File picture: Reuters

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies vowed yesterday to fight tooth and nail to avert a possible European ban on citrus imports from South Africa.

This came after oranges contaminated with citrus black spot were found in a shipment to the Netherlands.

“If decisions are taken that keep us out of an important market and have implications for jobs, we will not hesitate to use whatever tools are available to defend our interests.”

He said he suspected the EU’s stance was motivated more by protectionist tendencies than true concerns over the fungus spreading to continental orchards. Citrus black spot is harmless to humans.

“The questions arise: is this a measure to protect plant health in Europe or to protect the interests of parts of the industry against competition, and is part of the competition coming from the largest exporter of citrus into Europe?”

He said Europe’s reluctance to compromise could prove devastating for South Africa’s R8 billion citrus industry, but this argument was finding little sympathy on the other side.

“That there are 60 000 to 80 000 jobs at stake in South Africa, I find this to be the least compelling argument for my interlocutors in Europe. They really don’t care. We care greatly; we will fight this thing.”

Davies was speaking at a briefing to announce the initialling of an economic partnership agreement between a sub-group of Southern African Development Community members and the EU after 10 years of stop-start negotiations.

Deputy director-general for international trade Xavier Carim said the off-season period for which South African growers had duty-free access to the European market had been extended by six weeks. He termed this a “not insignificant” concession but added that increasingly foreign agricultural produce was being kept out of Europe by stricter phytosanitary standards.

Davies said: “Somebody is going to have to convince me that this is not driven by protectionist desires, and is about plant health. There is a strong presumption the other way.”

Dutch authorities for plant health issued a notification of phytosanitary non-compliance on Sunday after intercepting a consignment of local oranges carrying the fungus.

This means South African imports have been put on a trade watchlist at EU borders. If spotty fruit is found, consignments are impounded.

Last November, the EU stopped importing citrus from South Africa over concerns that citrus black spot could infect European orchards.

In May, South Africa’s largest trading partner ruled it would not implement a ban but insist on stricter requirements for citrus being exported to Europe, which will force local growers to use more chemical fungicides.

But the threat of a ban still hovered, Davies explained: “If they intercept a certain quantity of this, they reserve the right to stop further. Why is this significant and why are we being targeted? We are the biggest importers of citrus into the EU, simple as that.” - Sapa