe, some of the market access problems faced by EU exporters include an outright ban on imports of a range of agricultural products such as fruit and vegetables, animal and meat products without a scientific risk assessment.
The two trading nations will be battling the measures out from their mutual corners next week.