The Whitehouse Consultancy

By Elias Papadopoulos, Political Consultant

In early March the European Commission published a Roadmap on the Evaluation of the Regulation on the functioning of the internal market. In place since 1998, an assessment of the Regulation is indeed long overdue.
Perhaps nowhere is intra-EU free trade more problematic than when it comes to food. As any business who has tried to market food products to more than one Member State can attest to, the process is slow, fragmented, and often frustrating. Despite measures in place meant to simplify trade, such as the SOLVIT mechanism and the Mutual Recognition Principle, it is not uncommon for certain Member States to employ administrative practices creating difficulties for food businesses, particularly smaller food businesses. Officers can be unresponsive to product notifications and minor legislative differentiations without a scientific or public health justification can result in delays and costs, hindering growth and impeding the free movement of goods.
Given the current situation, it is certainly welcome news that the Commission also wants to look into these two systems (public consultation on Mutual Recognition and Action Plan on SOLVIT). Both systems could benefit from reinforcement and overhaul. Mutual Recognition, although laudable, is often not applied, as Member States with traditions of greater regulation impose barriers, sometimes by abusing provisions on the health and safety of consumers. Awareness of SOLVIT remains remarkably low among businesses.
Broadly speaking, the Commission is generally presented with two options to strengthen the free trade of food products: extend harmonisation to areas currently at the discretion of Member States, or strengthen the enforcement of provisions such as Mutual Recognition.
Legislative harmonisation in the food and drink sector is certainly welcome, but only where necessary. Few in the industry would support an even more strictly harmonised approach as a way to limit unjust barriers to trade imposed by Member States. This would be seen as an over-reaction on the part of the Commission, could well result in limiting innovation and even reducing the variety of products available to consumers. It will be disproportionate and too high a price to pay for reaching a goal that is achievable by other means.
The more advisable course of action would instead be ensuring that current laws are properly enforced. The existing regulatory regime allows enough space for product differentiation and stipulates very specific conditions under which Member States can temporarily block the placement of a product on their market. It is necessary to crack down on the abuse of these provisions and ensure that Member States do their utmost to address product notifications and related matters as swiftly as possible.
The Single Market is often hailed as the EU’s greatest achievement. It is high time it was completed by removing any remaining barriers. Both consumers and the food sector stand to benefit.
The Whitehouse Consultancy team are experts in food legislation at the EU and UK levels and can support your organisation in engaging with these policy initiatives. Should you be interested in discussing how we can help your organisation, please contact Sam Blainey.

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