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WTO sends 'strong signals' to Russia on EU exports - but will Kremlin take any notice?

22nd Aug 2016 / By Alistair Driver

Russia and its combative president Vladamir Putin are not known for taking notice of 'strong signals' from global bodies informing them they are in breach of some international rule or other.

Nonetheless, the European Commission has taken heart from a ruling by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on Russia's 'illegal' import ban on live pigs, fresh pork and other pig products from the EU.

The ban was imposed in early 2014 because of a limited number of cases of African Swine Fever (ASF) in areas in the EU close to the border with Belarus.

The WTO has ruled, after lengthy consideration, that Russia's refusal to accept imports of certain EU products and to adapt EU-Russia import certificates amounted to an EU-wide import ban.

Yet the measure was not based on the relevant international standards and violates the rules of the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement), the WTO concluded.

What the ruling will ultimately means in terms of the resumption of EU-Russian pork trade remains unclear, however.

The first point to make is the ruling does not affect the 'other' Russian ban, imposed a few months later in 2014 in response to a political dispute with the EU over Ukraine and covering virtually the entire range of EU agri-food products.

So, if Russia relented and lifted the ASF-related ban, this would allow exports of fat, lard and offal to resume. But other higher value, core pork products covered by the political ban would remain off limits.

This has quite rightly not stopped the Commission from basking in the glow of a victory against Mr Putin, however insignificant it might prove to be.

Brussels has faced significant pressure – and has the scars to prove it from some fractious EU farmer protests - to help EU producers across the sectors who have suffered from the market downturn resulting from the Russian bans.

The Commission acknowledges the limited material effect lifting the ban would have this would have.

But it describes the WTO's findings as being of 'systemic importance, reminding Russia about its international obligations and the fact that these cannot be arbitrarily ignored'.

Specifically, it stresses, a 'strong signal' has been sent to Russia, and all WTO Members, as regards their obligation to respect international standards.

In this case, this is in respect partly to the principle of regionalisation, which should allow trade from individual areas of a country recognised as pest or disease-free, even if the health status in the rest of the country is unfavourable.

The other key principle ruled upon is that any import bans imposed in the name of sanitary concerns must be done so on the basis of a risk assessment underpinned by scientific evidence and in line with WTO rules.

"EU products are safe and there is thus no need for any country to maintain unjustified import restrictions," the Commission said.

The panel report can be appealed within 60 days. If no appeal is filed within that deadline, the report will be adopted and Russia will be bound to comply with the recommendation.

A line in the sand has been drawn. Whether Russia, which is itself battling to contain ASF in wild boar and domestic pigs, will now refrain from stepping over it remains to be seen.

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