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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
Food Safety and Enlargement of the European Union
European Business Summit
Brussels, 6 June 2002
It is a pleasure for me to address this Summit here today and, in particular, to be speaking on the link between two such vital issues: those of enlargement of the European Union and of food safety.
First, if I may, I will say a little on each of these issues and then explain what I and my services are doing in contribution to the enlargement process, and also what we expect from Candidate Countries in terms of delivery.
EU enlargement is a massive project. The expansion of the Union to perhaps 25 Member States or more clearly represents a major challenge for the EU institutions, the current and future Member States, and of course for business.
But along with the challenge comes new opportunities to broaden our horizons, and for businesses and consumers indeed for all European citizens to enjoy the benefits of an expanded single market.
2002 is a crucial year in the preparations towards EU enlargement. A key step will be the Seville Council later this month, where the Commission will report on the progress made by Candidate Countries on the transposition of the EU acquis, and on monitoring the commitments made during the enlargement negotiations.
Later on this year, in October, the Commission will adopt a series of reports setting out its collective view on the state of readiness for accession in 2004 of each of the Candidate Countries. Final decisions will be taken by the European Council in December.
Meanwhile, work will continue on the programme of root and branch reform of EU food safety legislation. This falls specifically within my sphere of responsibility and is perhaps the biggest issue within my remit in relation to enlargement.
This reform process was launched by the White Paper on Food Safety in January 2000, and is based on the principle of "from farm to fork". It thus drew together, for the first time, all aspects of food safety throughout the whole food chain, from the traditional hygiene provisions, to the associated animal health, welfare and phytosanitary requirements.
This reform programme stemmed largely from the wave of high profile food-related crises the EU has suffered in recent years. An important milestone was achieved earlier this year when a Regulation came into force on the general principles and requirements of food law; procedures in matters of food safety; and establishing the European Food Safety Authority.
Furthermore, a whole range of Commission proposals have been made, and are in the legislative process, concerning the whole spectrum of food related issues including food hygiene, feedingstuffs, food supplements and GM foods.
Our objective which I have publicly stated many times before is "to ensure that European consumers have access to the safest possible food supply in the world".
Let me say that the prospect of EU enlargement does not alter this objective in any way, shape or form.
The challenge is to bring standards in the Candidate Countries up to current EU standards and not to tolerate any weakening of food safety levels within the enlarged internal market.
I will briefly mention three areas of key concern in the context of enlargement in relation to food safety.
First, enlargement will mark a major shift in the geographical borders of the Union. Some current external borders will become internal borders and thus will consequently disappear as the single market develops.
But new external borders will be created and it is essential that a revised network of Border Inspection Posts is fully effective to guard against potential threats from imports to public health, animal health and plant health within the Union.
My second point concerns TSEs (including BSE). The Union has recently adopted fundamental and comprehensive rules for the prevention, control and eradication of TSEs. It is essential from a public health perspective that Candidate Countries adopt and enforce the same rules applicable within the Union, prior to accession.
Third, much needs to be done as regards the upgrading of agri-food establishments in the Candidate Countries to the required EU standards. A number of transitional periods to allow for the required conversion have been requested in this respect.
I have, however, made it clear that any such transitional periods must only concern specified structural deficiencies, but not matters of hygiene and control. There will be no compromises when it comes to public health.
There are of course many individual detailed issues being addressed in the negotiations. But the basic requirement is simple the candidates take on the full EU acquis except for specific agreed transitional provisions of the sort I have already mentioned.
One issue of particular interest to business is avoiding barriers to the proper functioning of the single market after accession.
In this context, we have noted with concern the continued existence of pre-market approval systems for food.
For example, in many Candidate Countries, formal approval procedures such as the requirement for certification prior to placing food products on the market are still applied, and the marketing of some foodstuffs is still subject to authorisation by the public authorities.
In the EU, such an approach is only taken for a limited number of specific products. In general, it is for you the industry to ensure that products are safe and comply with all relevant requirements.
Needless to say, such systems which run completely counter to the single market must be dismantled and eliminated before accession.
Helping Candidate Countries to meet their commitments
So how do we go about ensuring that enlargement contributes to our principal objective of becoming the world leader in food safety?
Well it should come as no surprise to hear that I and my services have taken, and will continue to take, a proactive approach to both helping the applicant countries with their preparations towards accession, and monitoring their progress.
It is a matter of personal importance to me to participate actively in the preparation process. That is why I have visited a number of applicant countries the first of which was Poland in 2000. I have used these visits, and other contacts with applicant countries, to stress the importance of the full and effective implementation of our food safety acquis.
The Commission is taking a number of measures aimed at helping the Candidate Countries to transpose the EU acquis into their national legislation and to pave the way for their systems and facilities to reach the high levels required under EU legislation.
We are providing technical assistance to help Candidate Countries align their legislation with EU law.
Financial assistance is available to applicant countries under the Sapard and Phare programmes. However, it is a matter of concern that due to a failure to put in place the administrative requirements some candidates have been unable to draw down those funds.
The Commission is monitoring whether the commitments undertaken by the applicant countries are being respected.
We are sending teams of experts from our Member States called "peer reviews" to assess and advise them on administrative capacity.
My inspection services - the Food and Veterinary Office - have completed a series of missions to precisely assess food safety controls and standards. These missions spell out the fact that whilst a lot is being done, a great deal remains to be done.
But time is running out. And we must now accelerate our efforts to ensure that our candidate country colleagues can achieve their ambitious commitments.
With this in mind I am working with Gunter Verheugen, to intensify preparations through a concerted programme of action. We will target our resources on an intensive series of initiatives on the ground.
Our FVO inspection service will play a central role in ensuring a rapid exchange of expertise between peers. We will need to mobilise vets and other experts on the ground to work on critical problems during the period before accession day dawns.
We will also need to develop a more continuous and concerted dialogue at policy level between Chief Veterinary Officers, Agriculture Ministers, Consumers and Food Industry actors.
But the inspections and critical monitoring will continue. Specific FVO monitoring missions focussing on areas of particular importance, such as BSE and Border Inspection Posts, will be carried out.
Delivery by Candidate Countries
Providing assistance to applicant countries is of course only half of the picture. Responsibility for the other half rests with the Candidate Countries themselves. In other words they need to deliver they need to ensure that their systems and facilities are up to scratch.
Of course the incentive for applicant countries to attain the required standards is the glittering prize of full participation within an expanded single market. But the sanctions which existing EU law requires are equally clear. We need to work together to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks.
So while the benefits of EU membership are significant, with that membership comes responsibilities, which must be upheld in order to maintain the integrity of the food safety mechanisms within the Union.
To conclude, I must stress that integration of the applicant countries remains a significant challenge to all concerned. Much work has been done in smoothing the path towards accession but much more remains to be done. We are entering the critical period where actions will speak louder than words.