A recent meeting between the Czech and Slovak Agriculture Ministers ended without concrete agreement in the dispute over the trade in farm products between the two countries. However, both sides have scheduled additional meetings and say they expect the squabble over pork, beer and sugar imports to be resolved amicably.
Delegations led by Czech Agriculture Minister Jan Fencl and his Slovak counterpart Pavel Koncoš met in the Czech town of Brno on March 26 for talks that lasted until late evening. The main issues covered were quotas recently imposed by the governments of the two countries on agricultural imports.
In early March, the Czech Republic imposed import quotas on refined sugar from Slovakia, and set a limit for imports of Slovak pork at 3,500 tons annually. The Slovak government responded on March 24 by limiting imports of Czech beer to 200,000 hectolitres (hl) annually, down from 532,000 hl last year. The Slovak side also said it would limit imports of Czech pork to 3,850 tons annually, and live pigs to 2,250 tons annually. The measures take effect on April 1 and are valid until the end of this year.
The consequences of this mini-trade war will be particularly unpleasant for the Czech Republic. Czech pig breeders export almost half of their production to Slovakia; the new quotas mean they will lose a market that absorbs about 5,000 tons of their pork output. The Czechs consider this, along with the proposed unilateral introduction of veterinary certificates, as obstruction of farm product exports to the Slovak Republic, and rumours have appeared in the Czech press that Prague will submit a complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
At the March 26 summit, the Czech delegation said it considered the Slovak measure to be in violation of international trade practices, especially given that there is a shortage of pork on the Slovak market which Slovakia will make up for through imports from third countries. Between 96 and 98% of Slovak pork imports come from the Czech Republic.
Koncoš, however, told SITA on March 26 that the Slovak Agriculture Ministry would propose to the government next week that pork imports from third countries be reduced in order to protect Slovak producers.
Koncoš also disagreed with Fencl over sugar imports - the Czech minister proposed a 7,000 ton quota for the import of sugar from Slovakia, while Koncoš pushed for an import quota set at 5% of annual Czech sugar consumption.
"I realize that there should not be any import restrictions in the Customs Union between the Czech and Slovak Republics, however, imports of foodstuffs need to be regulated in the interest of protecting Slovak producers," Koncoš said at the meeting. According to his vision, future import quotas between the two countries should be based on average import volumes over the previous three years, or should equal 5% of domestic consumption of individual commodities. "Reduction of imports to the level of five percent of domestic consumption is a common practice in EU countries," stated Koncoš.
Fencl accepted Koncoš' philosophy, and voiced his belief in the ability of both sides to find mutually advantageous solutions that would benefit farmers as well as traders in agricultural commodities.
The ministers agreed to turn agricultural import problems over to panels of experts. The next round of talks is expected to be held in April or May. Koncoš and Fencl agreed to co-ordinate a joint policy towards third countries, the EU and the WTO.
"We want to agree on a joint procedure towards the EU, as well as towards third countries in order to protect our market and create conditions for export," Koncoš told SITA.