Recent news items have suggested that the EU wine reform is on the verge of collapse in the wake of very strong objections from the majority of member states – especially with regard to a proposed ban on chaptalisation (adding sugar to grape must to increase the final alcohol level of the wine) and the end of the planting rights system, which limits the total area in any one region that can be planted with vines, as well as changes to the grubbing up scheme. The intention is to reduce overall wine production in the EU but some argue that it is antithetical to market forces, which would be a better regulator.
Twenty-one of the 27 member states voted against the ban on chaptalisation, saying that this would put them at a competitive disadvantage compared with the New World.
In her speech to the European Parliament today, the Commissioner tried to sound both determined and willing to compromise. She started off on a conciliatory note but with a reservation:
'The Parliament has made a valuable contribution to a debate which has at times been very emotionally charged. And in a number of areas, I'm ready to follow your suggestions, at least to some extent.
'For example, with regard to a new grubbing-up scheme: I can see advantages in running this for three years rather than five, as you suggest.'
She refers to three major areas of concern – how much of the budget is devolved through the 'national envelope' (allowing a more flexible local response to local conditions), chaptalisation and planting rights.
'We're going to find a way through this. I have listened to the broad call for continuing to allow enrichment with sugar. But let's be clear. I am not inclined to accept the status quo, so any compromise would imply new conditions.'
On planting rights:
'I'm listening to arguments about when the system should end. But we can't afford to kick the whole idea into the long grass. The wine sector needs more freedom to respond to demand as soon as possible. My suggestion of prolonging the system of planting rights until the end of 2013 was based on the idea of a two-stage approach to balancing the sector. First grubbing-up to bring down over-production. Then liberalisation to allow successful producers to expand. I have listened to comments from the sector but one thing is clear: a final date for the planting rights system is indispensable. What that exact date will be is going to be part of the final compromise.'
Towards the end of her speech, the Commissioner tried valiantly to stress the limits of compromise, though I'm not sure one 'iron fact' makes her an iron lady:
'I have been listening to arguments from all sides, including the European Parliament, but one iron fact has not changed: our wine sector still needs reform if we want to keep it at the front of the pack.
'We must seize our chance now and agree on a real reform. Carrying out reform will mean investing effort – but we'll get a good return. The cost of inaction is too high for us to accept. …
'A deal is within our grasp. But as I say, it must be the right deal. We live in the real world, and I have shown considerable flexibility over many of my original proposals. But I won't allow the proposals to be watered down so far that the end product loses all taste and value.'
Chaptalisers across northern Europe – especially in Germany - will breathe a sigh of relief but I don't think Ms Fischer Boell gives up that easily. The ministers are supposed to reach a final political agreement on wine reform next week and will be meeting Monday to Wednesay. Michael Mann, Spokesman for Agriculture and Rural Development, warned: 'expect an all-night session'.